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How do I ensure I’m practising allyship towards the LGBTQ+ community?

updated on 13 February 2024

Dear Oracle

How can I be an authentic LGBTQ+ ally?

The Oracle replies

Reading time: seven minutes

An ‘ally’ is defined as someone who doesn’t identify as part of a marginalised group but supports, amplifies and elevates the voices of those who do. Allyship promotes greater diversity, equity and inclusion throughout a given space or workplace.

It’s important for a workplace to value allyship and show commitment to creating an inclusive culture. But how can you be an authentic ally? Harvard Business Review carried out a four-year project to find out how LGBTQ+ individuals defined allyship. They found that “being a good ally has three components”; being accepting, taking action and having humility.

Being a good ally is very important, as research by charity Stonewall and The Mental Health Foundation (MHF) shows that people identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex, queer, or questioning, better known as LGBTQ+, are at higher risk of experiencing a range of mental health problems.  

In addition, a study by the Human Rights Campaign foundation in 2018 found that:

  • 46% of LGBTQ+ workers say they’re closeted at work;
  • one-in-five LGBTQ+ workers report having been told or had coworkers imply that they should dress in a more feminine or masculine manner; and
  • 53% of LGBTQ+ workers report hearing jokes about lesbian or gay people at least once in a while. 

However, the MHF notes that “embracing being LGBTQ+ can have a positive impact on someone’s wellbeing”, so being a supportive ally is imperative.

This is by no means an exhaustive description of how to be an ally to the LGBTQ+ community; however, we hope it’s a strong starting point.

Educate yourself

Your education is your responsibility, so do your homework! For example, it can be tempting to ask a gay person, transgender person or anybody who identifies as part of the LGBTQ+ community to educate you about their experience of inequality. However, this unfairly passes the responsibility onto them to educate others. A strong ally takes the time to read, listen, watch and deepen their own understanding of these issues first.

If you want to talk to others about their personal experience, make sure you start by requesting their permission. If they’re comfortable, approach your questions with humility, sensitivity and an open mind.

For some first-hand perspective on being LGBTQ+ and proud in the legal profession with Anna Casey-Woodward and Bridget Garroodread this LCN Says.

No experience is the same

Remember to be open-minded and take the time to listen to other people’s experiences. An important part of being an ally is valuing intersectionality, which means understanding how sexuality interacts with gender, race, disability and class. So, it’s important to listen to a range of different voices as everyone has different experience. This leads us to our next point…

Be considered in your advocacy

Allyship in the workplace and beyond isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Individuals within marginalised groups will often have different views and preferences.

For instance, if a non-binary person who goes by ‘they/them’ pronouns is repeatedly correcting others who misuse their pronouns, they may find it exhausting to constantly advocate for themself. There’s no harm in asking whether that individual would appreciate your intervention. They may appreciate you using your voice to correct somebody who’s misgendered them.

However, others may prefer to deal with this themselves and find this type of intervention offensive or stressful. Another example of this can be seen in the disabled community, with some preferring person-first language (eg, children with autism) and others favouring identity-first language (eg, autistic children). People have different preferences and that’s okay – you can always ask questions.

Here are some examples of questions you could ask:

  • “I’ve noticed that you use they/them pronouns, would it be okay if I correct others who don’t seem to remember/realise this?”
  • “Do you prefer to use person-first or identity-first language when referring to your disability? I want to ensure we’re reflecting your preference.”
  • “Are there any challenges you’re experiencing that I could help with?”

See what legal professionals have to say on allyship in this Feature on how the legal profession can be a better ally and in this podcast episode.

Be active

There are simple steps you can take to show that you’re actively considering others in your day-to-day life. Harvard Business Review’s research showed that "good allies confront both interpersonal biases (eg, a coworker making an offensive comment) and systemic biases (eg, a workplace dress code that discriminates against gender-queer individuals)”.

But what are some good first steps to take? If you feel comfortable, you can make your pronouns visible. This could be next to your email signature, on your social media profiles or simply next to your name on Zoom. Although it may seem minimal, displaying your pronouns helps to prevent misgendering and shows support for the transgender and non-binary communities.

You can also join a university society or workplace LGBTQ+ network/allies’ group, sometimes called a ‘Pride network’. If these groups don’t exist, you could always set one up yourself or start discussions among friends and colleagues if you’re happy to. Remember, these forums exist as safe spaces to listen to people’s experiences, discuss issues and encourage more open conversations.

Challenge discriminatory behaviour

If you feel confident, use your education to inform others and call them out for unacceptable or discriminatory behaviour. This can be overtly obvious or done more covertly, either way discriminatory behaviour requires attention. This could be discriminating against someone because of their sexual orientation or gender identity or not considering those who identify as LGBTQ+ for the same opportunities or development as their straight, cisgender counterparts.

Prejudice comes in many different shapes and sizes. As an illustration, if you’re aware your colleague is a transgender man and you’ve noticed another person seemingly deliberately and consistently misgendering him behind his back, it’s important to respond to this behaviour. It’s important to note that people may not always realise that their behaviour is discriminatory because they lack the knowledge to recognise this or be misinformed. This shouldn’t be ignored. Identify who you should report these behaviours to in the workplace. If you’re outside of work, try to approach the situation safely and have a conversation with the person responsible, if you feel you can. The most important thing is to not ignore discriminatory behaviour, as this helps no one.

Try not to assume, ask!

Nobody’s perfect and making mistakes is normal. However, accepting and learning from these mistakes is an incredibly important skill, not just to be a good ally but to also help create a more inclusive environment for everybody.

‘Unconscious bias’, defined by Imperial College London, is the “associations we hold, outside our conscious awareness and control”. These biases are influenced by our personal experiences, as well as societal stereotypes and cultural contexts. It’s important to acknowledge any biases you might have and do the work to ask questions and educate yourself.

For example, try not to assume somebody’s sexuality or gender based on how they present physically. Looking past first experiences and checking your preconceived notions is important. Only by challenging unconscious bias, can we begin to mitigate it.

In this context, the easiest thing to do is to ask questions and take on board the response! If you’re not sure of somebody’s gender identity, use gender-neutral language and pronouns. For instance, in an email, rather than writing ‘if he/she could get back to me’, write ‘if they could get back to me soon’ – not only is this more gender-inclusive overall, but it also recognises non-binary people.

Celebrate LGBTQ+ history and events 

And no, we don’t just mean the latest series of Drag RaceLGBTQ+ History Month is in February and provides an opportunity to celebrate the community and elevate their collective voice. It’s a month-long annual celebration of lesbian, gay, bisexual trans, and non-binary history, including the history of LGBTQ+ rights and related civil rights movements. It’s celebrated in February each year to coincide with the 2003 abolition of Section 28, the historic series of laws that prohibited the so-called "promotion of homosexuality" by local authorities across Britain. Deborah Baxter recalls the repeal of Section 28 in this LCN Says, published in 2020.

In addition to this, several Pride events take place over the course of the year. As Pride is a celebration, it gives you the chance to engage with LGBTQ+ culture and celebrate it! With performances and appearances from artists and LGBTQ+ personalities, it’s not one to miss.

Follow LawCareers.Net on X, LinkedIn, and Instagram to keep up with us during LGBTQ+ History Month and beyond.

Ellie Nicholl (she/her) is a content and engagement coordinator at LawCareers.Net.