Art by Jim Cooke/GMG
A 2014 study by the Human Rights Campaign found that 53 per cent of LGBT individuals remain closeted at work. According to Audrey Gallien, Director of Marketing for Catalyst, a workplace inclusion advocacy organisation, even when businesses attempt to provide an inclusive environment, individuals "still must face the inter-personal risk of 'bringing their full self' to work" — in other words, they risk their relationship with their manager, team members, or clients changing for the worse.
According to HRC's report, less than half of straight employees surveyed felt comfortable hearing an LGBT coworker discuss their dating life. And one out of four people surveyed heard homophobic comments like "That's so gay" while at work.
"We see when individuals experience 'otherness,' they are more likely to downplay their aspirations, have lower level mentors, and get less high visibility assignments; all of which are critical for career advancement," said Gallien.
How do we change this dynamic? It is the responsibility of everyone — but especially straight coworkers — to create a safe and comfortable environment for LGBTQ individuals to be themselves. If you want to be a better straight ally at work, here are my suggestions.
Offer Your Pronoun Preference Whenever You Can
Do you prefer to be called "she/her," "he/him," "they/them" or some alternative? If you've never questioned your gender, this might seem strange to even question, but for others, it's an important and sensitive topic.
Offer your pronouns when you introduce yourself at meetings or mixers and include them on social media profiles. Even if you believe your pronouns should be obvious, it challenges people's assumptions — if you look a certain way, if you're straight, or if have certain roles (like mother, father, wife, etc.) — that you automatically identify in a particular way.
Whenever I give a presentation or teach a class, I ask everyone in the room to give their name and pronoun preference. It still feels awkward, because outside of LGBTQ spaces, it's not a common thing to ask. But when cisgender allies make it a habit of giving and asking other's pronouns, it takes the burden off people with non-normative genders to make it a common practice.
Use Gender-Neutral Greetings
Gendered greetings are deeply ingrained in the U.S. Even in the office or at conferences, I get used to hearing, "Hey lady!" Some people love receiving these greetings (I do), because it helps them feel seen. But gender-specific greetings should be something you do to affirm an individual whose gender you're sure of, not your go-to.
Instead, get comfortable calling someone by their name or not using a greeting at all. If greetings are really your thing, consider using a term like "friend" instead. The more you use gender-neutral terms, the easier it is to not slip up when you're unsure how someone identifies.
When referring to a group of people, using terms like "folks" or "team" as opposed to "guys" can help everyone feel welcome and empowered.
Educate Yourself on LGBTQ Issues
Did you know that over 100 anti-LGBTQ bills were introduced in 2017? North Carolina's House Bill 186, for instance, would repeal laws that define the LGBTQ community as a protected class, allowing for discrimination of employment and public accommodations, such as bathrooms.
"The LGBTQ community is under attack," said Andres Wydler, Executive Director of StartOut, an organisation that supports LGBTQ entrepreneurs. "The deplorable deterioration of public discourse civility emboldens bigots and takes off the lid that has kept the most egregious discrimination at bay. Now the genie is out of the bottle. No wonder then that minorities fear for their future, their professional opportunities and self-fulfillment. We all have our work cut out to reverse the trend and do what's right — empower LGBTQ youth, employees and entrepreneurs alike."
Being aware of these issues can help you understand what your co-workers or their friends and family might be going through. Pay special attention to legislation in the works in your state and how it might affect the people you know.
Individuals may also be facing bias or discrimination within your organisation. Read up on your company's benefit packages. Does it offer equal benefits for same-sex spouses or provide health coverage for those going through a gender transition? For example, 73% of businesses rated in HRC's 2017 Corporate Equality Index report provided at least one transgender-inclusive health care plan. This is up from just nine per cent of businesses in 2010. Still, that leaves over a quarter of reported businesses not providing adequate coverage for transgender individuals.
Speak Up When You Hear Derogatory or Inappropriate Comments
62% of LGBT employees have heard lesbian or gay jokes and 40% have heard transgender jokes at work. One transgender barista recalls an incident on International Working Women's Day: "Two of my [cis-gender heterosexual] male co-workers high-fived and joked that they were going home and I could do whatever half the work my 'girl half' felt like doing."
When you hear unacceptable jokes or conversations, call people out on it directly or talk to HR. The only way to create a safe environment for your LGBTQ co-workers is when this kind of behaviour won't be tolerated.
Even innocent conversations about family or partners can be tricky for people who have faced discrimination because of their orientation or gender. And transgender individuals are often asked inappropriate questions about their gender or transition process. If you sense a conversation is making someone uncomfortable, help them out by changing the subject.
Encourage LGBTQ Representation on Boards and Committees
In order for LGBTQ rights to be prioritised within a company, members of that community need to have a say. Nominate or invite LGBTQ individuals to participate on teams that directly impact the workplace.
But an invitation is not enough. The next step is to ensure that everyone feels comfortable speaking up. For LGBTQ individuals, speaking up equates to being more loudly out.
The Center for Talent Innovation's report, Power of Out 2.0, finds that, on average, LGBTQ individuals look for ten signs that their work is a safe place to be out. "These could be inclusive affirmations from their colleagues, company-wide announcements, etc. However, during this time of collecting these 10 positive signs, if 1 negative act is experienced from their work environment, this individual will choose to either stay in the closet or attempt to go back into the closet. This emphasises how high of a risk coming out really is for individuals," Gallien said.
If an individual is willing to risk being out, make sure they know you're willing to listen and you'll stand by them.
Jera Brown spends her days in Chicago cafes and on the beach of Lake Michigan writing about everything from tech to religion.