Out and Proud: How to Approach LGBT Issues in the Workplace
June 22, 2020
According to the Human Rights Campaign, despite being out at University, 62% of graduates go back into the closet when they land their first role and join their first organization.
This stat is terrifying and unacceptable. And it’s what prompted me to become more visible and outspoken about LGBT rights and issues. Being vocal about my sexuality is very important to me, not just for my own wellbeing and positive mental health but also professionally.
When I started my career, I was very much closeted. I took a long time to come out, which took a heavy toll on me and my career. It was emotionally draining and limited my professional relationships; I couldn’t be my true self around my colleagues and was always second-guessing what they were thinking.
So why come out? What's the big deal? Do I really need to?
I say yes. You can achieve extraordinary things when you get comfortable and truly feel that you can bring your whole self to work.
If you’re a professional who identifies as LGBT, I’ve compiled three suggestions from my course Out and Proud: Approaching LGBT Issues in the Workplace to help you overcome challenging situations at work. And, regardless of your sexual orientation, I’ve also included tips to help you be an ally in supporting LGBT people.
Please note: People and organizations use several acronyms to encompass a range of sexualities and gender identities. I particularly like LGBT-plus, because I feel this is inclusive of all. For purposes of the course and this blog post, I stuck with “LGBT” for simplicity. This is not intended in any way to be exclusive.
#1 Assume good intent
What do you do when people make clumsy or awkward comments that make you feel uncomfortable or even discriminated against?
For me, it helps to assume good intent because often, people don’t intend to cause harm.
Every time someone points to my wedding ring, for instance, and asks what my husband does, I don’t believe they mean to offend or embarrass me. I correct them and share that I’m married to a woman.
It's an easy mistake to make—we've all been affected to a lesser or greater extent by the heteronormative world in which we've grown up.
#2 Reclaim the conversation as your own
On the flip side, if someone says something to get a reaction or upset you, turn the question or comment back on them. While it’s tempting to replay the negative comment back to them, try to switch out the negative language with something more positive.
For example, your boss may say something like: “Why is your sexuality even relevant? I don’t see what that’s got to do with your job.” To this you can respond: “So you mean why is it important for me to be able to talk about my partner, and the things I've done on the weekend, much like you do?”
By putting a positive spin on the question, you can reclaim the conversation and topic as your own.
#3 Be open and honest
People are very astute and they can sense authenticity really quickly and easily. When I was closeted, my efforts to hide my true self prevented me from forming close and meaningful relationships. Now I consciously do everything in my power to be open, honest, and authentic, which breaks down barriers of connecting with people and creates trust.
Along with helping me become more skilled at building relationships, being open and honest has helped me take advantage of opportunities to develop new skills, learn new things, and broaden my professional network.
In a single month, I attended an event that brought together senior LGBT leaders from a variety of companies to discuss the importance of being out in the workplace. I also attended an outstanding gala dinner with my LGBT colleagues and allies, hosted an insight event for LGBT graduates, and ran a trans-awareness event in our offices.
How to be an ally
No matter your gender or sexual identity, everyone has a part to play to continue pushing for progress. One important role is to be an ally.
An ally is someone who openly commits and takes action to support people who feel marginalized, underrepresented, or oppressed, and works to create a more inclusive environment for all. An LGBT ally says "I believe in equality" and “I want my LGBT colleagues to be able to be out and feel comfortable at work"—and they take action on it.
You don't have to be straight to be an ally. I'm not transgender or bisexual, but I can still actively support my bisexual and transgender colleagues within the broader LGBT community.
Here are a few ideas on how you can be an ally:
Get to know and understand the issues. Speak to LGBT colleagues about their experiences and try to understand some of the challenges they face.
Don’t worry about saying the wrong thing—ask. People's fear of offending or saying the wrong thing can sometimes prevent them from engaging at all. I think I have a responsibility to create safe spaces for conversations so people feel comfortable asking questions.
At the same time, don’t make assumptions. Be aware of the language you use. When asking people about their personal life, instead of saying girlfriend, boyfriend, husband, or wife, why not simply say partner? This sends a clear message that you haven't made an assumption and it creates the opportunity for someone to open up if they wish to.
Listen for cues. There may be a time when someone is considering coming out and is trying to open up to you—in which case, if you're tuned in to what other people are saying, you might well be able to make the process easier for them.
Make your commitment visible to others. Don’t just talk the talk. Actively support your LGBT colleagues and friends by attending events focused on issues of importance to the LGBT community.
If you’re interested in exploring this more, please check out my latest course Out and Proud: Approaching LGBT Issues in the Workplace, which I created to help people build the confidence they need to open up and possibly come out.