Five things you shouldn’t say to your LGBT+ peers

LGBT+ History Month has taken place in the UK every February since 2005 to coincide with the abolition of the controversial Section 28 in 2003. Although LGBT+ rights in the UK have massively improved over the years, LGBT+ people still face bullying, discrimination, harassment and violence in and out of work and at all levels of education.

For example, Stonewall’s LGBT in Britain: Work Report in 2018 revealed that 18% of LGBT+ people had been the target of negative comments or conduct from work colleagues in the previous year. And 12% of trans people have been physically attacked by customers or colleagues because of being trans.

Stonewall’s University Report conducted alongside it concluded that more than 36% of trans students and 7% of LGB students had been the target of negative comments or conduct from university staff. This rose to 60% for trans students and 22% for LGB students who had experienced the same from other students.

And LGBT+ staff at universities also face problems. A report by UCU in 2021 says 30% of LGBT+ staff have experienced homophobic language. In addition, 77% have considered leaving their job.

In this post we look into five things you shouldn’t say or do to an LGBT+ colleague or fellow student. These are beside the obvious hurling of either verbal or written homophobic, biphobic or transphobic slurs, passing offensive “casual remarks” and phrases, physical attacks or gestures, excluding LGBT+ people, and unwanted sexual advances or harassment that many are sadly subject to.

Sometimes these questions are asked, or statements are made, out of curiosity. But more often than not they have subconscious or conscious undertones that are deemed offensive and inappropriate. They must be avoided so that no blurred lines are possible and so that all LGBT+ colleagues and students feel safe and welcome.

  • “What sexuality are you?”

A government-backed survey in 2018 shows that almost 1 in 5 LGBT+ employees are not open about their sexual orientation or gender at work. Stonewall’s Work Report found this same statistic to be more than a third. Many are worried it will affect their job security, are simply not comfortable being open with some colleagues or are afraid it will lead to being bullied, harassed or discriminated against.

Meanwhile, according to a study by UCAS, 82% of LGBT+ students about to start university say they are confident about being more open about their sexual orientation or gender. Stonewall’s report shows that 13% of LGB students aren’t open with anyone at university about their sexual orientation. However, it also found that 42% of LGBT students have hidden their identity at university for fear of discrimination.

Although students are more likely to be open than people in work, many do not like being directly asked this question. Nobody should be pressured into coming out or revealing details about their private lives if they don’t want to.

This sometimes, however, can depend on certain contexts, your relationship with the person and the tone in which this is asked. For example, if you are friends with them and the topic of sexuality or their relationship with someone arises, asking for clarification if you did not already know could be deemed acceptable.

  • “Do you prefer men or women?”

Those who identify as gay or lesbian will often be asked this question if they are not out. Bisexual, pansexual and asexual people - whether they are out or not - are also asked, and many of them find it an insulting and invasive question.

Questioning the validity of a bisexual, pansexual or asexual person’s sexual orientation is not something they should be subject to. And nobody should be forced to be upfront about their sexual orientation if they don’t want to be. You can read more about understanding the importance of bi-visibility at work here.

  • “What gender are you?” Or misgendering someone.

Another absolute no-no. This is a very invasive question to some who may not identify with any specific gender or identify as trans. Furthermore, misgendering someone, especially intentionally, when you know that person’s gender identity, is extremely offensive. Research sadly shows that trans people face even more and worse discrimination in educational settings and the workplace than those who are LGB.

A more appropriate question that could be asked without prejudice and judgement is “which pronouns do you prefer?” However, this is something you can ask anyone, not just people you deem need to be asked because you are unsure. Though it must be considered that this is not always preferred by everyone either. You can start by clarifying your own preferred pronouns to create an even playing field.

One best practice that companies could encourage like we do here in Culture Shift, is to allow people the freedom to add their preferred pronouns to email signatures if they wish.

  • Outing someone.

For many LGBT+ people, coming out to anybody on their own terms is extremely important. Outing someone is something nobody should intentionally or even accidentally do to anyone. This also includes people who may seem out to some but not everyone and it should not be assumed they are. They may not be comfortable being fully out to some people, so you should not discuss details of their sexual orientation or gender identity without their knowledge or consent.

Outing someone without their permission can lead to a loss in trust, a breakdown in your relationship or friendship with them or a hit to their mental health. It can even be a potential danger to that person’s safety.

  • Asking who they like or what they think of someone.

In “lad culture”, discussing other people and their appearance is what often leads to unacceptable behaviour in the workplace and at universities. LGBT+ people who are asked these sorts of questions often feel uncomfortable discussing this. It can breed inappropriate comments about other people and LGBT+ people will often wonder why they are being asked these questions. An LGBT+ person’s preference or opinion on other people is not a novelty and should not be treated as such.

Unfortunately, the numbers of LGBT+ people who do not report incidents of unacceptable behaviour and comments or questions at work or university is worrying.

Many don’t report them because they don’t believe anything or enough will be done or they are worried about the repercussions from the perpetrators. Others may fear not being believed or being outed if they are not already. For example, a study by TUC found that 68% of LGBT+ workers had experienced sexual harassment at work but 57% of harassment victims didn’t report it.

Varying figures have shown that people are split between thinking the policies that are currently in place are enough and feeling confident enough to raise issues in their organisation. A survey conducted by CIPD shows that 60% of people asked said they agreed or strongly disagreed with the statement that they feel confident to raise issues. However this was not a survey specifically for LGBT+ workers.

A separate CIPD survey focusing on LGBT+ workers asked trans employees if their organisation has adequate anti-discrimination policies and practices covering trans employees. Only 50% said they agreed.

In line with the Equality Act 2010, companies must have policies in place that state they are committed to looking after LGBT+ employees. However, these reports’ findings and the news we hear prove more needs to be done than just having a policy if it doesn’t help those people.

Report + Support™ is a platform anyone in education or at work who is subject to bullying, discrimination or harassment of any kind can use. It allows people to report incidents anonymously if they wish and get support from our dedicated content. They can also speak to someone within their organisation to resolve the issue. You can read more here about why anonymous reporting can be invaluable for LGBT+ employees.

It is also important for companies and educational institutions to have specifically trained people to help deal with the reports and offer further support to the victims. This includes people to help train colleagues, fellow students and staff on diversity, inclusion and allyship. Culture Shift recently took part in a Stonewall-run workshop entitled “First steps to trans inclusion” which the entire team found educational, helpful and empowering.

Diversifying workforces is also imperative so the voices of LGBT+ people are heard. Although statistics for the number of out LGBT+ people in UK companies is not available, we believe Culture Shift are ahead of the curve with 1 in 5 out LGBT+ people on the team.

In addition, policies about transitioning at work can help trans employees feel included and supported. This is something Culture Shift prides itself on having.

LGBT+ History Month aims to educate people on the history of LGBT+ people and rights as well as remember those who have suffered because of and fought for them in the past. But it should also help make further history with more steps for a better and more inclusive and tolerant future. Subscribe to our newsletter below to continue receiving helpful tips and insight from our team.

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