Whether you’re actively involved in activism in your free time or just attend annual pride parades, you totally support the LGBTQ community and everyone you know in it. But how can you show that support in the office? Try to change HR policies? Keep a rainbow flag at your desk? Start a breakroom conversation with, “Hey, I know you’re gay and I totally support that!”
(Please don’t do the last one.)
Here’s the deal. I’ve seen a lot in my seven years of being out at work, and I’ve found that one of the biggest ways people can help is to actively create more inclusive spaces for their colleagues. In other words? Make sure that every conversation, team, and workplace relationship you’re part of allows us LGBTQ-identifying folks to come to work and feel as though we’re not going to feel awkward or be left out for simply being ourselves.
Here are a few ways you, as an already amazing ally, can make that happen.
1. Be Affirming
This doesn’t mean you need to go around every day patting your LGBTQ co-workers on the back and saying, “You’re great just the way you are!” (In fact, I’m advising against that.) Instead, start with the simplest way to affirm someone’s identity: listening.
When someone is confiding in you, listen! When someone vents to you about challenges they have as an LGBTQ person, listen! When someone is questioning their sexuality or gender identity, listen! You may be tempted to ask them to dissect the situation or share an opinion—but don’t. This is not the right time or place. Someone is trusting you with a serious and important part of their identity.
For example, when I told a friend of mine that I was transgender, he responded, “I think sex-changes are strange,”—which made me completely shut down. This would have been the perfect instance for him to just be there for me, or even use it as an educational moment. (I would have much preferred, “Wow, I can’t imagine what it would be like to identify as transgender.”)
And what about your colleagues who you aren’t close with? Another simple way to be affirming is to contribute to conversations just like you would with your straight, cisgender counterparts. Maybe when you ask your gay co-worker about his weekend, he replies, “I surprised my husband for his birthday!” Instead of ignoring it or feeling awkward, just say, “Awesome! What did you do? Was he surprised?”
The opposite reactions have happened to me a few times. My straight counterparts all look at each other when I bring up going to a drag show over the weekend or going on a date with a woman. There’s a weird silence when no one knows how to address what I just said. Some easy responses that would’ve felt affirming: “How was the show?” or “Did you like her? Was she nice?” It’s so simple, and yet can really make all the difference in how comfortable LGBTQ people feel in your work environment.
2. Stand Up for Us
It’s doubtful that you’ll always have at least one LGBTQ-identified person around to keep you and your colleagues accountable, and even if you do, it can feel hard for them to stand up for themselves in situations where they’re outnumbered. That’s why we need you, our esteemed colleague and friend, to help keep the space inclusive for us—whether we’re in the room or not. You’d be surprised how much impact a straight or cisgender person can have in creating a better environment.
For a simple example, let’s say you’re hanging out with co-workers at a happy hour and one of them says, “Dude, don’t be so gay.” This is your opportunity to say something like, “Actually, how I act or what I say doesn’t define my sexual orientation and, most importantly, being gay isn’t an insult,” or “Hey, that’s not cool. Don’t use gay in a negative way.”
Or maybe you have a colleague who uses gender-neutral pronouns (i.e., using ze/zie/hir or they/them/theirs instead of he/him/his or she/her/hers). If you overhear someone using the incorrect pronoun, use the opportunity to gently correct them. It can be as simple as reiterating the sentence; if your teammate says, “She sent me the PDF last Monday,” you can simply state, “Oh, they sent you the PDF last Monday?” It’ll help make the workplace better for your LGBTQ colleague going forward and provide a good example for others to follow next time you slip up or someone else does (because no one’s perfect!).
3. Be Empathetic and Accountable
Finally, support your LGBTQ colleagues simply by being your authentic self, even if that authentic self isn’t perfect. We don’t expect you to have majored in LGBTQ Studies or know what LGBTQQIAAP means, but we do expect you to be respectful (after all, we are still at work) and show us that while you might not be an expert, you still care.
With a topic this sensitive, assumptions can be really toxic—on both ends! A statement like, “Wow, I don’t get trans people,” might have me assume that you don’t know or care to learn, when you really meant that you genuinely don’t know about transgender people and what they might go through in their day-to-day.
Instead of getting into a scenario where you might accidently say something offensive, own up to the fact that there’s room for improvement. It might be confusing for you in this moment, but remember that this is our every moment, so try to be understanding to your colleagues in whatever they might be going through.
There are more ways to be a better ally than attending pride parades and waving rainbow flags (but hey, don’t stop that either). With these three steps, you can make your LGBTQ peers feel more welcome at work.