The LGBTQ+ community faces discrimination in their personal lives and the workplace — from microaggressions, such as being misgendered or incorrectly identifying a romantic partner, to outright harassment and discrimination, such as being left out of insurance plans or even fired.
And that makes having allies and advocates in the office very important to the LGBTQ+ community. Both allies and advocates are important to LGBTQ+ employees “who may feel their voices are not being heard,” or who face more overt forms of discrimination in the office, says Heidi Duss, a gender equity and LGBTQ+ inclusion consultant and founder of Culturescape Consulting.
You don’t have to be LGBTQ+ yourself to be an ally: In fact, “an LGBTQ+ advocate who does not identify as LGBTQ+ often has more power than someone who identifies as LGBTQ+ to bring about change in an organization, because managers and co-workers may assume that their advocacy isn’t ‘personal,’” explains Heath Fogg Davis, the director of gender, sexuality, and women’s studies at Temple University and author of Beyond Trans: Does Gender Matter?
Heather Hansen, a self-advocacy expert and the author of Advocate to Win agrees, and offers this comparison: “Just like men are often the best advocates for women,” she says, “straight people are often the best advocates for LGBTQ+ community members” and coworkers.
Allies and advocates are friends, listeners, and supporters, Duss says. Specifically, “advocates can speak up when they witness hurtful language” in the office, says Emily Frank, owner of Career Catalyst, “and can draw other colleagues’ attention to their unconscious biases.”
Here are nine ways to be an ally and advocate for your LGBTQ+ colleagues at work.
Educate yourself on the meaning of LGBTQ+.
“To be able to advocate for a marginalized group, you first have to educate yourself on the terminology used to describe the group,” says Davis. For example, you can research “what do the letters mean? Which letters have been added and dropped over time, and why? How has the definition of ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ changed and evolved, and why? And what are some of the tensions between the groups flagged here?” he says. That educational foundation is important: “To advocate on behalf of LGBTQ+ coworkers can mean a lot of things, but in general, I think it means being aware of how bias against LGBTQ+ people manifests and speaking up in ways that can bring about positive change for us and the organization,” he says.
Make your own pronouns apparent.
Pronouns — she, he, they, etc. — help us identify ourselves. And by publicly using your own pronouns, you can normalize their use and help create a culture of acceptance and inclusion.
One easy way to display your pronouns is in your email signature, which “can help establish an organizational norm that it isn’t only trans and non-binary people who share their pronouns,” explains Davis. While this practice sends a positive message to trans and non-binary coworkers, it is also beneficial in email exchanges with people who have androgynous names, such as Taylor and Bailey. It lets people know which pronouns to use in their emails.”
You can also add pronouns next to your name in a Zoom the meeting, suggests Bridget Sampson, CEO of Sampson Coaching and Consulting. “This lets people gender diverse know you are aware of and respect the need to clarify pronouns, including for cisgender people,” she explains.
Be a good listener.
“So many of my clients think advocating is speaking and presenting,” says Hansen. And while that is part of being a good ally, “listening and receiving comes first.” Hansen encourages you to ask LGBTQ+ what they need: “What do they want you to advocate for? How can you be a better advocate for them? What is a win for them?” she asks. “Then listen to the answers, with your mind and heart open.” Whatever you do, please don’t assume you know their needs. “When we assume we know what people want, we are often wrong, and we can make things worse,” Hansen says.
And be open to feedback from your LGBTQ+ coworkers: “You’re likely not an expert,” Frank says, “so when you get new information or suggestions, adopt them, and keep learning.” Frank points to her own experience as an example: A transgender client recently advised her that she didn’t have a spot on her intake form for a person’s legal versus preferred name, “so I changed the document accordingly, with thanks to my client for pointing out something that, in hindsight, seemed obvious,” Frank explains.
Use inclusive language and imagery in your communications.
When sending communications to coworkers, use language that includes all people rather than language that can create division. For example, don’t send emails that mention gender — like an email inviting “the guys” for a happy hour. And, “if you write a newsletter, make sure the pictures you share on it include examples of same-sex couples and people in a variety of dress,” says Frank. “Visibility is important, and visual images are an easy way to show your support.”
Ask questions when you’re unsure.
When something isn’t clear to you, it’s OK to ask questions. For example, “if a coworker’s gender appearance changes and you are unsure of which pronouns to use, you can simply ask the person, ‘What pronouns do you use?’” says Davis. But don’t be invasive: “Your role is that of a coworker, not a close friend with whom it might be appropriate to ask more questions,” he adds.
Questions that veer into the too-personal territory — without a clear invitation from your LGBTQ+ coworker to do so — can require “a lot of emotional labor” for them to address, says Sampson. “It may be difficult and unpleasant to discuss traumatic experiences such as being rejected by one’s family or going through medical transition,” she says. “Please respect people’s privacy.”
If you see something, say something.
If you witness microaggressions at work, speak up. For example, “if your coworker continues to use an incorrect pronoun for someone else, keep correcting that person,” says Frank, who suggests you say something such as, “remember, [the coworkers] uses ‘they/them pronouns.”
It’s important to speak up: “Keeping your coworkers aware of these points behind the scenes will remind them to use supportive language to and with your LGBTQ+ colleagues,” she says. “You are also signaling you’re not letting them get away with microaggressions behind closed doors.”
However, Frank shares a caveat: Don’t speak for your LGBTQ+ coworker. “It’s more beneficial to support your coworkers than to speak for them when they’re right there since speaking on their behalf implies that they aren’t capable,” she explains.
When you hear derogatory comments — even subtle ones — about LGBTQ+ people at work say something, encourages Sampson. “Make it clear that you don’t agree, don’t approve, and that comments of that nature at work could be hurtful to members of the community,” she says.
And when an LGBTQ+ coworker says that they have been discriminated against, “believe them,” says Sampson. And more than that, lend your support and “investigate in any way you can,” she says, which can include helping them to bring “their complaints to the powers that be.”
Be visible at advocacy events.
Frank suggests that you attend events that support and uplift LGBTQ+ people outside of the office, such as Pride parades. Here’s why: “If you are straight and cis[gender], being visible at these events chips away at the old stigmas attached to LGBTQ+ status and demonstrates to your colleagues that you aren’t afraid to be associated with those people,” Frank explains.
Change the language you use.
When you engage in a casual or personal conversation with coworkers, take care to use inclusive language. For example, “when you ask about others’ lives, say ‘spouse’ or ‘partner’ so that you show you are not assuming that partners are the opposite sex,” Sampson says. “In other words, I wouldn’t ask, ‘What does your husband like to do for fun?’ if I’m speaking to a woman who I know is married because she may be married to a woman or nonbinary person.”
Don’t share someone’s identity without their consent.
“If someone shares information about their sexuality or gender identity with you, don’t assume they are fine with you telling others,” Davis says. “Your intentions may be good. You want to let others know that [your coworker] has a husband or that [another coworker] is bisexual, thinking that this will make it easier for [them] to fit in. But it is always important to ask whether the person is comfortable with you doing so,” because if not, you could do more harm than good.
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