Before writing this, I thought for a long time about what being an ally at work means. When broaching this subject with others, a common opinion is that politics don’t belong in the workplace. Whether I agree with that statement isn’t particularly relevant here, as when we’re talking about a person’s identity, something that isn’t and has never been a choice, we aren’t talking about politics.
LGBTQ+ acceptance is a basic human rights issue that shouldn’t be used as a weapon to argue various political leanings.
It’s 2021 and LGBTQ+ rights have come a long way, however all the rainbows in the world can’t erase the struggles LGBTQ+ people face, whether that’s accepting themselves or acceptance from others.
In a study conducted by Stonewall, they found that more than a third of LGBTQ+ staff (35% to be exact) have hidden that they are LGBTQ+ at work for fear of discrimination and 38% of bi people aren’t out to anyone at work. This is a high percentage of people who are actively hiding part of their identity in a place they spend roughly 33% of their time (I’ve helpfully not included the time we’re asleep in this very accurate statistic).
The strain on a person’s mental health when it comes to hiding for a third of your life, is something that doesn’t need a statistic to highlight. It’s important we all consider how we are making a workplace inclusive and safe, so nobody feels they are hiding through a lack of any other option.
We also have to think about intersectionality within the community. The experience of women for example, will look entirely different to that of men. Trans people also face discrimination, that cis people can’t relate to. We have to consider privilege, even within a community that already faces discrimination. In fact, within the same study, Stonewall found that one in ten black, Asian and minority ethnic LGBTQ+ employees (10%) have been physically attacked by customers or colleagues.
Whatever your beliefs, I believe that we can treat others with unconditional positive regard, we can think or feel differently without invalidating one another. What I’m getting at here, is that everyone is entitled to their views, but it doesn’t need to be expressed if that view is harmful to someone else. Something that means nothing to you, could mean everything to another.
With that in mind, I wanted to include some practical tips to ensure we are being mindful in our approach to being an ally. Generally, if we don’t experience something ourselves, we aren’t always aware that it’s an issue and there’s nothing wrong with being unknowingly ignorant.Where we all (myself included) need to improve, is when we’re willfully so.
For those of us who present how we identify, being misgendered isn’t something we have to think about. But to others it can be completely invalidating to an identity they already struggle with. The best tip here is to not assume you know someone’s pronouns based on how they present on the outside. Another is to use the term ‘partner’ when asking questions about a colleague's personal life. The best advice I can give is to assume neutrality before confirmation, maybe they aren’t out, maybe their partner is non-binary or a variety of other reasons, but changing the terms we use is a very easy win when the alternative is potentially hurting someone else.
Like with any minority group, constantly having to fight and justify your own existence is soul destroying. When harmful behaviour is then witnessed by others but nobody speaks up? It can be heartbreaking to feel as though everyone feels the same way. We can’t advocate for change, without being the change ourselves. Speaking up is hard, but the more we encourage healthy conflict within a workplace, the easier it will be to ensure we are an accepting and inclusive place of work. Being a passive ally is not being an ally, it’s being complicit with harmful behaviour.
Asking respectful questions is great and encouraged, showing the willingness to learn is always going to be a fantastic way of supporting your LGBTQ+ colleagues and helping us to feel accepted. However, do your own research too. Please don’t treat your LGBTQ+ colleagues as your personal Queer google. We can answer questions that pertain to personal experiences, we can clarify anything you’re unsure of, but I can’t tell you how touched I personally have been when someone has also done their own research. It’s also useful to clarify if someone is comfortable answering any questions at all, make that your first one and let them set the boundaries.
As people who identify as LGBTQ+, we are often forced to ‘come out’ over and over again. Whenever we change jobs, or any situation that involves new people. It may not be the first time we’ve come out, but it also could be. As an ally in the workplace, you’re so important to making that moment a safe one. Maybe you have questions and that’s okay, but save them for later. Blanket acceptance is what is needed in the first instance. By listening and accepting in that moment you are allowing someone the space to define what they want that moment to be.
I don’t speak for all LGBTQ+ individuals and privilege is so nuanced that every single person has wildly different experiences and needs. Being an ally and being confident that you’re doing the right thing is difficult, but the fact you’re reading this post is a great first step. We have a lot more work to do, particularly within the tech industry, but by working together, communicating and calling out bad behaviour when witnessed, change will come.