- LGBTQ workers face discrimination in the workplace – even from coworkers who have good intentions.
- Asking invasive questions about an LGBTQ coworker’s personal life or referring to them with the wrong pronoun can be dehumanising and make them feel uncomfortable in their work environment.
- We asked experts to name 13 common things you should never do or say to your LGBTQ coworkers.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
June is LGBTQ Pride Month, making it an especially important time for allies to educate themselves about microaggressions, or subtle, but hurtful acts or comments that show implict bias.
“Microaggressions are the everyday reminder that many people, including people we have to interact with regularly, still don’t respect LGBTQ identities,” Fran Hutchins, deputy director of Equality Federation, said.
With that in mind, here are 13 things you should never say to your LGBTQ coworkers.
Don’t try and compliment them by saying “You just don’t strike me as gay.”
Sexuality is something no one should have to convince you of. Saying that there is a specific “look” or appearance to being gay, lesbian, bisexual, and a slew of other identities can come off as insensitive and out of touch.
“How are we supposed to react to that?” David Hudson wrote on Gay Star News. “Is it being offered as a statement of surprise? Or as a clunky and misguided compliment? At the very least, it would suggest the person saying it thinks gay people look a certain way.”
In a similar vein, making statements like “You’re too pretty to be queer” or “You seem so masculine to be gay” are actually reinforcing false stereotypes about queer people.
Don’t try to relate to your LGBT coworkers by bringing up that one queer celebrity you know.
Yes, your coworker has probably heard of Ellen. No, they do not want to talk about her every time you run into each other in the restroom.
While you might be trying to relate to LGBTQ coworkers when you do this, it sends a bad message and can be read as lazy conversation-making.
Dale Melchert, staff attorney for the Transgender Law Centre, said that for employees who are transgender and gender-nonconforming, or TGNC, these kinds of comments can be an indication that a person doesn’t care about them beyond a superficial level.
“A cis person telling a trans person about the one trans person they know or one media reference about trans people they know is harmful because it is often irrelevant to the TGNC employee, and thus communicates a lack of thoughtfulness or education on TGNC issues,” Melchert said.
Generally, tokenizing celebrities of marginalised identities as an attempt to relate to coworkers isn’t a recommended way to make friends. Instead, try asking questions about a person’s interests and hobbies.
Along those lines, don’t try to relate to them by bringing up your LGBTQ relatives every time you interact with them.
Evie Smith, founder of Rebellious PR & Consulting, said that before she worked for herself at her own firm, she had quite a few experiences of tokenization as a queer person with her coworkers.
“I had one woman who worked for me give me constant updates on her queer sister-in-law – I really could have cared less and it felt like such nervous interaction on the part of that person, and over time I felt offended and bored,” Smith said.
Mentioning your one queer family member every time you see your coworker can come off as a lack of interest in getting to know them as a person beyond just knowing their sexuality or gender identity.
Never say to your bisexual coworker, “But you’re really just gay” or “You’re really just straight, right?”
This kind of statement is rooted in biphobia and queerphobia and implies that you don’t believe their sexuality exists. Experts acknowledge that sexuality is a spectrum, just like gender, and people can be attracted to people of all genders, one gender, or no gender at all.
Don’t ‘misgender’ your coworkers by referring to them with the wrong pronouns.
Misgendering refers to the use of incorrect gender pronouns to refer to someone – typically transgender and gender-nonconforming people. An example of this is referring to a transgender coworker as “he” when the person might actually use “she” or “they.”
“It can be triggering too, because TGNC people often have to work very hard to be perceived and treated as we wish. When we are misgendered, it feels like evidence that our work has not paid off,” Melchert said.
According to Branstetter, while some cisgender people may see having to use correct pronouns for their coworkers as a burden, people make these types of corrections all the time in other aspects of their lives.
“Really they make these changes for people all the time,” Branstetter said. “When they get married, for example, and change their name, or when they get divorced and change their name. These are really simple steps in respecting somebody’s autonomy over their own identity. And when you purposefully misgender somebody, you’re stripping that autonomy away from them and nudging them into the closet more and more.”
While misgendering can sometimes occur out of blatant transphobia and disrespect, Branstetter said it’s also one of the most common unintentional blunders made by cisgender people. She said the key is to quickly correct yourself in person, make a mental note for the future, and move forward, rather than displacing your guilt onto the person you just misgendered. If you don’t get a chance to apologise in person, or if you feel you’d like to apologise again, you could send your colleague an apology email recognising your mistake. In fact, experts have an exact template you can use.
“The example that I often give is somebody walking into a home of a new friend and their friend has a dog that they haven’t met yet,” Branstetter said. “They’re saying hi to the dog and petting the dog and they will say ‘Oh, what’s her name?’ and the owner of the dog might say ‘oh, well, he. His name is actually Spot.’ You then make a silent note in your mind, ‘I am wrong and I have been corrected.'”
Branstetter continued, “So I think I’m merely asking cisgender people to extend as least the same level of respect and a modicum of humanity to their transgender coworkers as they might to a dog.”
Some companies implement trans-inclusive policies that can help avoid pronoun confusion, like allowing employees to include their pronouns in their email signatures or in introductory emails for new employees. And of course, you can always just ask for a coworker’s pronouns when you’re unsure.
Never ask an invasive question like “So who’s the man in your relationship?”
This kind of question can imply that you’re asking about a coworker’s sex life, which is highly inappropriate. Along with asking “Are you a top or a bottom?” you should avoid asking invasive questions like these to your coworkers just because they’re queer.
Instead, consider if you would feel comfortable asking a straight coworker the same questions. If not, try thinking of a different topic to start a conversation.
Don’t refer to your queer coworker’s partner or spouse as their “friend.”
This can be both invalidating and offensive to LGBTQ people because it assumes heterosexuality as the standard state of being. This is can be harmful because it can alienate LGBTQ people and frame them as “other.”
Before she started her own firm, Smith said she dealt with this kind of treatment when an old employer consistently referred to her girlfriend as a “friend,” despite being corrected.
Rather than assuming your coworker and someone of the same gender they know are friends, try making it a point to ask who that person is to your coworker – and be sure to make a mental note of it.
It’s inappropriate to tell your coworker “I would have never known you were transgender.”
Though some cisgender people may assume they are giving a compliment, telling your transgender or gender-nonconforming coworker that you think they “pass” as cisgender can be incredibly harmful.
The idea of “passing” for cisgender essentially means that a trans person can enter spaces without immediately being identified as transgender or gender-nonconforming.
Melchert said that while this idea typically comes from well-intentioned cisgender people, the implication that passing is “good” can further alienate transgender and gender-nonconforming employees.
“It shifts the focus onto the trans person’s appearance rather than the information the cis person needs to respect them,” Melchert said. “‘Passing’ is a sensitive and subjective matter. Not everyone has the privilege of ‘passing’ and not everyone wants to. The only way to know someone’s gender is if they tell you.”
Framing passing as “good” insinuates that the only way for a transgender or gender nonconforming person to be deemed acceptable is by aiming to “look cisgender.”
Rather than comment on a person’s ability to pass or not, try complimenting their outfit or saying that they look nice, or simply not saying anything about their appearance at all.
Asking your coworker “Have you had the surgery yet?” or other invasive questions about their body isn’t just rude — it’s likely sexual harassment.
A common and harmful fascination cisgender people have in regards to transgender and gender-nonconforming people, according to Melchert, has to do with bodies. Oftentimes, if a coworker is transgender or gender-nonconforming, cisgender employees may take this as an invitation to ask invasive medical questions.
“It is invasive, inappropriate, and private medical information,” Melchert said. “It is also likely sexual harassment. There is a strange amount of voyeurism that cis people feel entitled to ask TGNC people that needs to stop.”
Branstetter recalled a case in which a transgender employee expressed being upset to their boss after being yelled at by a customer. Rather than consoling them, the employer wondered out loud if the reason the employee was upset was actually because of gender-affirming hormones they had been taking.
“It’s not unusual for any given person to see a transgender person as just a transgender person and to tie any reaction they’re having as a human to their medical needs as a transgender person or to their identity as a transgender person overall,” Branstetter said.
In addition to being inappropriate, this kind of question perpetuates the common misconception that all transgender and gender-nonconforming people want to undergo medical procedures to feel secure in their gender identity. This is simply not the case.
Whether it be hormone treatment, top surgery, or other medical procedures, the choice to undergo gender-affirming procedures is entirely up to the individual, and not a hard and fast rule.
Don’t force someone to use a particular bathroom based on their gender assigned at birth rather than their real gender identity.
Making a transgender or gender-nonconforming person use a bathroom or locker room corresponding to the gender they were assigned at birth, rather than what they actually are, is yet another way of invalidating your coworker’s identity, Branstetter said.
In addition to disrespecting them, Melchert said that making a transgender or gender-nonconforming employee use a facility they are not comfortable with can be dangerous – with transgender people being at a disproportionate risk for facing physical harm.
“Telling TGNC employees to use a different restroom is harmful because TGNC people face harassment and abuse in restrooms regularly,” Melchert said. “Many TGNC people are very nervous to use the restroom in public.”
Don’t use the term “homosexual.”
GLAAD, formerly the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, urges people to avoid the word “homosexual” for its homophobic connotations.
“It aggressively used by anti-gay extremists to suggest that gay people are somehow diseased or psychologically/emotionally disordered,” according to a GLAAD blog post.
Instead use “gay” or “lesbian” to describe people who are attracted to members of the same sex.
Similarly, don’t force trans and gender-nonconforming employees to wear gendered uniforms.
Another practice that invalidates the existence of your coworkers is by forcing them to wear a gendered uniform that doesn’t correspond to their actual gender or gender expression they are comfortable with.
Dresses for “women” and slacks for “men” in American diners are a common example of this kind of binary dress code. Sometimes, transgender and gender-nonconforming employees are made to wear these types of uniforms or risk facing unemployment.
“This is a really grave way of not just making a transgender person feel not just deeply unwelcome, but invisible,” Branstetter said.
But the most insidious form of workplace discrimination occurs before an employee is even hired. The reality is that many LGBTQ workers don’t even make it through the interview process.
A 2015 study from the National Centre for Transgender Equality found that transgender and gender-nonconforming people have an unemployment rate of 15% – over three times higher than that of the general US population.
Branstetter attributed this disproportionate unemployment rate to discrimination that occurs during the job application process itself.
“It’s not uncommon for trans people to apply, and then upon arriving to the interview, and either the interviewer ascertains that they’re transgender or they tell them they’re transgender – then never hearing back from that,” Branstetter said. “That results in the unemployment rate that trans people have.”
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