I remember the first time someone harassed me at work for being queer.

I was around 15, and I was a volunteer junior counselor at a local summer day camp. About halfway through the summer, a female coworker asked me out on a date. Rather than flat out denying her, I thought I should be honest and tell her that I was gay. I thought wrong.

By the next day, the entire staff of the camp knew I was gay. Every time I walked into a room, people would snicker and hold back laughter. Two straight male coworkers refused to talk to me, look at me, or even sit next to me after that. The counselors, my bosses, would repeatedly talk about a “pink elephant” in the room.

But being so young, and so newly out to even myself, I didn’t have the confidence to push back or seek help for what I can now comfortably say was absolutely workplace harassment. And it’s situations like mine that the people at the National LGBTQ Workers Center are working to prevent—across the country and right here in Chicago.

The Center, a first of its kind resource for queer workers of all stripes, aims to empower workers to stand up for their workplace rights, particularly freedom from the discrimination I experienced that summer.

Angelina Nordstrom, the Chicago liaison on the Center’s board, tells the Reader that the Center is even more important after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark June 2020 decision that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

As Nordstrom points out, the ruling didn’t eliminate discrimination entirely—the decision just made it illegal.

“There are not many jobs that LGBTQ+ people are able to get without going through forms of workplace oppression,” says Nordstrom, who is also board president of the Center’s Chicago chapter. “And even when someone does get hired, there’s oppressions in the workplace, whether it’s by colleagues or by management.”

According to data presented by the Center and the Movement Advancement Project, queer workers face statistically lower pay and less comprehensive benefits than their non-LGBTQ+ counterparts, alongside outright discrimination. And according to that data, the statistics are even worse for transgender people and queer people of color, who report greater harassment and discrimination in workplaces and the job-hunting process.

As part of their mission to empower the queer workforce—almost 9.7 million people, according to the Center’s estimates—the Chicago chapter maintains a 24-hour worker’s rights hotline for queer people who are in need of assistance, also a first of its kind.

The hotline, staffed by a team of trained volunteers, was launched in September 2020 and can connect callers to resources they may need depending on their case. But oftentimes, Nordstrom says, callers just need someone to listen and to validate their feelings.

“We exist to provide that layer of support, and that layer of just knowing that you’re not alone in this when you’re at a job that does not provide for you,” Nordstrom says.

The hotline is bilingual, and offers support in Spanish as well.

Chicago board members Isabel Tames and Roni Lee both started out volunteering with the hotline through the Chicago chapter in summer 2020. Now Tames is the Chicago board secretary and Lee plans the organization’s annual economic justice summit, which is in its third year. Both say that they wear many hats at the Chicago chapter alongside their official titles.

The Center’s LGBTQ+ economic justice summit is its cardinal event, held over two weekends in September. In the past, the summit has boasted programming related to worker and tenant rights, as well as yoga sessions, DJ sets, and a poetry slam. And like all of the Center’s work, the summit’s events and services are aimed at the entire queer community, with a particular focus on improving conditions for Black trans workers.

“We meet at a really crucial intersection of queer folks and workers,” Lee says. “And we try to push to the forefront Black, queer trans voices and try to make sure that these hypermarginalized groups are supported in ways that they need to be, whether that’s information or somebody to listen, or anything along those lines.”

Though Chicago is the Center’s only official chapter, a chapter in New York is in its early stages, Nordstrom says. And they hope that more chapters crop up as people see the need for the Center and its work, even as conditions improve for queer workers across the country.

“I’m just really looking forward to just sharing the work that we do and empowering others in the community to lead whatever causes mean the most to them,” Nordstrom says. “As long as it’s something that means something to you, please, make it vocal, make it known, and organize from where you stand to rise to a better place.”   v

Adam M. Rhodes

Adam M. Rhodes is a queer, nonbinary, first-generation Cuban American journalist. Rhodes is currently a social justice reporter at the Chicago Reader, where their work centers primarily on queer people and people of color. Their recent work has examined HIV treatment access in Puerto Rico, racism in Chicago’s principal queer neighborhood, and, most recently, HIV criminalization in Illinois. Alongside the Reader, Rhodes has been published in outlets including BuzzFeed News and The Washington Post. You can follow them on Twitter at @byadamrhodes.