Scenario: You’re eating your Sunday dinner leftovers at lunch Monday with co-workers when one of your colleagues starts chatting about her dating life (or lack thereof). “Men are so confusing. I wish I was a lesbian,” she says, turning to look at you. “You guys have it so easy!”
And suddenly, what was just a mundane conversation about everyone’s weekend turns into a conversation that inadvertently puts you in the hot seat.
It’s seemingly inoffensive conversations like this that inspired me to get so involved in the queer community. After I came out freshman year of college, I eagerly joined LGBTQ meetups on campus learning as much as I could. Later I’d become a queer leader on campus, getting a minor in LGBTQ Studies and helping with campus trainings on more inclusive language to create safe spaces.
A 2011 study reported that 3.8% of the total U.S. adult population identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. The study stated, “This implies that there are approximately 9 million LGBT Americans, a figure roughly equivalent to the population of New Jersey,” and an even newer study showed that 7% of Millennials identify within the LGBTQ community. If numbers aren’t your thing, I’ll cut to the chase: We’re everywhere. We could be your hiring manager, your desk neighbor, or even your boss.
Almost every time I’ve called co-workers out for saying something offensive, they are usually embarrassed, but also eager to make sure it doesn’t happen again. (We won’t talk about the times when it doesn’t go that way today, because that’s another article.) What I’ve learned from these discussions is that there’s a knowledge gap—and that filling it in could help avoid these moments from happening.
On that note, here are five things your LGBTQ co-workers wish everyone else in the office knew.
1. Not All of Us Use Labels
Some folks have “Coming Out” parties and call themselves gay, lesbian, bisexual, or anything else they’d like! If that’s the case, they’ll let you know what they identify as when the opportunity arises. Others don’t like labels (begins to raise hand). They might be questioning, and they also might be 100% OK with not identifying as anything.
How are you supposed to know whether or not someone wants to identify a certain way? You’re not! Like any other personal detail, it’s entirely up to your co-worker to decide what to share and with whom. If you need to reference someone without using their name, you can privately ask what pronoun they prefer. No, it’s really as simple as asking, “Hey, what pronoun do you prefer?”
It’s hard to not want to categorize someone right away, but trust that your colleague will tell you exactly how much they want you to know or what they identify as (if anything at all!).
2. We’re Not “Out” to Everyone in the Office
If someone decides to come out to you, it’s probably because you’re awesome and you listen. Chances are they trust you (a lot), but they don’t feel the same way about everyone in the office. Plus, it’s a sensitive subject because for as long as people have worked, they’ve lost their jobs or been rejected for openings simply because they’re queer.
So how do you find out who your LGBTQ co-worker told or not? You don’t! (See a pattern here?) It’s non-essential information to your normal working relationships. In the same way that you’d never casually mention to your colleague that another co-worker is pregnant, you wouldn’t slip on someone’s sexuality or gender identity.
3. We Don’t Want You to Play Matchmaker
You might think, “Hey, it’s hard dating. Let me set these two lesbians up.” However, this is like finding out a co-worker was on Tinder and you responding, “OMG, I know someone who’s on Tinder! You two would totally hit it off.” Just because two people you know have one thing in common, doesn’t mean they’d be a match.
Yes, there are fewer people we can date, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have standards in personality type, values, and everything else you care about, too. In the same way you wouldn’t introduce your friend to your co-worker, “This is John. He’s straight just like you, so you guys should talk!”—you wouldn’t set up two queer folks just because they’re queer.
Chances are your co-workers don’t want to talk about their dating lives at work if they’re not already doing it, and plus, matchmaking’s a full-time job and you have one already. (If you don’t, check out our 10,000 open jobs here .)
4. The Questions You Ask Can Be Really Hurtful
I’ll give you a couple: “What’s your type?” “So is it a he or a she?” “So who’s the guy and who’s the girl?”
What sucks most about these is that all of them are a result of simply not knowing. We live in a pretty black and white society. You’re either straight or you’re gay, you’re either a woman or a man—but the truth is there’s so much more beyond that. Some of us live in the grey and others travel through the grey.
Let me explain: Who you crushed on when you were in high school is most likely different than who you’d date today (unless you’re with your high-school crush, and if that’s the case, props for surviving the worst years together). Regardless, you evolve, learn, and adapt to what you like—and that’s just us being human.
Often times, answers to these questions don’t exist. Maybe people told us that we are supposed to be a woman, but we don’t want to be a woman, so we change, adapt, and grow. Maybe both of us have dominant personalities and we’re a powerhouse couple with no gender roles attached. We’re changing your expectations of how humans look and act based off preconceived notions about gender. We’re changing the dynamic of romantic relationships should look like because our stories haven’t been written yet.
This has to be said point blank, though: The (pretty common) question “I’m not gay, but if I was, would you want to hook up with me?” always kills me. The equivalent would be your boss saying, “Alright, you’re married, but if you weren’t would you sleep with me?” It’s totally inappropriate (HR calls it sexual harassment) and can be completely avoidable!
You might be asking, “What questions can I ask then?” I’d suggest checking out sites like TheSafeZoneProject for terminology, PFLAG a website for families and friends of LGBTQAIP people, or GLAAD , an organization devoted to shaping conversations about LGBT folks.
5. Keep it Professional
So, you just learned all this information. What should you do next? Try setting up your co-worker with your cousin who one time kissed a girl? Go above and beyond in asking if your colleague met any cute boys this weekend—after asking everyone else “How was your weekend?” No to all of the above. Treat this person as you always have—like your co-worker. (Unless, of course, you’ve just discovered you were being offensive; if that’s the case, change everything.)
Now that you’ve got a better understanding of what not to do, you might decide it’s a good idea to go back and apologize for any offensive things you might’ve said. Or, you can move forward knowing all of this and simply choose to keep your interactions professional (as they always should be).
Now, this is of course a very high-level overview of the things that you, as our straight cis-gender counterparts should avoid—but there are more things you can do to become an ally and help create safe spaces for some pretty fantastic people. And above all else, remember: This is our place of work so, please, be mindful and be respectful.