I almost named this post “How to be a good LGBTQIA+ ally at work” but I quickly realised it should not matter if you are at work or not. Either you do your best to be inclusive, considerate, and strive for equity, or you do not. But unlike Yoda said, there is only try. Being an ally is not something you can master completely. There will be new injustices to face and each time you must choose to do the right thing.
What does it mean to be an ally?
Being an ally means that you support a marginalised group when you are not part of said group. One can be an ally for neurodiverse people, people of colour, LGBTQIA+ people, or any other group that is oppressed and does not have the same opportunities as the more privileged people. Earlier this month we had an internal info session at Solita where Dr Poornima Luthra from Copenhagen Business School had been invited to talk to us about inclusion and allyship. Her talk was both inspiring and eye-opening. I found her message of actively doing the right thing important.
In my opinion, it is important to be brave enough to try to do better. As human beings, we are bound to mess up and make mistakes. But by trying we might also succeed. I know today’s culture includes intimidating aspects and it might be scary to try new approaches when some people are destroyed online for saying something someone considers wrong. But I also believe that if we are ready to receive feedback and have an open discussion, we can all learn from different situations.
Next, I will share some tips I consider essential for allies of LGBTQIA+ people.
Tips for better allyship
1. Educate yourself
Be ready to learn new things. Be active and search for information yourself. Learn about LGBTQIA+ identities, experiences, and issues. It is also good to remember that even though the world sometimes seems small, and many trends travel the globe in a matter of days or weeks, LGBTQIA+ people have different situations, issues, and struggles in different parts of the world. When the situation is right, you can ask members of the community questions about themselves or the larger community. But be mindful of the time and place and context. And remember that people are allowed to decline to answer.
One way of opening yourself up to different kinds of experiences is to read books by and about LGBTQIA+ people or watch tv shows or movies featuring characters who are part of the community or are made by LGBTQIA+ people. Earlier this month we shared a list containing relevant books and movies. You can also actively search for different kinds of stories yourself.
Listen to what the members of the community are saying. Do your best to create a safe and non-judgmental environment. Actively listen to opinions, concerns, feelings, causes for joy, and everyday experiences. Remember, that every one of us has different experiences and theirs are just as valid as yours. Be mindful not to invalidate or dismiss experiences when they differ from yours.
Also, keep in mind that different people have different opinions. Just because someone from the LGBTQIA+ community said something, does not mean that everyone in the community agrees. People’s personal experiences may vary a lot. As said in the first tip, LGBTQIA+ is a diverse group and people have very different experiences and struggles they face.
3. Be inclusive
Often people are reminded to use inclusive language and it is important. But I also think that inclusive actions need to be taken.
Words have power and you should be aware of that. Be mindful of what kind of words you choose to use. In most situations, gender-neutral terms are the best option to use. For example, in the English language “they” can be used instead of “he/she” when speaking about people in general. If the language you are using has gendered pronouns and you are not sure which to use, ask the person which pronouns they prefer and then respect that. If you have made an assumption about someone’s gender or sexual orientation and that person corrects you, respect that and correct your words. We use Slack at Solita for daily communications and I appreciate their newish feature that one can add their pronouns to their Slack profile. I have no idea how many have done so but I believe that seeing more and more people share their pronouns will normalize the fact that not everybody’s pronouns might be what you expect them to be.
Inclusive actions mean actively considering everybody’s needs and wishes. Are gendered bathrooms really a necessity or would unisex bathrooms work as well (and probably even better)? Just because you do not know any transgender people at your work does not mean they might not be there. Having a unisex bathroom might be a huge relief for someone. Also, at least here in Finland, we often go to the sauna at company events if there is a relaxed evening program. Having men’s and women’s turn to the sauna might leave some people unable to take part. Consider how you could make sure everyone has an equal chance to participate.
4. Stand up against discrimination
Learn to recognise discriminating speech and situations. Actively challenge opinions. Speak out against homophobic, transphobic, or other kinds of prejudiced language or behaviour. It takes courage to stand up for what is right. It might be harrowing to be the first to speak up against discrimination. If you do not want to do it publicly, you could try speaking to that person in private. However, by publicly stating that this kind of behaviour is not acceptable you also make it easier for others to challenge problematic behaviour. And if you see someone stand up against discrimination, support them.
5. Advocate a safe and respectful environment
Accepting diversity is a big challenge for some people but in truth, a diverse and respectful environment is a huge asset and helps the community/company/organization to reach new levels. Having a safe and respectful environment is important to the LGBTQIA+ community in itself as not having to be afraid or worried about your identity is a basic human need. But others benefit from it as well; when people can be themselves and bring their true selves into the conversations, better solutions are found, and better decisions are made. Make sure to lead by example and ensure that your actions and words are inclusive and respectful.
Remember that when you mess up, do not make it about you. Everybody messes up occasionally. Apologise (and mean it) but then move on. You should learn from the experience and try to avoid the same mistake in the future. But do not start explaining or analysing your mistake in the situation and especially not in front of the person your mistake concerns.
For an ally, LGBTQIA+ issues might be topics to talk about or things to wonder about. But to the members of the community, it is their lives. They cannot “escape” or turn things off for a weekend. They are who they are. Respect that.
Being an ally is a process. It is never done or complete. There will be new things to learn. Stay humble and be awesome.