The LGBTQ community loves and appreciates the support of our straight allies, whether you’re marching in a parade with us or voting for candidates who promise to protect marriage equality. But there’s one place where we still desperately need your help—and that’s at work.
According to a Human Rights Campaign Foundation report, 46% of LGBTQ workers say they are still closeted at work. You can’t blame them. Many fear reprisals from unsupportive managers, hear homophobic jokes, or feel isolated and excluded, among other soul-crushing issues.
If you really want to be the best ally at work, there are subtle but deeply appreciated things you can do to show your LGBTQ co-workers that they can be their full selves around you—and more importantly, that they are valued. Here are 11 things you can do tomorrow, or right now, per an informal polling of all my favorite LGBTQ friends.
1. First, Don’t Make Assumptions
Even if you think you have the best “gaydar” in the world, you can’t tell anything LGBTQ-ish simply by looking at someone.
“I’ve had to come out at every job I’ve ever had because I look so ‘straight,’” says Nikki Levy, an entertainment executive at a studio and the creator of Don’t Tell My Mother! “I am engaged. I wear a ring. When you want to know things like how we met, ask, ‘How did you meet your partner?’ as opposed to, ‘How did you meet him?’ I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been apologized to because of their assumptions about my non-existent husband.”
In general, don’t assume anything, pleads Liz Glazer, a lesbian comic. It’s a tip from The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz and it “goes for pronouns, partner status, whatever. Work environments would be friendlier, and frankly, people would be more humble and better to be around, if this was a thing people did more, or less, as the case may be,” Glazer says. As Ruiz wrote, have the courage to ask questions and communicate to avoid misunderstandings.
2. Let Me Come Out When I’m Ready
It’s still very difficult for some LGBTQ folks to come out at work, for a variety of reasons, from serious safety concerns to being peppered with annoying questions by the ill-informed.
“I told one guy at my office about my girlfriend, and he started acting weird,” says Ganee Berkman, a dental hygienist. “He asked if a guy had ever hurt me, and why a girl who looked like me would be gay. That set me back so far and made me super nervous to come out to people.”
Even if a co-worker is out to you, that doesn’t mean they are out to everyone. They may choose not to tell certain folks at work because it makes their lives easier. Once they are out to you, feel free to ask them (privately) if everyone else knows. If not, be extra aware of how you speak to and about them at work, so you don’t out them, even by accident.
3. Go Ahead, Ask About My Partner
Once someone is out, have the same conversations and ask the same questions you’d ask a straight or cisgender person about their personal life. The worst thing you can do is ignore it, like it’s the giant elephant in the room. “I’ve encountered co-workers who know I’m gay, but never ever bring up my personal life,” Berkman says. “I don’t like that. If they’re quiet about it, it makes me feel like I need to hide it.”
Another thing she’s encountered is people lowering their voices when talking to her about gay stuff, as if it’s taboo. “Don’t whisper,” she laughs. “It makes it seem like even talking about gay stuff is bad. Use normal volume.”
4. But Don’t Be Too Nosy
It’s great to have conversations with your fellow LGBTQ co-workers about their lives outside of the office, as long as it’s appropriate for the workplace. “Don’t ask how I [knew] I was gay,” says Chloe Curran, a writer. “It’s weird.”
LGBTQ folks often get bombarded with questions that are overly personal or intimate, like when did we tell our parents, how do we have sex, or which body parts do we still have or not have. Levy, who is getting married in August, has been asked too many times if she and her future wife “are both wearing dresses” to their wedding.
The worst is when co-workers try to play matchmaker. We know you’re excited you know at least two gay people, but that doesn’t mean we will be even slightly attracted or have anything in common. “Oh, hey are you single? What’s your type? I know someone…” Ever Mainard, an actor/comic who has also worked as a production assistant, hears it all the time. “I know it’s well-meaning, but it’s mostly off-putting and insulting.”
5. Sure, Tell Me About Your Other Gay Friends
We might not want to be set up, but we don’t mind knowing you have other gay friends or family members. If you come out as an ally, as soon as humanly possible, we love that. We feel understood, safe, seen. A for effort!
Berkman, for example, didn’t know her favorite office manager had a gay daughter for a year and a half. “She always showed me so much love and understanding, and I finally found out why. I would’ve loved for her to tell me way sooner,” she says.
“I actually think it’s adorable when people find out that I’m gay, then start telling me about their one gay friend or their one encounter with anything gay,” Berkman adds. “It seems cheesy, but I actually appreciate that they’re trying to show support even though they might not have a lot of experience with gay people. Things like that make me feel 10,000 times more comfortable than people who stop talking to me after I come out to them. The ones who get awkwardly super excited and enthusiastic after finding out are the ones who make me the happiest.”
6. Don’t Only Talk About My Sexuality or Gender
Of course, there’s a limit to how much we want to talk about all of this. Being LGBTQ is obviously a huge part of our lives, but it’s not the only thing.
“I have had the privilege of working in a few settings where my sexual orientation felt about as relevant as my hair color—that is, irrelevant,” says Aaron Chapman, a medical director in Alameda County in northern California. “Being gay neither moved me ahead nor held me back. I was neither a victim of discrimination nor a token of progressivism. That was a privilege.”
What we as a community have been fighting so hard for is to have the same rights and be treated as anyone else, adds Eugene Huffman, an artist and paralegal. “Treat them as you would any other person—that they are a person, and LGBTQ is just one facet of who they are, not the entire picture,” Huffman says. “We have enough things that already make us feel different, we don't need to add to it.”
7. Educate Yourself
“Don’t ask me to be your educator,” says Tre Temperilli, who works on Democratic political campaigns and identifies as gender ambivalent. “We all have to lift. So roll up your sleeves and Google some things. Participate in your own evolution.”
Stay on top of what is going on with the LGBTQ community in the news. Can we be fired for being gay? Can homophobes still refuse to make wedding cakes for us? Which bathrooms are we allowed to go in? Can we serve in the military or not? It’s exhausting being the teacher/expert on all things gay. If you want to be an ally, do a little homework on your own.
Also, “don’t assume that just because someone is gay that they know everything about the LGBTQ community,” adds Aaron Rasmussen, a writer. “It’s large [and] diverse and everyone has their own individual experience and story to tell.”
8. Make an Effort With My Pronouns
Those of us in the LGBTQ community who are transgender and gender fluid deal with a lot of confusion, bias, and misunderstanding on a daily basis. At work, it can be especially stressful. “Being nonbinary is slightly more difficult for people to wrap their heads around because they go, ‘Wait, you’re not a man or a woman?’” explains Samee Junio, who identifies as nonbinary. It’s much less “accepted” than being just “gay” or “lesbian.”
If you find it hard to adjust to a person’s pronouns, the best thing to do is to keep trying. “The excuse I hear most frequently from some is, ‘I’m old, this is all new to me,’” says Temperilli, who goes by he/him and they. “That’s fine, but after the third time I’m like, DUDE!”
Don’t be scared to ask if you’re not sure what pronouns someone uses. Temperilli believes most trans folks don’t mind answering, “but for all that is holy, don’t keep misgendering someone because you find it ‘too hard.’ It can be hurtful and as we know, respect is a two-way street,” they say. “What seems hard for you is likely a trillion times harder for the person you’re not seeing when you misgender trans folks.”
You can take it one step further by helping communicate your co-worker’s pronouns to others. Junio goes by they/them and works with new people constantly on different shows as the head of the tech department at Dynasty Typewriter at the Hayworth, a performance venue in Los Angeles. It often feels like a burden having to repeatedly explain the pronoun situation—so they don’t. “My bosses know and they prep everyone before they meet me,” they say. “There should be more of that in the workplace. I’m fortunate to have an incredible employer and the other employees correct people for me, too.”
9. Stick Up for Me
“If you hear a co-worker misgender a trans person or call them the wrong name outside that person’s presence, call them out, if you know the trans person is out to them and it is safe to do so,” says Charlie Arrowood, who identifies as trans or nonbinary and is the director of Name & Gender Recognition at Transcend Legal. If you hear someone tell a homophobic joke, again, don’t let it slide. Call them out, plus report it to HR. That’s how things change.
10. Show You Care About the LGBTQ Community
There are so many small but significant ways to do this. For example, you could encourage your office to sponsor a float in your local pride parade, or if that’s already in the works, you can show up to march. “At San Francisco Pride many of the workplace marching groups are like 50% straight supporters,” Chapman says. “It is cool to see straight co-workers come out to celebrate.”
Maybe less fun but even more impactful would be to look at your employee insurance policy and, if there is an exclusion for transgender care, “use your cisgender capital and privilege to ask your employer to remove it,” Arrowood says.
11. Don’t Be Afraid to Make Mistakes
“It is critical that employees consciously cultivate an LGBTQ-inclusive workplace,” says Kelly Dermody, employment practice group chairperson at the law firm Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann & Bernstein. You might make some good faith mistakes along the way—that’s OK! “Ask, clarify, apologize, if necessary,” Dermody says, “but keep making the effort to be a place [where] LGBTQ employees and their friends, families, and allies want to work.”