Career Counseling for Gay and Lesbian

Gay and lesbian persons refers to men and women, respectively, whose primary sexual attraction is toward people of the same sex. Nonetheless, the word gay is sometimes used as a collective term to include both gay men and lesbian women. Due to negative stereotypes, societal stigma, oppression, and discrimination related to homosexuality and nonconformity to traditional gender roles, gay and lesbian persons often face internal and external barriers in their career development and adjustment. Professional literature addressing career counseling issues with gay and lesbian persons began to emerge in the 1980s. Some of the most important topics include career choice, work discrimination, and coping strategies. These topics are introduced below, followed by a discussion of career counseling with gay and lesbian clients.

Career Choice

Stereotypes and the limited research available suggest that compared with heterosexual persons gay men and lesbians tend to aspire to or be employed in occupations that are nontraditional for their gender (e.g., interior designers, nurses, hairdressers for gay men; landscapers, mechanics, bus drivers for lesbians). A study found that gay men had higher social and artistic interests, but lower realistic and investigative interests when compared with heterosexual men. These findings signify gay men’s nontraditional career interest patterns. On the other hand, scientific research on lesbians’ career interests and choices is still lacking.

It is not certain from literature whether gay and lesbian persons’ nontraditional career interests are intrinsic or a result of attraction toward occupations that are more accepting of gay men and lesbians. In any case, gay and lesbian persons may be affected by society’s negative reactions to gender nonconformity and its stereotypical association with homosexuality, resulting in barriers in implementing nontraditional career choices.

Work Discrimination

Work discrimination based on sexual orientation is legal in the United States, from federal employment to private sectors. One theoretical model identifies three dimensions of work discrimination related to homosexuality. The first dimension includes formal and informal discrimination. Formal discrimination refers to institutional policies or decisions that are unfair to gay and lesbian employees (e.g., a lack of nondiscrimination policy or domestic partner benefits; hiring, firing, salary, promotion, and job assignment decisions). Informal discrimination pertains to interpersonal or workplace climate that is unwelcoming or hostile to gay and lesbian workers (e.g., social isolation, prejudice, harassment, and physical assault). The second dimension includes potential and encountered discrimination. The former refers to possible discrimination should a person’s same-sex orientation be known or assumed by others. The latter refers to the encountering of discrimination after the person’s same-sex orientation is known or assumed. The third dimension includes real (based on reality) and perceived discrimination (based on the person’s perception). These three dimensions result in eight different kinds of work discrimination that may have various effects on the work status, well-being, and coping of gay and lesbian workers.

Coping Strategies

To deal with the aforementioned forms of work discrimination, gay and lesbian workers may use different coping strategies for survival, self-protection, and self-assertion. A number of coping strategies have been identified in literature, two sets of which are discussed below.

Identity Management

To cope with potential discrimination, gay and lesbian workers may use strategies to control the disclosure of information about their gay or lesbian identity, a process called identity management. Five strategies were identified in literature: (a) acting (engaging in heterosexual relationships to make believe that one is heterosexual, e.g., bringing a date of a different sex to a company party), (b) passing (fabricating information to make believe that one is heterosexual, e.g., changing a partner’s name and pronoun or making up a story about having a heterosexual relationship), (c) covering (censoring information related to one’s homosexuality, e.g., telling a coworker about attending a book club when it is a lesbian book club), (d) implicitly out (allowing interface between work and personal lives without explicitly identifying oneself as gay or lesbian so that people can make their own conclusions, e.g., taking a same-sex partner to a company party without identifying that person as a romantic partner), and (e) explicitly out (explicitly identifying oneself as gay or lesbian, e.g., displaying the picture of a same-sex partner at work and telling coworkers about the partner). These five strategies progress from hiding one’s sexual identity to being the most open about it. They may be used sequentially depending on the identity development of the person, or they can be used at about the same time depending on the situation and risk assessed. For example, a person may use the covering strategy in one job interview and the explicitly out strategy in another job interview in the following week.

Discrimination Management

When encountering work discrimination, gay and lesbian persons may apply various strategies for the purpose of discrimination management. Researchers identified three categories of discrimination management strategies: (a) nonassertive (e.g., quitting, silence, avoiding discriminatory persons or situations, using self-talk, or overcompensating in order to evade discrimination), (b) social support (from partner, friends, family, coworkers, and counseling professionals), and (c) confrontation (with offender, complaint to supervisor or human resources, taking legal actions, approaching the media, or circumventing company policies). Multiple strategies may be used simultaneously, depending on the person’s sexual identity development, personality, resources available, and the specific situation.

Career Counseling

Career counseling with gay and lesbian clients may involve a number of issues. First, counselors may examine how their own values and beliefs regarding homosexuality or gender-role conformity may influence their work with gay and lesbian clients. Supervision, consultation, continuing education, or referrals may be considered. Second, when conducting career assessments with gay and lesbian clients, counselors examine possible assessment bias and attend to the appropriate use and interpretation of assessment tools with these clients. Third, counselors can explore with gay and lesbian clients how their sexual identity may play a role in their career development. Some clients may feel that their sexual orientation is irrelevant to their careers, whereas others may feel that it is important to be able to express their sexual identity in the workplace or to be able to serve or advocate for the gay and lesbian communities through their careers. Clarification of these values will be important for career planning. Fourth, counselors can assist their gay and lesbian clients to examine how negative stereotypes, oppression, and discrimination may affect their career choices and adjustment. A better understanding and more accurate assessments of the various forms of work discrimination as well as gaining competence with various coping strategies will be helpful. Counselors help their clients identify the most appropriate coping strategies based on their sexual identity attitudes and risk assessment for discrimination and enhance clients’ mastery of such strategies through exploration of resources, role-play exercises, and reinforcing clients’ self-efficacy. Furthermore, effective counselors refrain from imposing their values on whether, when, and how clients should come out in the workplace. Instead, they are sensitive to clients’ needs, values, and cultural backgrounds in helping clients manage their sexual identity and encountered discrimination. Finally, counselors may engage in social advocacy in order to facilitate changes in the systems that perpetuate oppression and discrimination.


  1. Chung, Y. B. (2001). Work discrimination and coping strategies: Conceptual frameworks for counseling lesbian, gay, and bisexual clients. The Career Development Quarterly, 50, 33—14.
  2. Chung, Y. B. (2003). Ethical and professional issues in career assessment with lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons. Journal of Career Assessment, 11, 96-112.
  3. Croteau, J. M., Anderson, M. Z., DiStefano, T., & Kampa-Kokesch, S. (2000). Lesbian, gay, and bisexual vocational psychology: Reviewing foundations and planning construction. In R. M. Perez, K. A. DeBord, & K. J. Bieschke (Eds.), Handbook of counseling and therapy with lesbians, gays and bisexuals (pp. 383—108). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  4. Griffin, P. (1992). From hiding out to coming out: Empowering lesbian and gay educators. In K. M. Harbeck (Ed.), Coming out of the classroom closet (pp. 167-196). Binghamton, NY: Harrington Park.
  5. Hetherington, C. (1991). Life planning and career counseling with gay and lesbian students. In N. J. Evans & V. A. Wall (Eds.), Beyond tolerance: Gays, lesbians and bisexuals on campus (pp. 131—116). Alexandria, VA: American College Personnel Association.
  6. Levine, M. P., & Leonard, R. (1981). Discrimination against lesbians in the work force. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 9, 700-710.

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