It’s Pride month, so I’ll be speaking to leaders of organisations around the world about the importance of communicating with us. LGBTQ people may make up only 3.5% of the global population, but that’s 266 Million LGBTQ people on the planet. It’s a consumer market worth approximately $3.7 trillion.
What I’m especially asking leaders to consider is that people who have to cover their identities at work can spend up to 10% of their productivity doing so. For a couple of years, I was one of them.
As a young closeted news reporter in the 1980s, it felt as though way more than 10% of my energy was consumed hiding, and fearing I would be ‘outed.’ And then one day, the news editor, with the booming voice of a former radio announcer, shouted at me from the other side of the room, as I walked across the crowded newsroom: “Remy, I’m so glad you’re a homo now.”
I was speechless. In shock. It took considerable composure to continue walking over to my desk. I couldn’t believe what he’d just said. ”You’re a homo.” What an offensive word to use, even in the 1980s. But he’d said it warmly, with a smile, and most of all, I couldn’t believe that none of my colleagues hadn’t even looked up from their typewriters, let alone said anything. But, they’d certainly all heard him. I was sure of that.
It wasn’t like anything changed dramatically at work after that. I didn’t change how I dressed or how I spoke. But I certainly felt a lot more comfortable, easy and free now that everyone knew, and no one seemed to care that I was gay. I had at my disposal all the energy that had previously been consumed by my fear at how I would be treated if my sexuality were to become known -a fear intensified by the presence of three older closeted gay colleagues, who were so terrified of being outed that they pretended not to recognise me when we met by accident in gay bars.
It was a couple of months before I discovered that in fact I had never been outed at all. It was simply my misunderstanding as a English-speaker in an American newsroom. We were at an editorial meeting where our news editor was holding forth on his views about the housing market. “I want to hear from a homo now.” My ears pricked. “Not just men from the banks, but some regular homo nows.” And then the penny dropped. He was saying “home owners,” a term I’d never heard growing up in the UK where such people were referred to as householders, or landlords.
If you’ve ever found yourself in a context where your gender, ethnicity, beliefs or sexuality placed you in a minority, you may have had a glimpse of what it is like to be queer. Yet, when it comes to sexuality, expressing empathy can be hard. What many straight people believe to be an expression of empathy is nothing of the sort. By saying “I know what it feels like -I kissed a girl once and it was great,” or “Sometimes I feel my life would be much easier if I were gay” it can leave an LGBT person feeling dismissed, invalidated, ignored or alone.
The queer activist, Alexander Leon, writes, “I am more than the month that is allotted to me every year. My queerness is expansive and hard-won and uncontained. I am grateful for the show of public support my community receives at this time of year – I am proud of my queer family. But forgive me if I’m cynical – for every organisation doing LGBTQ+ inclusion right, there’s 100 that are using my community as window-dressing, putting us on like a new jacket that they slip out of as soon as it’s out of season.”
Having trained as a grief counsellor, I learned that there are certain responses which block emotions and destroy the fabric of our relationships. “I know what you’re feeling” is one the very worst things you can say to someone who is grieving. This can be extended to how we communicate with others whose sexuality is different from our own.
As much as you might try, you do not know what it feels like grow up and live in society as someone who is gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. When you profess to know how it feels, it minimises the truth of a queer person’s experience and can leave them feeling dismissed.
What NOT To Say – And Why
“You seem so straight. No one would ever know you were gay.”
This is seen as a complement by many straight people, intended to convey “You seem normal, just like me and the other people I know.”
How it’s heard by a Lesbian or Gay person is: “You think being gay is wrong, because you obviously think that seeming straight, whatever that means to you, is better. You approve of the seemingly straight version of me, but would you accept the fully self-expressed version of me?”
I hope you would not tell a light skinned African or Indian person that they could easily pass as white. Likewise, don’t ever tell a gay or lesbian person that they could pass as straight.
It’s such a waste that you’re Gay.”
This too is intended as a complement, but it never feels like one. What’s meant is often: “You’re so handsome/talented/smart, it’s sad that someone of the opposite sex (just like me or my children) should not be given the chance to reproduce with you.”
What’s heard is: “In your eyes, being gay is worse than being straight. Having a committed loving relationship and raising children with someone of the same sex is, in your eyes, inferior.””
“I know another gay, I’m going to get you two together .”
This is invariably conveyed as though the speaker were proposing to carry out a necessary and invaluable service, but it does not leave the gay or lesbian person feeling seen or accepted. What’s intended is, “It’s so amazing that I actually know two gay people, so of course you will like each other and be attracted.”
What is heard is: “You think being Gay makes me and this other person a freak and that as the only two freaks you know we will have more in common with one another than with any of your straight friends. By suggesting that the mere fact of my sexuality will bond me with someone I have never met, about whom you have told me nothing other than their sexuality, you are making it clear that you do not see or accept me.”
“Have you ever had sex with a member of the opposite sex? No? So, how do you know you’re really gay?“
Obviously, this isn’t the kind of question asked by mere acquaintances, so the asking of it, by a potential friend, feels especially gutting. What’s often intended is the kind of healthy, challenge between people of the same sexuality – “How do you know you don’t like oral sex if you’ve never tried it?”
What’s heard is: “You are denying my core being. You are speaking as though my sexual identity were a fetish I was trying out. You have no understanding of who I am.”
You wouldn’t ask a heterosexual friend how they knew they were straight if they’ve never tried gay sex – because you accept their heterosexuality as ’normal.’ So, don’t challenge a gay person’s sexual identity.
How To Be An Ally
It’s important to consider your own shortcomings, your own uncomfortable feelings, and your fear of ‘getting it wrong’ before trying to show empathy. As a starting point, allow yourself to be vulnerable, it sets the stage for the conversations you have with others.
+ Be sensitive to how people describe their own identity, gender, partners and relationships and reflect their choice of language.
+ Avoid making assumptions about a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity: use gender-neutral terms such as partners.
+ Use gender-neutral language to avoid word choices which may be interpreted as biased, discriminatory or demeaning by implying that one sex or social gender is the norm. Use firefighter, for instance, instead of fireman; Chair, instead of chairman; server instead of waiter or waitress; Police officer instead of policeman; and of course, Spouse, instead of husband or wife.
+ Acknowledge your discomfort. Notice how you feel, whether it be awkwardness, shame or any other emotion. It may feel counter-intuitive to tell a gay person that the fact of their sexuality makes you feel uncomfortable because you were raised to believe it is morally wrong, but this is way more authentic than saying “I have no problem with other people’s sexuality” when you clearly do.
+ Pause any thoughts in your mind and focus completely on hearing the other person and discovering who they are.
It may be hard to process this, but the kaleidoscope of difference between humans is as great (or small) between gay people as it is between heterosexuals. Just because someone is gay, or lesbian, does not mean they will have anything much in common with other gay or lesbian people you have known. A gay, black, christian, chelsea-football supporting dad may have much more commonality with a straight, white, christian, football-loving father, than with that “other black gay guy” he happens to remind you of.
+ Ask open questions, such as “What is your experience?” “ “How are you feeling?” “I really don’t know what this feels like, could you tell me?”
+ For the helper in you, resist the temptation to soothe or offer advice. Just listen.
Everybody deserves to be treated how you want to be treated. Be confident that if you treat someone as a human being they’ll respond to you as one.