LGBTQIA: Being a Workplace Ally

Written by Timothy Kane, this is the first in a series of articles explaining LGBTQIA, an acronym that includes some of the many terms that describe minority Sexual and Gender Identities.

Do you know someone at work who is lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBTQIA), but don’t quite know how to be supportive? Do you ever feel like you are “walking on eggshells” for fear of “saying the wrong thing” about LGBTQIA people? Are you looking to be a better ally and supportive colleague with your LGBT co-workers? If you answered yes to any of these questions, this short article is for you!

For non-LGBTQIA folks, homosexuality and transgender identities can be confusing and confounding. Approximately ten (10) million people (4.1%) of the population identify as LGBTQIA. Confronted by challenges in a society that doesn’t fully understand, accept, or protect them, LGBTQIA people have adopted creative ways to celebrate their unique experiences and contributions to the larger society. To be an ally with and for LGBTQIA colleagues (friends and family members), let’s review the essentials.

Awareness is our first step!

We need to be aware of our own beliefs and feelings about LGBTQIA people.

What do I really think about gay people? Do the following statements reflect my feelings?

  • People do not choose their sexuality or gender; rather, that is how they are born.
  • I feel like I have to apologize for being straight around gay people.
  • They could choose to be straight if they wanted.
  • I wonder why anyone would bring up their sexuality and gender in the workplace in the first place.
  • My friend is gay and it is fine with me, as long as they keep their behavior behind closed doors.
  • Everyone is different. And I think love is an important part of being human.

Identifying our own beliefs about LGBTQIA colleagues and exploring these types of questions help us learn new things about the experiences of our LGBTQIA colleagues—things we might not even think of because we do not share the same types of experiences. By identifying and reflecting upon our beliefs, we have a good starting point for the next step of our journey to be the best LGBTQIA ally we can be: Education.

Education is our second step! Understanding sexual orientation and gender identity.

What is Identity?

The condition of being oneself or itself, and not another; the condition or character as to who a person or what a thing is; the qualities, beliefs, etc., that distinguish or identify a person; the state or fact of being the same one as described.

There are many different sexual and gender identities, which may seem like a new and novel idea to many of us. Most people are taught that humans are male or female, men and women, and heterosexual. Today, we are learning much more about sexuality and gender. LGBTQIA people have helped heterosexual and cisgender (we will define that below!) people expand the way we look at these amazing and complex parts of the human experience.

Here are some definitions that are important to help understand human sexuality and gender. The three main categories to remember are: Biological Sex, Gender, and Sexual Orientation.

Biological Sex: The anatomy of a person’s reproductive system and secondary sex characteristics. This includes our hormones and genitals. Most often, we are born either male or female, although some people are born with a mingling of male and female characteristics (known as intersex). Our biological sex is listed on our birth certificate.

Gender identity: The sense of “being” a woman, man, genderqueer, agender person. For some people, gender identity is in accord with physical anatomy. For transgender people, gender identity may differ from physical anatomy or expected social roles. It is important to note that gender identity, biological sex, and sexual orientation are separate and that you cannot assume how someone identifies in one category based on how they identify in another category. Two terms of gender identity include transgender and cisgender.

  • Transgender: This term has many definitions. Transgender is frequently used as an umbrella term to refer to all people who do not identify with their assigned gender at birth or the binary gender system. This includes transsexuals, cross-dressers, genderqueer, drag kings, drag queens, two-spirit people, and others. Some transgender people feel they exist not within one of the two standard gender categories, but rather somewhere between, beyond, or outside of those two genders. Sometimes the abbreviation trans* is used to represent all those who identity as transgender.
  • Cisgender: A person whose gender matches the gender that they were assigned at birth based on their biological sex. The prefix cis means “on the same side of.” The majority of human beings are cisgender.

Gender expression: A term which refers to the ways in which we each manifest masculinity, femininity, androgyny, etc. Gender expression is usually an extension of our “gender identity,” our innate sense of being a man, woman, genderqueer, and other genders. Each of us expresses gender every day—by the way we style our hair, select our clothing, or even the way we stand. Our appearance, speech, behavior, movement, and other factors signal that we feel—and wish to be understood—as masculine, feminine, androgynous, etc.

Sexual Orientation: The type of sexual, romantic, and/or physical attraction someone feels toward others. Sexual orientation is often labeled based on the gender identity/expression of the person and who they find attractive. Common labels: lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, etc. Three terms of sexual orientation include homosexual, heterosexual, and asexual.

  • Homosexual: A clinical term for people who are attracted to members of the same gender/sex. Some people find this term offensive.
  • Heterosexual: A person who is attracted to people with a different gender and biological sex than their own.
  • Asexual: A person who does not feel sexual attraction or desire to any group of people. Asexuality is not the same as celibacy (abstaining from marriage and sexual relations).

New terminology is emerging as LGBTQIA people feel safer to share their experiences as people with minority identities in the workplace and in society. A few definitions follow to help understand LGBTQIA and this list is not exhaustive. It is important to note that is an overview and by no means is comprehensive. Also, some of these terms are used in a derogatory manner to isolate LGBTQIA people or groups.

Lesbian: A woman who is emotionally or sexually attracted to other women.

Gay: A sexual orientation that describes a person who is emotionally or sexually attracted to people of their own gender; commonly used to describe men.

Bisexual: A person who is emotionally or sexually attracted to more than one sex or gender.

Queer: 1) An umbrella term sometimes used by LGBTQA people to refer to the entire LGBT community. 2) An alternative that some people use to “queer” the idea of the labels and categories such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, etc. Similar to the concept of genderqueer. It is important to note that the word queer is an in-group term, and a word that can be considered offensive to some people, depending on their generation, geographic location, and relationship with the word.

Finally, the terms and definitions below can evolve and change, and often mean different things to different people.

Questioning: For some, the process of exploring and discovering one’s own sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.

Homophobia: A range of negative attitudes and feelings toward homosexuality or people who are identified or perceived as being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT). It can be expressed as antipathy, contempt, prejudice, aversion, or hatred, may be based on irrational fear, and is sometimes related to religious beliefs.

In the closet: Describes a person who keeps their sexual orientation or gender identity a secret from some or all people.

Most importantly, how to support our LGBTQIA co-workers, family members and friends:

Ally: A person who confronts heterosexism, sexism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, and heterosexual privilege in themselves and others out of concern for the well-being of LGBTQIA people. Usually a non-LGBTQIA person who supports and stands up for the rights of LGBTQIA people; though LGBTQIA people can be allies, such as a lesbian who is an ally to a transgender person.

Being an ally with and for LGBT colleagues is not mysterious or difficult … but it does take intention and there are steps to help you along the way. Ultimately, we send a message to LGBTQIA colleagues and everyone in our workplace that LGBTQIA employees deserve more than tolerance—they deserve support, admiration, appreciation, and nurturance as valuable members of our team!

Next week we will address how to develop the skills to support our LGBTQIA co-workers and colleagues.

We welcome your thoughts and comments. Each contributes to the conversation, which is the key to understanding and culture change.