Political Notebook: San Francisco 1st city to track LGBTQ workforce

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday June 22, 2022
Share this Post:
Carol Isen is the director of the San Francisco Department of Human Resources. Photo: Christopher Robledo
Carol Isen is the director of the San Francisco Department of Human Resources. Photo: Christopher Robledo

San Francisco has become the first known city to track its LGBTQ workforce as well as to ask applicants for city and county jobs what is their sexual orientation and gender identity. It is the latest attempt by the city to collect SOGI data, this time with an eye toward improving employment opportunities for LGBTQ individuals.

In October, the Board of Supervisors signed off on striking a restriction in the city's municipal code that forbids it from inquiring into the "sexual orientation, practices, or habits" of city employees. Known as Chapter 12E, the City Employee's Sexual Privacy Ordinance of the Administrative Code, it was enacted in 1985 during the height of the AIDS epidemic as a way to protect LGBTQ applicants and city employees from being discriminated against, as the Bay Area Reporter first reported last June.

With those fears no longer a concern, and SOGI data routinely asked of people seeking various city services and in public health settings, Mayor London Breed and gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman introduced legislation during Pride Month 2021 to repeal that section of the Administrative Code.

It was the responsibility of the city's Department of Human Resources to implement it after conducting meetings with LGBTQ advocates and city leaders about how best to ask the SOGI questions of new applicants for city and county jobs, as well as those already employed. The department rolled out the SOGI questions for the city's 35,000+ employees across multiple departments in January.

On May 6 the questions were added to the forms that job seekers fill out. The city has upward of 3,000 permanent positions to fill and is on pace to have over 140,000 applicants this calendar year.

"I think it is good, and I am glad I could be a part of making it happen," Mandelman told the B.A.R. this week. "I will be interested to see what we learn about our workforce and our applicant pool."

Carol Isen, a lesbian who is the director of the city's human resources department, said the initiative echoes the calls in the 1970s by the late gay San Francisco activist and supervisor Harvey Milk for LGBTQ people to come out of the closet due to there being power in having a visible LGBTQ community.

"Our own supervisor said the most powerful thing you can do is come out," said Isen during a June 17 phone interview with the Bay Area Reporter. "Now being able to come out and be counted, and be counted in our system, is a powerful statement in and of itself. I would really like for our employees to really be able to see that and take that step to be identified and be counted."

At the same time Isen, who is 62 years old, said she is personally aware that being asked about one's sexual orientation and gender identity can be jarring at first. Other than answering the SOGI questions in her own online employment file earlier this year, Isen said she had never been asked how she identifies under the LGBTQ acronym until the B.A.R. did for this article.

"It felt great," she said of filling out the SOGI fields for the city.

Mawuli Tugbenyoh is the director of policy and communications at the San Francisco Department of Human Resources. Photo: Christopher Robledo  

Mawuli Tugbenyoh, a gay man who is the human resources department's director of policy and communications, also filled out the SOGI fields. But even though he had worked on implementing the initiative and on how the questions would be asked, Tugbenyoh told the B.A.R. he had a momentary pause when he went to enter his SOGI information earlier this year.

"Admittedly, even though we worked on the launch of this whole thing, I have that little voice in the back of my head as a gay man and also as a Black man asking should I include my race, should I include my sexual orientation? I understand if there is any hesitation out there with the rest of city employment on doing it," said Tugbenyoh.

For both current employees and job applicants disclosing their sexual orientation and gender identity is not required but voluntary. The information is being kept confidential to protect people's privacy.

"We are not mandating people report this. It is purely voluntary," noted Isen. "It is stored in the same manner as everything else is stored about an employee's employment information. The SOGI field is suppressed for the purposes of reporting."

Isen noted that only a select few city officials can access the SOGI data. Those who do are unable to look up an individual by name, she added, but can look up the SOGI data in the aggregate by job classification.

"They are not going to turn around and out you," she said, if someone answers the SOGI data.

So far the city has not released any information on the SOGI data it has collected to date. Isen told the B.A.R. her department likely won't issue a report on the data collection efforts until next year in order to give plenty of time for current employees to answer the questions.

They are able to do banner messages in the online system employees access for various benefits and payroll reasons, so they plan to do a push about the SOGI questions in the fall timed to when employees can update their health benefits.

"It's going to be a big campaign to really get people to go in there and voluntarily fill them out," said Isen. "I think there are some concerns about what are you doing with this info, why are you doing this, and how are you doing this. We need to do better outreach and education on this."

Isen expects to see that many city employees are in fact part of the LGBTQ community, noting that as far back as the 1970s various city departments were seen as welcoming workplaces for LGBTQ individuals. She began her career with the city as a union representative in 1982 and recalled how back then there were many gay men employed with the planning department.

"They were quite open and out and a lot of them did not survive AIDS, sadly," recalled Isen. "So I was around when the code amendment 12E was adopted. People felt really strongly about privacy at that point. But this just shows how things have come around in that time period."

There is no expectation that asking the SOGI questions will result in a drop off in job applicants, said Isen. It is likely the younger an applicant or an employer is, the more comfortable they will be in disclosing such information to the city, she added.

"I have always known working in city employment that not everywhere but a lot of our occupations are a safe haven for our LGBTQ employees," said Isen. "Now what we would love to be able to do is to really quantify that. Empirically, we have all always known it is a great place to work and be out."

Asked if any other city has reached out to San Francisco officials to inquire about the LGBTQ workforce data initiative, Isen said none had done so. The question prompted her to say she could help promote it in her own conversations with her municipal counterparts.

"We could do the reaching out to cities," said Isen, since she works "with a lot of sister agencies in all these cities and counties around us and in the state."

Web Extra: For more queer political news, be sure to check http://www.ebar.com Monday mornings for Political Notes, the notebook's online companion. This week's column reported on a trans congressional candidate and a lesbian state Senate candidate surviving their Southern California primary races.

Keep abreast of the latest LGBTQ political news by following the Political Notebook on Twitter @ http://twitter.com/politicalnotes

Got a tip on LGBTQ politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or e-mail m.bajko@ebar.com

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.