Career Development of LGBT Individuals

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THE CAREER LITERATURE PERTAINING to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender(LGBT) individuals has grown dramatically in recent years (Chung, Williams, & Dispenza, 2009). The first conceptual and practical articles emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s (Elliott, 1993; Hetherington, Hillerbrand, & Etringer, 1989), and increasingly sophisticated, empirical investigations began to follow within a decade (Bieschke & Matthews, 1996; Chung, 2001). Today, lesbian and gay issues appear increasingly in the counseling literature (Croteau, Bieschke, Fassinger, & Manning, 2008), and scholarly efforts in this domain represent one of the most significant recent advances in vocational psychology (Chung, in press). Nevertheless, the literature focusing on the array of theoretical and practical career issues encountered by the diversity of LGBT populations remains limited. There is no literature specifically relating to the career development or career counseling of bisexual individuals, and very little devoted to that of transgender populations. Consequently, although many scholarly works, including this one, contain the term LGBT in their titles, the content of most has been focused primarily on lesbian and gay concerns, with limited attention to career issues specific to bisexual and transgender individuals (O’Neil, McWhirter, & Cerezo, 2008; Phillips, Ingram, Smith, & Mindes, 2003).

This chapter highlights findings from the range of scholarly contributions that have informed our understanding and practice of career development and career counseling with LGBT individuals. First, major vocational theories are evaluated for their applicability to sexual minority populations; this is followed by a discussion of additional issues unique to the career development and career counseling of LGBT individuals. The intention of this chapter is to bring together theoretical and empirical work with practical recommendations to enable career professionals to work more effectively with sexual minority clients.

Before turning to the literature in this domain, it might be helpful to clarify terminology. Sexual orientation and sexual identity are terms that are frequently used when discussing LGBT individuals; these terms are not interchangeable. Simply put, sexual orientation refers to a person’s attraction (emotional, sexual, spiritual) toward an individual of the same or opposite sex (Pepper & Lorah, 2008). Sexual orientations can be described along a continuum of multiple dimensions of behaviors and preferences rather than as fitting into four limiting categories of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and heterosexual (Chung & Katayama, 1996). Fully defining sexual orientation is beyond the scope of this chapter, and there does not appear to be consensus on its definition in the literature (Chung, in press).

Sexual identity, by contrast, refers to the way in which a person identifies and represents herself or himself in a social context in reference to her or his sexual orientation (e.g., identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, questioning, or heterosexual). Identities are fluid and socially constructed, according to most models. For example, most people have some degree of bisexuality in terms of sexual orientation, yet those who identify as bisexual comprise distinct subgroups and may differ in significant ways from those who identify as lesbian and gay (Worthington & Reynolds, 2009). For simplicity, the term LGB will be used in this chapter to represent the range of sexual identities that are typically referenced in the career literature because most studies have used these categories rather than more complex terms.

Both sexual orientation and sexual identity are separate from gender identity, which refers to a person’s internal identification as male or female. An individual’s gender identity may or may not be the person’s assigned biological sex at birth. Transgender is an inclusive term that applies to a range of people who do not conform to a male– female dichotomy (Law, Martinez, Ruggs, Hebl, & Akers, 2011). Transgender populations also include individuals with a range of sexual orientations. The developmental and career concerns specific to transgender individuals can be quite different from those specific to LGB individuals; at the same time, LGBT populations as a group have a number of career experiences in common due to their shared sexual minority status in a heterosexually dominant culture. Consequently, this chapter uses the terms LGB or LGBT, depending on the groups being referenced, and includes a section that reviews the limited but growing vocational literature that speaks directly to transgender career development and counseling.

Definitions aside, all LGBT individuals share experiences of stigma and marginalization that impact their career development in a variety of ways. At the same time, LGBT individuals develop strengths and experiences that enhance career development as a result of going through life with sexual minority status. The important question is, what factors have emerged in the literature to help us understand and work more effectively to promote the career development of LGBT individuals?


Over the past 20 years, scholarly contributions that apply theories of vocational psychology to LGBT populations have steadily increased. This section draws attention to these writings, evaluates the relevance and usefulness of a number of current theories, and clusters this work into three theoretical categories: person–environment fit, developmental, and social learning/social cognitive theories. The extent of this literature remains limited, however, and significant future research in this domain is needed to fully evaluate the validity of using any extant career theory with sexual minority populations.

Person–Environment Fit Theories

The earliest publication to examine a theory of person–environment (P-E) fit for its relevance to sexual minority populations was an empirical study by Chung and Harmon (1994). This investigation was stimulated by the earlier work of C. Hetherington (1991), who proposed that influences on the career decision making of lesbians and gay men may be quite different than those for heterosexuals. Chung and Harmon used Holland’s The Self-Directed Search (Holland, 1985) to evaluate how an individual’s sexual orientation might impact measured interest patterns. They compared the interests of gay men with heterosexual men for each of Holland’s six types and found that gay men demonstrated lower Realistic and Investigative interests and higher Artistic and Social interests. Their study highlighted the importance for counselors to consider the career aspirations and interest patterns of gay men, not only with respect to measured interests but also relative to environmental forces, such as stereotyping and homophobia, that influence expressed career goals and choices.

Another early contribution by Mobley and Slaney (1996) challenged the adequacy of Holland’s theoretical assumptions (Holland, 1997; Nauta, Chapter 3, this volume) in accounting for the career behaviors of lesbians and gay men. They suggested expanding the working assumptions and principles of Holland’s theory with Cass’s (1979) model of lesbian and gay identity development to incorporate the dual, developmental identity challenges faced by lesbian and gay individuals, that is, the development of both a career identity and a sexual minority identity. They described how vocational measures that assess Holland’s constructs are influenced not only by the level of one’s career identity but also by the stage of one’s sexual identity. For example, they postulated that younger lesbian and gay individuals may experience greater career indecision and lack of clarity in their career interests and values because of the simultaneous challenge of recognizing and integrating a minority sexual identity. Furthermore, they suggested that assessing Holland’s construct of congruence for lesbian and gay clients, compared to heterosexual clients, requires counselors to address not only the role of vocational interests but also the significant influence of workplace climate (i.e., discrimination or support based on one’s sexual minority status).

Early contributions such as these laid the groundwork for more sophisticated empirical investigations into the environmental and personal factors specific to LGBT populations that influence P-E fit. In fact, more recent work (Lyons, Brenner, & Fassinger, 2005; Lyons & O’Brien, 2006) indicates that theories of P-E fit may better account for the career behaviors and workplace experiences of sexual minority and other marginalized populations than of nonmarginalized populations. In particular, the variable of workplace environment (whether discriminatory or supportive) appears to be a critical factor in assessing fit. Croteau (1996), for example, reviewed studies showing that up to 66% of LGB employees experience workplace discrimination. An individual’s decision to identify as LGBT in the workplace and the environmental response to this decision highlight important aspects of work- place characteristics. Disclosure—being out to their supervisors, colleagues, and clients—may result in increased physical and mental health (Croteau, Bieschke, et al., 2008; Waldo, 1999). At the same time, disclosure comes with the risks of overt and covert prejudice and homophobia, such as limited job advancement and stigmatization (Croteau, Anderson, Distefano, & Kampa-Kokesch, 2000).

Waldo (1999) developed a measure of workplace heterosexist experiences to assess the impact of two forms of heterosexism: direct (e.g., antigay jokes) and indirect (e.g., assumptions of heterosexuality). He found that being out in the workplace was positively related to experiencing direct heterosexism and that heterosexism overall was associated with adverse psychological well-being, health, job satisfaction, and other job-related outcomes. Similarly, Ragins, Singh, and Cornwell (2007) found that those individuals who reported greater fear of negative consequences of disclosure received fewer promotions and reported more stress-related symptoms than those who reported less fear. These findings highlight the importance of assessing contextual factors in the workplace. Interestingly, they are in contrast to the view that disclosure is uniformly a positive step for LGBT individuals; concealment actually may be a necessary and adaptive decision for individuals in hostile environments.

The theory of work adjustment (TWA; Dawis & Lofquist, 1984), a classic PE fit theory, has been widely researched in relation to career choice and work adjustment (see Swanson & Schneider, Chapter 2, this volume). The basic tenets of the theory hold that P-E fit (in terms of person values–environment reinforcers and person abilities–environment ability requirements) influences work adjustment. Although TWA was not designed to explain LGBT career development, researchers have extended it to this context. The line of reasoning has been that group-specific cultural variables, such as those relevant to LGBT populations, influence P-E fit, which, in turn, influences job satisfaction, performance, and tenure. For example, workplace contextual variables related to LGBT status could be expected to produce different work experiences (e.g., encountering heterosexism versus LGBT supportive climates); such experiences could lead to individuals being more or less in correspondence with their environments and more or less satisfied with their jobs. Thus, when counseling LGBT clients on job/career choice and adjustment, a TWA approach might focus both on traditional (value, ability) fit dimensions and on the workplace climate specifically for LGBT workers. Counselors then can help clients identify aspects of work environments that are affirming or harmful to clients’ job functioning and well-being.

Research evaluating the usefulness of this theory with LGBT individuals, however, has only begun. Some authors have predicted that P-E fit would play a minimal role in influencing workplace satisfaction and tenure of marginalized populations because of significant structural barriers to job opportunities and choices (Fassinger, 2001). In other words, because marginalized individuals have limited access to the full array of employment options, they may not leave a job that is a bad fit for them due to their limited alternatives. However, recent research evaluating TWA with marginalized populations has demonstrated the opposite (Lyons et al., 2005; Lyons & O’Brien, 2006). Lyons and colleagues (2005), for example, found that the importance of P-E fit for LGB workers was not overshadowed by discrimination. Instead, LGB workers’ perceptions of P-E fit took on greater significance, compared to workers in general. They found that almost half of the variance in LGB employees’ job satisfaction was attributable to how well they perceived fitting their current work environment. The authors suggested that P-E fit may take on greater importance because the nature of LGB employees’ stigmatized status may lead them to be more highly attuned to the culture of their work environments when making workplace decisions.

Developmental Theories

Developmental theories have historically viewed career development as occurring within a broader social context in which a person’s vocational identity and self-concept develop over time as an individual interacts with the environment (Hartung, Chapter 4, this volume; Savickas, Chapter 6, this volume; Super, 1990; Tiedeman & O’Hara, 1963). For LGBT individuals, the development of a vocational identity co-occurs with the development of a sexual identity, and both of these processes take place within a larger environmental context that is pervasively heterosexist and homophobic. Consequently, from a developmental perspective, an LGBT individual’s implementation of a vocational self-concept should be greatly influenced by her or his awareness and integration of sexual identity and by the levels of social acceptance and discrimination present in his or her social and occupational environment.

Dunkle (1996) contributed an early publication that examined the use of Super’s (1990) career development theory with LGB individuals. He hypothesized that the sexual identity development of LGB individuals has a significant influence on their career development. He outlined Super’s stages of career development, along with the career implications for gay and lesbian individuals at each stage. For example, he hypothesized that gay and lesbian adolescents and young adults in Super’s exploration stage might be managing early stages of sexual identity confusion at the same time and, consequently, experiencing high levels of psychological distress. This, in turn, might interfere with achieving vocational maturity. As another example, men and women who begin the coming out process in their 30s and 40s face the challenge of managing their sexual identity during Super’s establishment stage. During this stage, individuals typically develop greater stability, commitment, and mastery of their careers. However, individuals who come out later in life, during the establishment stage, are confronted with the challenge of managing their sexual identity on the job. This might lead to changing careers and recycling (reexploring both self and environments) to find a different career that allows fuller expression of one’s identity.

Other authors (Belz, 1993; C. Hetherington, 1991; Prince, 1995) have also described how the coming-out process can disrupt the typical course of career development. For example, C. Hetherington (1991) hypothesized a bottleneck effect wherein LGB individuals in the early stages of coming out might approach career developmental tasks at a slower pace because of the need to deal with competing demands associated with sexual identity development. Similarly, Gonsiorek (1988) and colleagues (Gonsiorek & Rudolph, 1991) proposed that many gay and lesbian adolescents develop a ‘‘false identity’’ based on the lack of nurturing support from peers and others for all aspects of their identity, instead of a true identity based on trust in their own self-evaluations of their needs, values, and interests.

Gottfredson’s (2005) developmental theory of circumscription and compromise is another useful theory that might be applied to understanding how LGBT individuals develop career aspirations—in particular, how these aspirations may be shaped by perceptions of obstacles, such as discrimination and heterosexism. Croteau and colleagues (2000), for example, proposed that gender role socialization influences the career development and occupational aspirations of gay and lesbian children differently than heterosexual children. They suggested that gay and lesbian children may internalize vocational stereotypes about gay men and lesbians that, in turn, constrict their perceptions about appropriate career options. Schneider and Dimito (2010) provided some empirical support for this assertion. They found that individuals who had experienced the highest level of anti-LGBT discrimination reported less satisfaction with their career choices, and they perceived fewer work options. They found that gay men and visible minorities were especially likely to be negatively affected by prior discrimination. Interestingly, they also found that lesbians were more likely than gay men to report that their sexual orientation was a positive force in opening up academic and career possibilities for them. The authors hypothesized that coming out as a lesbian may remove restrictive social expectations around gender, thereby freeing lesbian women to consider less traditional career paths.

A number of investigations have identified social support as an important contextual variable that positively contributes to both sexual identity and career development of LGB individuals (Jordan & Deluty, 1998; Nauta et al., 2001; Schmidt & Nilsson, 2006). In particular, these studies have found family and community support to be especially useful career development resources for LGB persons (Boatwright, Gilbert, Forrest, & Ketzenberger, 1996; Tomlinson & Fassinger, 2003). For example, in a study of college students, Schmidt, Miles, and Welsh (2011) found that social support served as a buffer against the negative impact of perceived discrimination on vocational decision making and college adjustment. They recommended that career counselors of college students focus on their clients’ support network as a central consideration in counseling.

Over the past decade, a number of scholars have advanced our under- standing of the complexity of sexual identity development (Chung, in press; D’Augelli, 2006; Rosario, Schrimshaw, & Hunter, 2004). They have stressed the importance of cultural differences in the formation of an LGBT identity. They have also questioned a basic assumption of earlier sexual identity models: that achieving an integrated and healthy identity is dependent on coming out socially and in the workplace. Fukuyama and Ferguson (2000) stressed that this is particularly pertinent for LGB individuals who are from cultures in which homosexuality is especially stigmatized. Clients from underrepresented populations, they argue, delicately balance multiple identities when evaluating when and if to come out and to whom. For example, LGBT people of color may choose different levels of disclosure to family members, friends, or colleagues to maintain harmony across a range of communities.

Similarly, there is an increasing trend among younger LGBT individuals to avoid labeling themselves in any setting because of the potential stigmatization and oversimplification such labels place on definitions of sexual identity (Diamond, 2003). Fassinger and Arseneau (2007) expanded on this more complex conceptualization by drawing attention to the myriad between- group and within-group differences that exist among LGBT populations. For example, there are important between-group differences in experiences that shape the work trajectories of these four sexual minority groups. In addition, these influences are filtered through within-group differences, such as class, race, and age. Furthermore, individual characteristics, such as personality, add an influence that is unique to each person. Fassinger and Arseneau (2007) suggest that counselors attend to all of these differences to avoid oversimplification and to sharpen the focus of counseling. More empirical work is clearly needed to support and refine current models of sexual identity development and to provide clearer guidance on the complex reciprocal influences of career and sexual identity development.

Social Learning Theories

Several authors have advocated applying the constructs of Krumboltz’s (1979) social learning theory of career decision making and social cognitive career theory (SCCT; Lent, Brown, & Hackett, 1994) to LGB populations (Datti, 2009; Fassinger, 1996; Morrow, Gore, & Campbell, 1996). Datti (2009), for example, presented a detailed map for using Krumboltz’s theory to conceptualize the unique career-related challenges of LGBT individuals. Krumboltz outlined four factors that influence individuals’ career decisions: genetics, environmental conditions, learning experiences, and task approach skills. Datti emphasized that many of the environmental conditions and events that Krumboltz described as common contextual factors for heterosexual individuals may more intensely impact LGBT individuals. For example, geographic location and political climate affect all people, but these environmental conditions are particularly influential factors for sexual minority individuals. Federal, state, and local laws in the United States and most other countries deny LGBT individuals fundamental human rights such as job protection, health insurance, pensions, and marriage licenses. Furthermore, protections from workplace discrimination in hiring and promotion on the basis of sexual or gender orientation are lacking in most work environments. He recommended that counselors help LGBT clients weigh these factors when making decisions about employers and job location.

Several authors have emphasized that SCCT is a particularly useful theory for understanding the process of career development and decision making for individuals from marginalized groups who encounter workplace and societal discrimination (Byars & Hackett, 1998; Lent, Brown, & Hackett, 2000). Morrow and colleagues (1996) were among the first to demonstrate the value of applying SCCT to the career development of lesbian women and gay men. They described how societal influences such as stereotyping, nonsupport for emerging interests, and peer pressure can shape and truncate the range of academic and career interests of lesbian and gay individuals by influencing their self-efficacy and outcome expectations. They also stressed how barriers such as prejudice and discrimination based on sexual orientation impede the translation of interests into academic and career goals and choices. They suggested, for example, that lesbian women and gay men, when anticipating oppression or discrimination in a particular domain, are less likely to develop an enduring interest in that domain, despite having high self-efficacy. To put it simply, they wrote: ‘‘The crucial issue may not be, ‘Can I do it?’ but ‘What will happen if I do?’’’ (p. 141).

More recently, scholars have used the constructs of SCCT to describe how LGBT workers choose sexual identity management strategies (Chung 2001; Chung, Williams, & Dispenza, 2009; Lidderdale, Croteau, Anderson, TovarMurray, & Davis, 2007). Sexual identity management refers to whether and how LGBT individuals disclose their sexual identity at work. Chung (2001) developed a model of sexual identity management based on an earlier model that outlined strategies that LGB persons might use, depending on the level of risk and potential consequences of a workplace situation (Griffen, 1992). Chung’s five strategies, ranging along a continuum from most discreet to most transparent, include (1) acting (engaging in a heterosexual relationship to appear heterosexual), (2) passing (fabricating information to give the impression of being heterosexual), (3) covering (censuring information that would reveal an LGBT identity, (4) implicitly out (behaving honestly without labeling oneself as LGBT), and (5) explicitly out (openly stating that one is LGBT).

Lidderdale and colleagues (2007) proposed using SCCT as a framework for understanding how LGBT individuals learn about and choose among such approaches for managing identity in the workplace. Their model describes how socially learned self-efficacy beliefs and outcome expectations interact with workplace contextual factors to determine which sexual identity management strategy an individual will choose to use at any particular time. For example, an individual would likely develop strong, positive self-efficacy beliefs and outcome expectations regarding being out if he or she has a history of exposure to the value of diversity and to LGB role models who manage their identities openly. This individual would then be more likely to choose identity management strategies that are open. Conversely, adverse learning experiences about being out may produce weaker self-efficacy beliefs and strong negative outcome expectations (e.g., anticipated ridicule or discrimination), prompting choice of more cautious identity management strategies.

Models of sexual identity management draw attention to the prevalence of various forms of formal and informal workplace discrimination and provide an understanding of the ways in which LGBT individuals may cope with them. These models stress the ongoing daily choices that LGBT individuals make to reveal or conceal sexual identity in response to potential discrimination in the workplace. They take into account the individual’s other social and cultural identities and stress the variability of individual and cultural needs. They do not assume or promote one coping strategy as more desirable than another. Instead, they encourage exploration of the risks and benefits of various coping strategies that correspond with a particular individual’s identity development and needs; they focus on the unique psychological processes and learning experiences of the individual. For example, choosing to be out in the workplace is not always an optimal choice (Chen-Hayes, 2005); workers from cultures that are more group than individually focused and workers struggling with poverty may be less likely to experience high self-efficacy or to anticipate positive outcomes from being out at work (Croteau, Anderson, & VanderWal, 2008).

An emerging body of literature has expanded the study of sexual identity management and workplace discrimination to the experiences and challenges facing LGBT individuals in leadership positions (Fassinger, Shullman, & Stevenson, 2010; Goodman, Schell, Alexander, & Eidelman, 2008). Fassinger and colleagues (2010), for example, proposed an innovative multidimensional model of LGBT leadership that addresses the interaction of identity disclosure, gender conformity, and workplace contextual factors. This model emphasizes the strengths that LGBT leaders often bring to organizations, such as tolerance of ambiguity, sensitivity to diverse employees, understanding of oppression, creativity, and willingness to take risks. At the same time, they point out how easily a hostile workplace climate can result from negative stereotypes or derogatory comments about LGB leaders from coworkers.

Lehavot and Lambert (2007), for example, found that participants rated lesbian and gay leaders most negatively when they behaved in ways that confirmed sexual identity stereotypes (gay men acting feminine, lesbians behaving in masculine ways). Thus, lesbian and gay leaders may be at greater risk for negative perceptions by followers when they behave in ways considered inappropriate for their gender. Research with lesbian and gay leaders has focused on individuals who are out in the workplace. It is quite reasonable to assume, however, that many LGBT individuals who choose not to disclose their sexual identity at work also may avoid taking on leadership roles due to the risk and scrutiny that that such visibility brings. Research on the leadership career paths of LGBT workers, whether out or not, is an exciting new area of the career development literature.


Although the literature addressing career development and counseling of LGBT persons has grown significantly, few publications have focused on using career assessment tools with LGB individuals. Measurement and Evaluation in Counseling and Development (Hansen, 1997) devoted a special issue to the topic of heterosexism and homophobia in psychological assessment, and the Journal of Career Assessment has published two articles on LGB career assessment (Chung, 2003b; Prince, 1997b). Several book chapters also have incorporated case studies and practical guidelines for using career assessments with sexual minority clients (Pope, 1992; Pope, Prince, & Mitchell, 2000; Prince & Potoczniak, 2012). Otherwise, this topic has largely been ignored. It is also noteworthy that the Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing (American Educational Research Association, American Psychological Association, & National Council on Measurement in Education, 1999) address other dimensions of diversity but are silent on thedevelopment and use of tests with LGBT persons. Nevertheless, as research has shown with members of other socially oppressed groups, career assessments with questionable validity for LGB populations can be misleading and even harmful when inappropriately used (Walsh & Betz, 1995).

Sound career assessment requires assessment skills that are rooted in the counselor’s self-awareness and knowledge of the psychological, cultural, and environmental concerns that are specific to LGB individuals (Chung, 2003b; Prince, 1997b). For example, Chung (2003b) emphasized the need for counselors to consider how their worldview, particularly their attitudes and possible biases regarding homosexuality and bisexuality, might influence their selection and use of assessments. For example, a counselor with biased attitudes toward LGB individuals might use assessment results to inappropriately direct some LGB clients to more gender-traditional careers by discounting scores on scales that are counter to gender expectations. He pointed out the need for counselors to increase their knowledge in a number of domains, such as sexual identity development, workplace discrimination, LGBT relationships, and diversity within the LGB community, and to seek out consultation when needed.

Furthermore, it is critical to evaluate each potential assessment tool for bias before using it with LGBT clients. Widely used career assessment instruments do not include item content relevant to the specific career development experiences of LGB populations, and they have not been designed to assess theoretical constructs that speak to LGB career concerns (Prince, 1997a, 1997b). Effective assessment therefore requires counselors to use supplemental strategies to address influences such as sexual identity development, identity management, workplace discrimination, and heterosexism. Regrettably, effectively adapting the assessment process to meet LGB client needs is not always easy to do, given that clients’ sexual identity status is often invisible. Counselors need to routinely assume at first that all clients may be lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Furthermore, counselors need to consider routinely collecting intake information from clients regarding their sexual identity so that relevant historical material (such as experiences with discrimination and stigma) can be explored and integrated into the assessment process.

Although some counselors may find it awkward to raise the question of sexual identity status in the first interview, it is nevertheless important to gather this information. It is good practice, for example, to include an item relating to sexual identity on written intake forms that clients complete prior to the first interview. These forms routinely collect other demographic and historical information, such as gender, ethnicity, and education, that allow the counselor to form first impressions and guide the first interview. The absence of an item on sexual identity reinforces the invisibility of sexual minorities; by omission, the form can relay the message that heterosexuality is assumed.


The literature addressing the work and career concerns of transgender individuals has increased over the past few years, helping to inform both researchers and practitioners. Nevertheless, scholarly contributions continue to rely heavily on extrapolations from findings with lesbian and gay populations and to use informal sources of information such as websites of transgender organizations (Brown & Rounsley, 1996; O’Neil et al., 2008). Pepper and Lorah (2008) were among the first to summarize common career and workplace issues faced by transgender individuals and to provide recommendations for career counselors. They emphasized the numerous and significant workplace challenges that transgender individuals confront, such as deciding whether to transition (i.e., begin dressing, behaving, or living as the new gender) in their current job and choosing how to deal with coworkers’ prejudice and discrimination. Additional challenges include managing social isolation at work and facing high rates of underemployment (Schilt, 2006).

There has been growing recognition of the different work experiences specific to persons within the larger transgender category. For example, some of the workplace experiences and prejudices faced by male-to-female (MTF) transgender persons differ from those of female-to-male (FTM) transgender persons because of gender role expectations. MTF persons may confront the loss of societal and workplace privileges of living as a man, whereas FTM persons may encounter very different experiences and conflicts (Pepper & Lorah, 2008). It is not surprising, therefore, that research findings indicate that workplace conflicts are a primary reason for transgender individuals to seek counseling (Rachlin, 2002).

Only recently have researchers begun to gather data to support previous theoretical work in this area. Budge, Tebbe, and Howard (2010) used a qualitative case study approach to better understand the career decision-making processes and workplace experiences of transgender people. They identified a number of themes across their interviews that described the transition process at work, such as: preparing for the transition, coming out at work, appearance at work, coworker reactions, and coping experiences at work. They also identified a number of themes related to individuals’ career decision making, such as occupational barriers and occupational opportunities. For example, all participants described barriers that related to prejudice and discrimination. They included overt discrimination, job loss due to gender identity, bathroom discrimination, and needing to work harder to compensate for transgender status. Occupational opportunities for a number of participants included the discovery of interests in teaching and social justice as a result of helping coworkers understand transgender issues.

Similarly, Law and colleagues (2011) examined individual experiences and organizational characteristics to understand the work experiences of transgender individuals. They found less stigmatization toward women transitioning to men than toward men transitioning to women. They also found that coworkers and organizational support played essential roles in influencing the experiences of transgender individuals. Specifically, their results indicated that individuals had greater job satisfaction and organizational commitment when they had supportive coworkers who reacted positively to their workplace disclosure. In addition, they found that participants were more likely to disclose at work if there were individuals outside of work to whom they could disclose their identity.

These studies highlight a number of factors that can inform career counselors working with transgender clients, particularly those who are considering whether to disclose their gender identity. Career counselors need to engage in realistic yet sensitive conversations with transgender clients about prejudice and discrimination and focus on helping them to build strong support networks. Counselors also need to obtain training or supervision to learn more about the legal and medical issues that influence the lives of transgender people. Finally, the growing literature in this area emphasizes the important role of workplace environment and the need for career professionals to advocate for strengthening laws and policies that support the recruitment and retention of qualified transgender workers.


The foundations of counselor competence with LGB clients are in many ways similar to those that are recommended for other nonmajority clients who endure stereotyping and stigmatization (Israel & Selvedge, 2003). For example, the multicultural counseling literature emphasizes the need for counselors to examine the stereotypes and biases they hold about various ethnic groups and to acquire knowledge about the acculturation, worldview, and identity development of their clients (Sue, Arredondo, & McDavis, 1992). Competent career counseling with LGB clients requires these same efforts.

In addition, there are factors unique to working with LGB populations that need to be incorporated. For instance, addressing sexual orientation requires discussing sexuality, a particularly difficult topic for many people and one that polarizes religious groups and political parties. A counselor needs to determine for each client to what degree sexual orientation needs to become a primary or secondary focus of counseling and to examine whose needs are driving that decision, the counselor’s or the client’s. For example, a lesbian college sophomore who presents with career indecision may or may not need or want to talk about her sexual orientation. On the one hand, a counselor needs to provide an affirmative environment for exploring the influence of sexual orientation so that the topic is not ignored due to discomfort. On the other hand, overemphasis and an exclusive focus on sexual orientation might lead to early termination if a client feels that her or his presenting career needs are being discounted or deferred.

Fortunately, a number of professional practice guidelines provide counselors with a valuable framework for working effectively and responsibly with LGBT clients. ‘‘Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Clients’’ (APA, 2012), for example, integrates information in areas such as assessment, identity, and diversity to help practitioners engage in affirmative practice. Similarly, the Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues in Counseling (2003) has published competencies for counseling LGBT clients, and these have been adopted by the American Counseling Association. These competencies assist counselors in examining their personal biases and values regarding LGBT clients and provide guidance in applying appropriate and effective interventions. Included among these competencies are several that are specific to career development. They suggest that competent counselors need to pursue the following four strategies: (1) counter occupational stereotypes that restrict LGBT clients’ career development and career decision making, (2) explore ways in which government statutes do not protect LGBT workers from discrimination, (3) help LGBT clients make career choices that facilitate both identity formation and job satisfaction, and (4) connect LGBT clients with sexual minority role models who can increase awareness of viable career options.

A social justice approach offers an additional framework that is useful for career counselors. This approach highlights the ways in which the social and political contexts of LGBT persons’ lives (e.g., heterosexism, societal disapproval, and deprivation of fundamental human rights) interfere with healthy development (Meyer, 2003). The American Counseling Association’s Advocacy Competencies (Ratts, Toporek, & Lewis, 2010) provide a detailed framework for counselors wanting to infuse social justice work into their counseling practice. These competencies identify ways in which counselors can engage in both individual counseling and community-based work to help clients achieve optimal results. Along these lines, Whitcomb and Loewy (2006) provided specific suggestions for engaging in social justice work on behalf of LGB people. They recommended that counselors become involved in local and national politics and advocacy efforts to influence public opinion, policies, and laws that are harmful to the career development of LGBT persons.

A recurring theme throughout the scholarly literature of LGBT career development is the need for counselors to implement an LGBT-affirmative approach to counseling—one that emphasizes the strengths and benefits of LGBT identities and that supports an individual’s flourishing in all areas of life (Rostosky & Riggle, 2011). One example is Shultheiss’s (2003) relational approach to career counseling with sexual minority women. She advocated that counselors focus on strengthening clients’ interpersonal support systems and examine how partners, friends, and family can facilitate career development and career aspirations. Connecting LGBT clients with supportive communities is critical to combating the isolation that is typical for LGBT individuals who grow up in families that do not share their minority status and in cultures that are heterosexually defined.

One important source of support for many LGBT clients is a romantic partner or spouse who may play a particularly significant role in reducing the stress and isolation that result from workplace discrimination and heterosexism. At the same time, integrating a same-sex relationship into one’s work life presents unique challenges to lesbian and gay couples—an important one being whether to come out in the workplace together. For example, lesbian and gay couples often struggle in deciding when and if to bring a partner to work-related social events or whether to mention a partner when negotiating benefits for a new job. O’Ryan and McFarland (2010) identified several themes that can assist counselors with couples trying to successfully blend their relationship and careers. They found, for example, that it was important for couples to engage in discussions together to plan and weigh the options of coming out in the workplace. Similarly, they found that couples who made efforts to create lesbian- and gay-positive social networks increased their sense of well-being and empowerment.

Another essential recommendation for career counselors is to become knowledgeable about the specific issues that are the context of LGBT clients’ lives (e.g., sexual identity development, sexual identity management in the workplace, the impact of stigma, heterosexism, discrimination). Counselors need to be informed so they can work with each client to understand and address how these factors have influenced career development and decision making and how they may continue to do so in the future. The invisibility of sexual identity can complicate such exploration. Bieschke and Matthews (1996) noted, for example, that often an LGB client will choose not to disclose sexual identity status to a counselor, particularly when a client is unsure of the degree to which the counselor is LGB-affirmative. Clients may look for clues in the counselor’s office or in the counselor’s words or behaviors to determine if he or she is knowledgeable and supportive. Thus, it is incumbent on career counselors to demonstrate LGB-supportive behaviors, such as avoiding heterosexist language in communications with all clients, and to create an LGBT-affirmative physical environment. For example, counselors might display office artwork or periodicals that are LGB-affirmative. Similarly, many organizations create affirmative office climates by placing decals or signs on office doors or in waiting rooms to indicate the office is an LGBT ‘‘safe space.’’

It is also essential for counselors to use relevant career resources to help clients explore jobs and careers. Most traditional career resources and career libraries do not feature LGBT-related material; this absence contributes to the stigmatization, invisibility, and isolation of LGB individuals. Proactive efforts are required to ensure that career resources are expanded to include occupational data, job listings, and career information from LGBT-positive sources such as local and national LGBT organizations and from employers that offer LGBT-affirmative policies. For example, the Human Rights Campaign (, the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (, and Out and Equal Workplace Advocates ( produce an array of career resources specific to LGBT populations. Using resources such as these not only provide LGBT clients with relevant information but also ensure that career counselors remain up-to-date on current work issues that impact the lives of LGBT clients.

Over the past 20 years, there have been important advances in understanding the unique career concerns of LGBT individuals. There have also been important societal changes, such as increasing recognition of domestic partnerships by employers and, in some locations, the legalization of marriage of same-sex couples. Nevertheless, LGBT individuals continue to deal with contextual factors inherent in living and working in a heterosexual society, and we have yet to expand or develop career theories that adequately speak to these complexities. Still, the incredible diversity of cultural groups that make up LGBT populations presents unlimited opportunities; both scholars and career practitioners are in an ideal position to develop more effective interventions, to empower LGBT individuals to thrive at school and work, and to advocate for a more just society.

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2 years ago
Topics: Development, Career