In spite of the awesome progress we've made lately in regards LGBTQ rights, LGBTQ people in the United States still face a ton of obstacles in daily life. Unfortunately, employment protections are not guaranteed for the LGBTQ population, which means you can still be fired in some states simply for being LGBTQ. Furthermore, even if you're in a work environment where you're technically protected from sexual orientation or gender-identity based discrimination, it can still be difficult being "out" in the workplace. Luckily, there are plenty of little ways to make work environments more LGBTQ inclusive — and they're things both employees and employers can do with ease. Big changes are important, of course, but sometimes, the small things make just as much of a difference.
Of course, there are some people who simply like to keep their private lives private and don't have a desire to come "out" at work, period — and that's completely valid. It's also valid to want to bring your partner to the company holiday party or keep a framed wedding photo in your cubicle without being harassed or made to feel like an outsider. It's important to keep in mind that for people who risk losing their livelihoods by coming "out," the awkwardness of a holiday party is the least of their worries. Still, here are some small things to keep in mind when making your work environment more LGBTQ friendly and inclusive.
1. Have Bathroom Options Available
This is definitely a big one for the transgender or gender nonconforming people, and for good reason: Pretty much everyone needs to use the bathroom, and people should have equal access to the bathroom they feel most comfortable in using. For some people, that's a unisex bathroom; for others, it's a bathroom that aligns with their gender identity. Either way, having bathroom options available will go a long way towards making the work environment more inclusive.
2. Don't Assume You Know Someone's Sexual Orientation
If someone shares that they're dating of someone of the opposite sex, don't assume they're heterosexual. If someone shares they're dating someone of the same sex, don't assume they're gay. And if someone doesn't share the sex of the person they're dating at all, you don't need to ask. Seriously. This is a good rule for everyday life, too, but it's especially relevant in the workplace.
I know it's natural to assume someone's identity based on the person they're with, or the most recent person they've dated, but for many people, sexuality exists on a spectrum, so that assumption can feel minimizing to their actual identities. There are also people who come "out" of the closet at all stages of life, so if someone you formerly understood to be heterosexual no longer identifies that way, resist the urge to ask them personal questions unless they initiate the subject with you first.
Also, you're at work. These are your coworkers. It's good to be friendly, but it's also good to be professional, and asking about someone's relationship status or sex life is very, very far from professional.
3. If It Comes Up, Avoid Gendered Pronouns When Asking About A Partner Or Spouse
Again, this is a good rule for day-to-day life, but it's especially worth following in a work environment. No one is ever obligated to talk about their partner or spouse with their colleagues, but if they do (say, in the course of watercooler chitchat), don't put the words in their mouth if they haven't used gendered language. As an LGBTQ identified person myself, when I'm in a new environment, I'll often use gender neutral language to reference my relationship to test the waters on how queer friendly I think the space is. If people immediately insert male pronouns or words like "boyfriend" or "husband" where I didn't have them, it immediately sends a message to me that this might not be a safe place to come "out."
Now, in a work environment, this can be a recipe for disaster if people spend a lot of time chatting about their personal lives or significant others. If you've never worried about coming "out" in reference to your partner, it may seem like a small thing to pay attention to, but it's important to listen to what people use to describe themselves and their relationships and to repeat those words back to them to signal that you're listening and are accepting.
4. Host a "Safe Zone" Workshop
This tip is more so for employers than employees (though I think employees could certainly advocate for this to their employers) but I think "Safe Zone" workshops are really useful. They're popular in high schools and on college campuses, but I think they could easily transition into workplaces. If you're unfamiliar with "Safe Zone" seminars, they're similar to the sexual harassment training you usually get when you begin a new job, get a new certification, etc.
"Safe Zone" training is usually a one afternoon deal where you go over the basics of the LGBTQ community: What sexual orientation refers to, how it differs from gender identity, what is considered a slur, etc. In a workplace, this would likely be geared toward specific rights and the big no-no's of what's inappropriate to say to a coworker. This learning opportunity can be significant down the road because it offers a chance for people who may not have a background in LGBTQ rights a safe environment where they can ask questions and make sure they understand what's OK and what isn't.
All in all, there are some pretty big fish to fry when it comes to LGBTQ employment protections. The fact that, depending on where you live and work, you could get married in the morning and be fired in the evening because of your marital status or "revealed" sexual orientation is, in my opinion, a huge problem and injustice for the queer community. Overall, we're making strides with the legalization of same-sex marriage, but we still have a long way to go, and employment protections are a big obstacle. While individual employees and employers can't snap their fingers and change a law, they can actively work together to create safer spaces for LGBTQ employees to "come" out and feel comfortable in their workplace.
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