LGBTQ inclusion in the workplace is easier said than done.
LGBTQ inclusion is something many employers struggle with. Part of this is due to factors that make it intrinsically difficult: LGBTQ people are highly diverse as a group, and policies that exclude or marginalize LGBTQ people tend not to impact all identities uniformly. However, another major factor inhibiting progress is the persistence of a number of myths about LGBTQ inclusion that lead well-meaning leaders and managers to take counterproductive actions. Here are some of the biggest myths circulating:
Myth #1: “We are gay- and lesbian-inclusive; therefore, we are LGBTQ-inclusive.”
LGBTQ people face discrimination and marginalization on multiple levels and to varying degrees. While some of these issues are common to all members of the community, others are not. In particular, transgender and nonbinary people face a variety of hurdles that cisgender gay, lesbian, and bisexual people do not (it’s important to note that sexual orientation and gender identity are separate axes – you can be both gay and trans).
Media visibility of trans and nonbinary people and public awareness of gender identity differences remains low, and until fairly recently, the efforts of mainstream “LGBTQ” advocacy groups have tended to center gay and lesbian issues at the expense of trans ones. As a result, many legacy LGBTQ inclusion policies – even those that would have been considered progressive a decade ago – do not adequately address trans issues such as bathroom access and name and gender changes in company records.
Myth #2: “I know which of my employees/coworkers are LGBTQ, and if I don’t, that is a problem I need to address.”
Thanks to activism and increased media visibility, the general public has become familiar with the concept of “the closet.” What many fail to realize, however, is that being in or out of the closet is not a binary on/off toggle. For many LGBTQ people, that status is at least somewhat context-specific. One can be out at home, but not at work; out to friends, but not to family; out to a small set of trusted individuals and no one else; and so on. In fact, a 2018 Human Rights Campaign study found that 46% of LGBTQ workers are closeted at work.
Well-intentioned managers sometimes struggle with the notion that their team members might not feel comfortable sharing such basic information about themselves, and may feel guilty or even insulted, seeing the silence as evidence that their efforts at inclusion have failed or somehow been rejected. In this situation, there are two crucial things to remember:
- If you’re making a sincere effort, their silence probably has nothing to do with you. In any case, centering your own emotional needs will not help the situation.
- Inclusion requires respect, and that includes respect for both autonomy and privacy.
In any case, you should never require or pressure anyone to come out at work. Nonconsensual outing can have serious repercussions – social, financial, psychological, and/or physical – for those affected, and thus, one of the most important concerns in formulating an LGBTQ inclusion policy is to avoid measures that could lead to involuntary outing. This is of especially great concern for trans and nonbinary people, who may deliberately present as their birth-assigned gender in public spaces for practical reasons. (More on this later.)
Like a good ally, a good LGBTQ inclusion policy must respect the individual’s absolute right to disclose, not disclose, or selectively disclose their SOGIESC (sexual orientation, gender identity, and sexual characteristics) at work. Failure to do so not only undermines inclusion, but also potentially puts employees at risk of harm.
Myth #3: “Our office is in a liberal area or traditionally LGBTQ-friendly industry, so inclusion isn’t something we have to worry about.”
This myth applies to other marginalized groups as well, but is pervasive with regard to LGBTQ people. While the social status of LGBTQ people has improved dramatically over the last several decades, discrimination and violence remain serious problems, even in states and cities viewed as “gay-friendly”. In New York City, home to Broadway, Ball Culture, and the Stonewall Riots that gave rise to the modern LGBTQ rights movement, hate crimes against LGBTQ people increased 46% between 2020 and 2021. The overall rate was even higher in several traditionally LGBTQ-friendly neighborhoods such as Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen:
[Source: ABC News]
While most of these crimes did not occur in the workplace, the data highlights a larger truth: anti-LGBTQ discrimination exists everywhere. Thus, proactive inclusion policies are necessary everywhere too.
Myth #4: “Pronoun sharing should be mandatory so that it affects everyone equally.”
Growing public awareness of transgender and non-binary issues has led to a growing movement to proactively declare one’s personal pronouns in order to normalize the idea that pronouns and gender identity cannot necessarily be inferred solely based on one’s appearance and presentation. Encouraging employees to share their pronouns is absolutely a valid and inclusive practice, but only if participation is voluntary. Requiring employees to disclose pronouns (or creating a situation in which they feel socially pressured to do so) can be seriously counterproductive and even harmful to some LGBTQ employees.
The main reason for this is that, as previously discussed, many trans and nonbinary people are either not out at work or selectively out to a set of trusted coworkers. Pressuring an individual in this situation to share their pronouns publicly can create a dilemma: they must either share their correct pronouns publicly, thus potentially outing themself, or use the pronouns corresponding to their assigned-at-birth gender, thus misgendering themself. This is not a choice anyone should have to face.
Myth #5: “The time for LGBTQ inclusion is Pride Week.”
This is actually a specific case of a larger misconception about inclusion: the notion that making marginalized people feel included is simply a matter of celebrating special occasions associated with their identities. There’s no inherent harm in printing t-shirts or serving rainbow cupcakes during Pride Week. But without a truly inclusive culture to back them up, these are, at best, transparently empty gestures. Inclusion is not marketing.
Myth #6: “Being a good ally means always standing up for LGBTQ coworkers.”
Chivalry is not allyship. There is a very important difference between being willing to stand up for LGBTQ coworkers and actually doing so without first consulting the person or people you’re ostensibly helping. There are many possible reasons why that person might not want you to intervene, or why they might prefer you did so in a different way or setting. The cardinal rule of inclusion is “ask, don’t assume,” and that’s even more important when considering speaking up on someone’s behalf.
To be clear, management and company policy should not tolerate disrespectful, demeaning, insensitive behavior regardless of its personal impact on any individual. Outright offensive comments and the like should always be addressed according to policy, and corrective measures should be framed in terms of policy, rather than as actions taken on behalf of individual victims.