One day, I was chatting with a friend about what her company was doing to celebrate Pride month. She excitedly told me that her company had passed out Pride flags to all of the employees at her work for visible support to the LGBTQ+ community. “What a great gesture!” I thought. She then disclosed that one of her colleagues had a complaint about this, that it felt like they were forcing people to openly support a topic that they were not comfortable with, let alone openly supporting. I was quite stunned at my friends’ colleague’s reaction. Even though the company has attempted to promote its values for inclusion and diversity through visible support, she is still unconvinced that she has a role to play.
Most of the time, our personal lives don’t really creep into conversations at work until it becomes the subject of banter in coffee corners, explanations to your boss about time off, or during after-work events. If you are trying to forge relationships at work, your private life will ultimately come up at some point. It's quite easy in these relaxed settings to more naturally open-up to others.
As with a parent who cannot attend an after-work event, or a person with a disability who cannot move around so easily, these events and situations do present themselves as equally restricted at times for the LGBTQ+ community. People who have a same-sex partner at home or live as another gender outside of work may feel they cannot join in on the conversation freely out of fear of spilling a “secret” about a part of their lives that everyone else discusses with ease. Just think for a second, how exhausting it is for a person to work their way around phrases substituting her or she, for they/ their when making small talk. That's a privilege that most of us might never consider, using that energy for mental focus on the conversation at hand.
So, what can we do as individuals to be better allies, and maybe, influence those around us who are not so willing to wave a flag? One thing I have learned from many years living in a large LGBTQ+ community is that a simple tweak in your dialogue has the welcoming potential to let others know that your conversation is a safe space.
I keep the options open when asking friendly questions about the personal life or weekend plans of people I may not know that well. For instance, I won’t assume the gender when eluding to a person’s partner if I don't already know e.g.; “I am very sorry to hear your partner is sick and you have to leave early. I hope he, she, or they feel better.” You can keep it simple by just saying he/she and you can always stick with them to release any expectations about the gender at all. I like to use all of these together, it's my habit.
By including the option of he/she or them, I subtly, but clearly signal that I am comfortable with whatever response I may receive and I do not expect everyone I meet to be heterosexual. My aim is that the other person feels more comfortable sharing a pronoun without fear of judgment if they want to. In my experience, this practice is best implemented when you first work on not assuming other people's sexual orientations and release any expectations that the other person will share their partners' gender at all. Lastly, if you do apply this rule, make sure you do it with everyone you meet, not only a select few people.
I hope this small tip helps allies continue to promote safe and open everyday conversations because we risk never overcoming the oppressive stigma in the workplace without it.