A recent study found that 35% of LGBT staff in the UK have hidden their orientation at work for fear of discrimination*. Almost one fifth have been the target of negative comments or conduct from colleagues because they’re LGBT.
Equality laws and anti-discrimination policies alone don’t change cultures; straight allies play a crucial role in ensuring LGBTQ people experience full equality in the workplace. Chris Murray, CEO of Xoserve Ltd says: “When lesbian or gay colleagues get up and talk about LGBT issues, people hearing those issues may say ‘well you would say that, wouldn’t you – because you’re a member of the gay community.’ When straight allies say the same thing, it has a different impact.”
There are practical steps every ally can take to play a pivotal role in creating cultures of true equality and inclusivity.
1. BUILD YOUR KNOWLEDGE BASE
Did you know that Pride month is celebrated in June partly because of an incident which took place that month in 1969, when patrons of a New York gay bar fought back against a discriminatory police raid? Or that almost two in five bi people aren’t out to anyone at work about their sexual orientation? Do you know what deadnaming is? Straight allies don’t have to be experts in all matters LGBTQ, but empowering yourself with knowledge is an important step in your allyship journey. Stonewall has an online glossary of terms, and numerous other resources you can tap into.
2. KEEP YOUR EARS WIDE OPEN
“As an ally, it’s not your job to be a therapist or counselor. But it is your job to listen to the LGBT people in your life, to ask them how they’re doing, to be aware that they may have gone through (and might still be going through) some things you don’t understand, and offer support when you can,” writes LGBT program leader Carlos Maza in the Washington Post.
If you want to effect change, ask gay colleagues and friends for advice – they may have ideas about how their workplace environment can become more inclusive and what role you can play as a straight ally. Some of those conversations may be incredibly enlightening, so bring your best listening skills. After talking to a gay friend, Suli Hampson from Lloyds Banking Group, was motivated to become a straight ally. She recalls: “I had a lightbulb moment: I hadn’t fully appreciated that you don’t come out once, you come out every time you change jobs, location, groups of friends — I had not appreciated how draining that is for colleagues.”
3. FORGET ASSUMPTIONS AND PRECONCEPTIONS
Abbi Anand of Capgemini was shocked to discover that a colleague she considered a close friend was keeping her private life secret for fear of discrimination: “We worked together for almost a year before I actually found out that she was living with another woman. But it just goes to show you just don’t know what somebody’s story is. And the fact that she hid that for so long and I considered us to be really good friends. And although she confided in me, she never ever told the rest of the people at work that that was what her life was. To live a lie for those five days a week was really draining and really tough.”
Avoid making assumptions about the lives of your colleagues. Adi Barreto writes: “Maybe when you ask your gay co-worker about his weekend, he replies, ‘I surprised my husband for his birthday!’ Instead of ignoring it or feeling awkward, just say, ‘Awesome! What did you do? Was he surprised?’ The opposite reactions have happened to me a few times. My straight counterparts all look at each other when I bring up […] going on a date with a woman. There’s a weird silence when no one knows how to address what I just said. Some easy responses that would’ve felt affirming: “Did you like her? Was she nice?” It’s so simple, and yet can really make all the difference in how comfortable LGBTQ people feel in your work environment.”
4. TAKE A STAND
Using incorrect pronouns to describe transgender or non-binary people isn’t always deliberate or discriminatory, but when it happens, take the opportunity to gently correct the speaker. The more we reiterate the correct form, the more it becomes the norm. In the case of anti-LGBTQ comments or ‘banter’, challenge this assertively and in the moment. If you see someone being bullied or harassed in any way on account of their orientation, take decisive action, offering your support to the individual and speaking to your HR team about the discrimination you’ve witnessed.
5. START AN ALLY NETWORK
Many organisations have networks for its LGBTQ staff, which straight allies take part in. But ally networks are a more recent idea, run either alongside or separate to the LGBTQ network.
A Ministry of Defence employee established a team of straight allies who could act as champions for LGBTQ rights throughout the organisation: “We discussed creating a specific ally network to have visible individuals across defence championing an inclusive environment where people can feel comfortable to bring their whole self to work. We decided to hold an ally launch event during LGBT History Month, to raise awareness of the importance of allies. We didn’t expect a large turnout, so we were overwhelmed that the room was full, and people stood wanting to hear what we had to say.”
Zainab Shaikh, Training Co-ordinator at Symantec in India is a strong advocate for becoming a formal ally through official networks. “Employee Resource Groups in organizations are extremely important. You can make a difference by joining an ERG in your organization and becoming a substantial ally. Joining an ERG shows your intention and support for people who need it the most. It’s a beautiful start to make.”