Cleo Meyer (left) and Deborah VanTrece / Courtesy photos

Progress, Setbacks, and Everything In Between: The Reality of Being a Queer Woman in Business

Public approval of individuals who identify as LGBTQ, as well as those who publicly ally themselves with the community, has increased significantly in the United States over the past two decades. Between 2002 and 2019, reported approval or acceptance increased to 72 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. Additionally, the 118th Congress has made history by having the highest number of openly gay, lesbian, and bisexual members in United States History.

Despite this progress, queer people still face challenges because of their identity or solidarity. A 2016 study from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business shows some of the unique challenges and discriminations that queer entrepreneurs face in particular. The study found that 37 percent of surveyed LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs who were seeking investments were intentionally hiding their identities from potential investors for fear that their sexuality would harm their chances.

Beyond that, queer women in particular face the unique and intersectional difficulties of being part of more than one marginalized group. So, how do our featured queer or allied women deal with these challenges, what have their experiences been, and what is it like to be them in 2023?

When Cleo Meyer first started working in claims at State Farm, she said that the conservative culture of the company prevented her from being honest about her identity and her personal life. Meyer feared that coming out to her coworkers and bosses might prevent her from being promoted or being included in company events.

“We didn’t really have a great culture with respect to gays in general and it was difficult for a lot of people to work there and to disclose what their life was all about,” Meyer told Georgia Voice.

Meyer faced harassment and discrimination due to her identity before she was even publicly out to all of her coworkers. She said the culture of the company led her to lie about her partner’s gender, giving off the impression that she was in a relationship with a man.

Meyer said her personal turning point was when she got pregnant with her son. No longer wanting to lie about her family, Meyer came out to her office, and said that the experience was better than she thought it would be. Still, progress was needed within the company.

“I was prohibited from creating my own ads that would have featured gay couples,” Meyer said.

Since coming out in the early 2000s, Meyer said that the company culture has changed a lot and that her experience has become increasingly positive as she’s felt empowered to advocate for the LGBTQ community as an agent.

“My office sponsors different LGBTQ-focused groups, from the gay men’s rugby team to organizations that help homeless LGBTQ youth,” she said.

Meyer said that while the company culture has improved a lot – State Farm sponsors Pride festivals across the country and has created ads that feature gay couples – she still sees a lack of representation in the workforce itself. She said she’s worked on creating networks of fay agents and hopes to see more diversity in the workforce in the future.

Chef Deborah VanTrece is a chef, a cookbook author, and an entrepreneur. When she graduated from culinary school in 1995, she wasn’t aware of the fact that she was queer and entered the workplace as someone who outwardly appeared to be a heterosexual woman.

Deborah said that she witnessed growth in terms of diversity and inclusion in the culinary world alongside her own growth, in which she accepted her own identity as a queer woman.  Throughout this journey of her career in the culinary world, VanTrece said that there have been barriers at each step of the way.

The restaurant industry is male-dominated, and frequently when people think of famous chefs, white men are the first figures to come to mind. VanTrece noted that her intersectional identity as a Black queer woman has created hurdles. Part of this, she said, came from her own personal struggles with her identity. But from these hurdles came growth and progress, both in her personal life and her professional world.

“I got pretty comfortable with who I was and realized if you respect my art form, then you’ll respect me, no matter how I come to you,” she said.

While progress has been made, VanTrece said that the culinary world still has ways to make chefs from every background feel welcome. People’s identities are still a point of judgment for them, but VanTrece said that we should be more concerned about whether they’re good chefs or restaurateurs, or how they act as a person.

Still, VanTrece said she’s been happy to see her career field become more diverse and welcoming, largely thanks to her and others like her who have demanded seats at tables they previously weren’t invited to.

“People have become more vocal, I’ve become more vocal,” said VanTrece. While she never intended to be a representative for LGBTQ people in the food world, her successful career has set an example that the culinary world is open to everyone.

“The more of us that speak their truth, the more other people get comfortable with it.”