Last week, I had the opportunity to travel to Washington, DC for the 10th annual Out for Work conference. Out for Work is a wonderful organization that helps people who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) and their allies learn more about navigating the job search, coming out as LGBTQ, and advocating for LGBTQ friendly workplaces. For university career centers, Out for Work has a Career Center Certification Program that helps identify strengths and weaknesses their offices have in working with LGBTQ students and trains them on becoming better advocates for the community.
If you’re interested in becoming a stronger advocate for an LGBTQ inclusive workplace, I suggest contacting and/or researching organizations like Out for Work and Out and Equal to learn more about how to do so. I’ve also included some tips here on becoming a better LGBTQ ally in the workplace (some are considered best practices and some come from my own experiences).
1. Recognize your privilege.
At this time, our society (and often, workplaces) is hetero-normative and cisgender (or cis) normative. (Cisgender means that your biological sex matches your gender identity or expression–i.e., you have a vagina, thus “female” is listed as your biological sex and you also feel and identify as a feminine person or a woman. Transgender means that you may have been listed as “male” on your birth certificate because you were born with a penis, but this may not match your gender expression. You may identify as a female/have a feminine gender expression, etc.) Essentially, this means that from an early age we absorb the belief or assumption that everyone is heterosexual and cisgender and we act accordingly. People who identify as LGBTQ are becoming more visible, with increased representation in the media/pop culture, society, the workplace, and the news. Most of us, however, still make the assumption when we meet someone that they are heterosexual and cisgender. If you are heterosexual and/or cisgender, acknowledge the fact that we live in a society that is set up for heterosexual and cisgender people, which can make the world (and the world of work) more of a challenge for people who identify as homosexual, gay, queer, lesbian, bisexual, bi-curious, trans*, etc.
2. Don’t make assumptions.
Once you recognize and acknowledge that you are part of the more privileged area of society (i.e., you are heterosexual and/or cisgender) work on not assuming that everyone else is also straight or cis. A great way to decrease the assumptions you make about people is to stop asking new co-workers if they are married, have a boyfriend (if they are a woman) or a girlfriend (if they are a man). As a woman who is also very feminine, people often make the assumption that I am a heterosexual woman, especially since my partner identifies as a female to male (FTM) trans person and uses gender neutral (they, them, their) or masculine pronouns (he, him, his). Based on the assumption that I am heterosexual, I am often asked about my partner with the asker assuming that my partner is a cisgender male or feel “safe” making comments to me about LGBTQ people that aren’t very positive.
On the subject of not making assumptions, make sure that you don’t assume that all LGBTQ people are the same. Some people who identify as LGBTQ enjoy talking about their non-work lives. Others are very private. Some are liberal, some are conservative, some are moderate. Some want to be married and/or have children; others couldn’t care less about these things. Some are great workers and some aren’t so great. Don’t judge all LGBTQ people by one or two individuals. We are as diverse in our religious, political, racial, cultural, etc. beliefs, identities, and backgrounds as any other large group of people.
3. Be a stronger advocate.
If someone around you makes negative or prejudiced comments about people who identify as LGBTQ, diplomatically let them know that it is not okay to make those sorts of comments around you. Everyone you work with won’t be as accepting of LGBTQ people as you may be, so remember this: Being an ally is not something you are, it is something you do. (Or, ally is not really a noun, but more of a verb.) Check out your companies’ score on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index (an index that measures how LGBTQ friendly a workplace is) and advocate for ways your company can achieve a higher score.
4. Educate yourself on LGBTQ issues.
A lot of people operate under the assumption that the biggest issues LGBTQ people face are religious opposition and/or the right to marriage, or civil unions. Although these are important issues for many LGBTQ people, they are certainly not the only issues we face. This map illustrates how many states have non-discrimination laws in place for LGBTQ employees. As you can see, many states still have no protection in place to prevent LGBTQ workers from being fired if they “come out” or discuss their identities at work. That’s right, it is still perfectly legal in many states (including my current state, Kentucky and home state, South Carolina) to fire employees if the employer knows or even thinks they are LGBTQ.
5. Be an active ally.
Reach out to your LGBTQ co-workers. Ask them how their partner is doing or how their weekend was. Let them know, through action, that you are a safe person for them. It is wonderful to advocate for a friendlier workplace for LGBTQ employees and to vote for politicians who support equality, but it can also mean so much to an LGBTQ person to simply get to know them as a person, a co-worker, and possibly a friend.
6. Come out of the closet.
If your child, your best friend, your next door neighbor, etc. identifies as LGBTQ, let people know this. Be proud of the people in your life who are LGBTQ and be vocal whenever you can about your allyship. Remember the first tip–recognize your privilege? As a member of a more privileged group (heterosexual or cisgender) realize that sometimes you may be in a great position to advocate for LGBTQ issues at work while sometimes LGBTQ people aren’t comfortable doing so.
Picture this: It is 2006. I am 22 years old and have recently started a job at a library. “Brokeback Mountain” has recently premiered in movie theaters. My supervisor, a co-worker, (who is/was an ally) and myself are sorting new magazines. My co-worker pulls out a copy of The Advocate (an LGBTQ themed publication) and begins talking about how hot Heath Ledger is. My supervisor glances at the picture and agrees, he is hot. But then she says, “Ugh. Of course he’s on the cover of that gay magazine. He’s probably one himself. Why does everything have to be so gay these days?” Those three sentences, which were perhaps said thoughtlessly, made me feel incredibly uncomfortable around my supervisor from then on. I wish I had felt safe enough (and brave enough) to proudly come out to her and let her know that those comments made me feel uncomfortable. But I didn’t. I had only been at the job two months and I really couldn’t afford to lose it. Although it wasn’t my co-worker’s, who was a great person, responsibility to stand up for me and LGBTQ people in general, I would have been so grateful to have an ally in that moment who could have said for me what I was too afraid to say.
There have been many wonderful allies throughout my career who made me feel like I was in a safe environment, who advocated for LGBTQ issues in the workplace, who asked me how my partner was doing. I am forever thankful to them for not only respecting me and my sexuality, but working to make the workplace better for everyone. I hope that this post encourages you to become a stronger ally. If you have any questions about other ways to be a better, more proactive ally, feel free to send me a message, comment, tweet, etc.