From Acceptance to Ally – How to Support the LGBT+ Community
Ally is a term that gets used to describe numerous relationships. Countries are geopolitical allies. Business partners are strategic allies. Even long-standing enemies can become temporary allies in the face of a common foe. Today, ally is often used to describe someone who supports a social group they themselves are not a part of. But simply calling yourself an ally of the LGBT+ community is simply not enough. There’s real work that needs doing, and we can’t do it alone.
It’s More than a Flag
Passive acceptance of the LGBT community (e.g. saying “I don’t have a problem with gay people”) is very different than being an active ally supporting LGBT+ inclusion. Seeing the Global Ally Program flag hanging from colleagues’ desks does help make me feel safe and accepted at work. While that feeling of belonging is critical and deeply appreciated, I care more that my peers and managers understand the actual implications of being LGBT+. From policies that may affect my healthcare or my ability to adopt a child, to how my personal relationship is viewed in the workplace, or understanding how your position of privilege enables you to impact those things, being an ally extends far beyond hanging a Pride flag.
There’s a big gap between tolerance and inclusion. Members of the LGBT+ community often feel a pressure to “pass” at work (also known as covering), or blend in with the “right” clothing or hair styles. Personally, I tend to dress and act in a very feminine way because that’s my style, but as a side-effect that gives me the privilege of passing, meaning no one looks at me and has questions about my sexual orientation or gender. Often times when someone doesn’t know me well and finds out that I’m LGBT+ they say, “But you don’t look gay!” As humans, we have the instinctual need to categorize, and we all have unconscious biases. We need to consistently work together to deconstruct these biases, and preconceived notions of what LGBT+ “looks like” – sexual orientation is invisible, and doesn’t look like anything.
Many people are afraid to talk about LGBT+ issues because they don’t know what the “right” words are. So rather than make a mistake and risk being criticized for it, they avoid saying anything at all. For instance, I often say “I’m not straight” or identify as “queer” because I haven’t yet found a label that best fits. It doesn’t bother me to not have a label or specific category for myself, but it can become tiring (and sometimes uncomfortable) to constantly explain my sexual orientation to other people – especially at work. For others, the opportunity to openly label their sexual orientation or gender is a newly found freedom. This opportunity and choice is incredibly important because it allows them to put their identity into words – queer, pansexual, gender fluid, bisexual, gay – to name a few. With gender identity, there is powerful agency and liberation in determining which pronouns you use for yourself – something that is almost always chosen for us. The fact that a majority of us are cisgender, meaning your gender corresponds with your sex at birth, is a privilege. Pronouns are something that most of us never even question
Allies at work can provide a space for those of us in the LGBT+ community to be ourselves.
Much like the complexity of sexual orientation and gender identity, the words to label these identities are too. Being an ally doesn’t require you to be an expert, but it does mean you need to ask questions and educate yourself. I’m a member of the LGBT+ community, and even I am not an expert in all the potential labels. A good rule of thumb is to proceed with genuine curiosity, politeness, and sometimes humility. If you don’t know the answer, ask someone to explain it to you. If you make a mistake, simply acknowledge it and apologize. No one is perfect, but it is better (and preferred) for you to ask - assume nothing.
Knowing Your Privilege
Privilege is a tricky thing to explain, but in my opinion privileges are the unwritten benefits society gives you simply for being born as you are. For instance, being straight is still a sexual orientation; it just happens to be considered the norm in our culture. A straight man doesn’t have to correct someone for assuming their spouse is a woman. That’s a certain level of privilege – your identity is what the world is built around.
Jen Harnett-Bullen, a member of State Street’s Global Ally Program, called this her “privilege awareness” process.
“I came to realize that privilege is not something you do, it’s something you have. I have certain privileges because I am white, straight and cis-gender, just as I lack some privileges because I am a woman. I didn’t choose any of those traits; I didn’t earn any of them. I was just born into them. I am not guilty of something for having those privileges, but I need to understand how they impact me as I move through the world.”
Good allies use their privilege because they can enter spaces that those of us without that privilege are often excluded from, intentionally or unintentionally. Jen has come to understand how her daily actions, word choices and body language can make a difference, so having purpose in her actions when it comes to supporting the LGBT+ community matters.
Whether it’s a policy, a tweet or a wedding cake, non-LGBT+ people can choose to not get involved. They can choose to focus on other social and political issues, or disengage altogether. That choice is a level of privilege that I, and others in the LGBT+ community, simply don’t have.
After graduating college and preparing to start my first full-time job, I didn’t just worry about being new, getting along with my boss or doing a good job. I had to ask myself, “Am I going to be out at work?” I had to choose whether or not I was going to be honest about myself, with the risk of letting my personal relationship define my professional role. “Coming out” is not a one-time deal. LGBT+ people come out for the rest of their lives — and the workplace is no exception. Being myself shouldn’t be a revolutionary act. And yet when I do something as simple as hanging up a picture of my girlfriend at my desk, I am making a decision to out myself at work. Allies create a space where I know I can do that, and no one will treat me differently because of it.
Being an ally can be hard work. It can be emotionally and mentally tiring and even uncomfortable at times. These feelings are experienced ten-fold by the LGBT+ community, and as allies we need your help carrying that weight - we simply can’t do it ourselves. Being an ally is often associated with politics, and it can be. More than anything, being an ally is about one thing - being human.
As an LGBT+ adult in corporate America, allies don’t just make the space for me to be myself, or cheer as the Pride parade goes by. Through their advocacy and support, allies turn “them” into “us”. Allies encourage us to be ourselves, and then continue to support us through the journey.
Natalie Sancehz is a member of the Global Inclusion & Diversity Team at State Street, focusing on marketing & communications, as well as diversity conferences and events. Outside of work, she is a stationary fanatic and loves snail mail.