In the UK, increased acceptance, inclusion and celebration of LGBTQ people is rightly considered one of the greatest social achievements of the past 50 years. With many young queer people entering the workforce who have never had to “come out” to those around them, a paradigm shift has taken place in the workplace and wider society from the concept of tolerance to one of inclusion.
In the tolerance paradigm, the aim is to create an environment where people feel comfortable to “come out” without experiencing negative consequences. It is about challenging overt homophobia. In this narrative, LGBTQ people are still an “other” that the majority graciously learns to accept. We see echoes of this in the gay marriage debate which focused on the love of conventional, monogamous, cis, same-sex couples to prove we are “just like everyone else” and thus worthy of human rights.
In the inclusion paradigm, things look quite different. Modern workplaces look to create an environment where differences are celebrated, where we can “bring our whole selves to work”, and where we consciously and proactively challenge bias – in ourselves, our colleagues and our institutions. We make no assumptions as to the sexuality or gender identity of our colleagues. LGBTQ people are not an “other”, but part of a patchwork of people who happen to be different in a variety of ways.
This can leave LGBTQ people in a strange position. Theoretically, there is no need to “come out” as you are not assumed straight and/or cis until proven otherwise. Sexual identity has no direct relevance to work so there is no need to bring it up, especially if you do not have a partner to, for example, bring to the End of Year party. At the same time, social change is hard and takes time. Even in an environment where you are confident there would be no negative consequences to being “out”, generic statements about men and women, the language of ‘them’ in reference to queer people, and references to stereotypes can make you feel like you are hiding something if you do not explicitly bring up your sexuality. When you do, it can feel awkward. For example, the honest answer to “Do you have a boyfriend?” for me is “No, I don’t. I am bisexual and could also have a girlfriend but I don’t.” You can see why “no” is easier, even if it feels like a slight betrayal of identity.
So, what can we do as colleagues to make our workplaces more inclusive for LGBTQ people? I personally recommend the following:
- Challenge your assumptions – try to catch yourself when you assume someone’s sexuality. Remember that someone’s current partner may not tell you everything about that person’s sexuality. Work out why you made that assumption and explore whether it rests on a stereotype.
- Watch your language – use gender-neutral language wherever possible and avoid language which groups people together (“they experience…”). I find a good rule of thumb is “would I word it like this in front of a member of that group?” If the answer is no, you should probably find another way to say it, or not say it at all.
- Create spaces where we can talk about issues and celebrate our identities – like IMPOWER’s Diversity and Inclusion forum or Pride month blogposts
- Let us start the conversation – generally, telling us you accept us is unhelpful, as it assumes something is wrong with us that requires tolerance and puts pressure on us to be grateful. If we want to talk about it, we will let you know and set the terms of the conversation.
Culture change is hard and takes time. Inclusive cultures are built when we commit to challenging each other, listening and assuming best intent.