‘Are You the Husband or the Wife?’ 6 Things NOT to Say to LGBT People

Despite growing acceptance of LGBT employees, offensive comments and stereotypes still persist in the workplace. Our experts reveal the phrases you should avoid.


Left: Jean-Marie Navetta; Right: Doug Case

The growing acceptance of same-gender marriage and diversity in sexual orientation in recent years has shifted mindsets and removed a lot of blatant discrimination toward LGBTs from workplaces, says Jean-Marie Navetta, director of equality & diversity partnerships at PFLAG National, a nonprofit grassroots organization that promotes the health and well-being of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons and offers support for parents, families, friends and allies. But Navetta notes that LGBT employees still face comments and questions that subtly allow stereotypes to persist.

“These can be both more common and more hurtful. For example, it’s easy to label someone as horrible (and unprofessional) for asking about your sex life, but the line is blurrier when the question isn’t overt,” says Navetta.

When faced with an off-color comment or inappropriate question, it’s important to remember that people do not necessarily mean to offend. Doug Case, business/marketing segment manager for Wells Fargo’s Community Bank in San Francisco, suggests it’s best to address the lack of cultural competence. “We expect colleagues to have inclusive language, but we need to hold ourselves accountable to inviting that dialogue,” says Case, who serves as an executive sponsor for Wells Fargo’s PRIDE Team Member Network.

Remember — everyone has their own biases and internal barriers they need to work through.

“Don’t write people off,” advises Navetta. “Becoming inclusive — especially about something that is new to someone — isn’t an overnight transformation. It is a journey, and we need to be the ones who show them how.”

1. “Wow. I never would have guessed that you’re [gay, lesbian, bi, or transgender]!”

While this comment might be meant as a compliment — acknowledging that a person does not fall into the traditional, sometimes negative, stereotype — it can still cause offense. Don’t believe the sitcoms: Not all gay guys love Madonna, and not all lesbians watch sports. Addressing commonplace assumptions like these is a good first step in creating inclusion.

2. “Is one of you the husband and one the wife? I don’t get it.”

Why do relationships have to be about traditional roles? In any marriage or relationship, it’s about partnership and sharing responsibilities. Reframing the conversation this way can help open mindsets about same-gender partnerships and marriage.

3. To a transgender person: “What’s your real name? What did you used to look like?”

Transgender issues are still a very new topic to many people, says Navetta, which creates an organic curiosity among people. But asking about someone’s ‘past’ life is an absolute no no. “People should be seen as who they are today, in the affirmed gender in which they live,” she says.

4. “Your lifestyle is your business. We don’t need to talk about it here.”

Referring to sexual orientation and gender identity as a “lifestyle” or “sexual preference” suggests that being LGBT, and ultimately identifying as such, is a choice. Being able to talk about your partner at work, putting family photos in your cubicle, bringing your partner to the office holiday party — these are simple things that allow ALL employees to bring their whole selves to work and fully engage.

5. “It’s too bad you’re gay.”

While it’s meant as a harmless flirtation or joke, this can imply that there is something wrong with being gay. Why else would you call it “bad?”

6. “I have a friend who’s [gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender] that you should meet.”

Just because two people share or have similar sexual orientations does not mean they automatically will be able to blossom a friendship or other relationship. Every person has their own personality, interests and hobbies, but being gay isn’t one of them.


• “You’re gay? That’s great. I love gay people.”

• “Do you watch Glee?”

• “What should I [wear, do with my hair]?”

• “Do you know if [insert name] is gay too?”

• “Does that mean you don’t want kids?”

• “Wait, you’re not attracted to me … right?”

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  • Any relationship i ever had began with questions. I based my decision to persue that persons friendship on the answers given. The questions they asked me also determined my desire to continue seeking a relationship with them. If the questions i was asked of me i found offensive i put distance between me and them. Its called boundaries. I understand offenses but we cant police everything. I think homosexuality is wrong and i do have questions. If one finds my questions offensive they can tell me. If you dont wont to be set-up with joblow down the hall just say so. I maybe offered the same favor for a guy down the hall. I really dont care for a lesson in how to treat someone based on their ssexuality. Manners should be taught at home and they are cross the board for everyone.

    • This article seems to written for those who don’t want to be offensive towards the gay community, even by accident. If you don’t mind being offensive towards people because of their sexuality then this article is probably not for you

  • I myself am guilty of using the terms “sexual preference” and “lifestyle,” not realizing that’s hurtful and non-inclusive language. Thank you for pointing that out!

    Is there a list of what should be said instead? What would inclusive language sound like?

    • Luke Visconti

      Orientation is the correct way to describe it for heterosexuals or homosexuals. I’ll give you an example: I have a strong sexual attraction to my wife. I cannot prefer to be sexually attracted to a man for any reason; it’s just not who I am. I heard Larry King (of all people) put this very well. He was having dinner with a gay friend and asked him to define orientation. A cocktail waitress in a very short skirt happened to be walking by. His friend said, “Does looking at her give you a thrill?” Larry said yes; his friend said, “Doesn’t do a thing for me. Why?”

      Who knows the answer to the question, except we all know what we desire and what we don’t.

      As far as lifestyle, I can’t imagine in polite conversation why that would ever come up as it pertains to orientation. I suppose serial philandering is a lifestyle, or being in a motorcycle gang, or perhaps being a marathon runner, but your love life is not a lifestyle. The salacious insinuation is that gay people do certain things as a group. Anyone who is living with their eyes open can clearly see the difference between a sedate, middle-aged couple living in the suburbs and a young person living the high life in college. That works the same for both heterosexual and homosexual people. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • I find that I am put in a situation in a provocative way where I feel forced to be the “new” liberal.

    I’m told too much about a couple’s lifestyle with “pauses” so that I feel forced to respond. Um nod my head and smile? Would that work?

    I remember working temporary in a law office in LA, where a person in the coffee room just happened to mention that he just got back from having an AIDS test done. This was during the period where there wasn’t a cure. I did the nod and stayed as long as it was appropriate in the coffee room.

    I just got married and me and my partner went to Hawaii.
    We were finally able to have same-self marriage legalized in our State and got married and me and my partner went to Hawaii.

    I date white men.
    My boyfriend and I and went to his country home to meet his parents.
    My boyfriend who is “French” took me to his country home to meet his parents after he finally convinced his mother that I was a nice person because she has a problem with “non-French.” She’s very conservative.

    A person should not feel obligated to respond to a person’s lifestyle.

    • Luke Visconti

      But since you bring it up, I’ll tell you that I’ve been married for 26 years and have a deep sexual attraction to my wife. Is THAT a “lifestyle”? I’d laugh at you for describing it that way. Perhaps owning a Harley and belonging to the Banditos is a lifestyle, but who I love sure isn’t.

      Your being uncomfortable with and judgmental about things that people usually talk about in a normal workplace—only when it involves gay people—tells me that you may not be working for the right firm. I suggest Chick-fil-A, Hobby Lobby, or Marcus Bachmann. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • I’ll correct myself. There still isn’t a cure, but as Magic Johnson has proven; one can live a long, long productive life.

  • I guess that means I shouldn’t have asked “How do you manage to fit a fist into your rectum? Is that why you guys sniff Amayl Nitrate all the time?”

    • Luke Visconti

      How are you an expert on this, Frank? Just so everyone knows, your IP address is Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • Thank you for posting this. It’s a good idea to educate non-LGBT people like me who don’t want to seem total lame-brains. These things never seemed offensive to me before, but now I can see why they would make people uncomfortable. Now I’m much less likely to make a complete fool of myself in the presence of LGBTs and hopefully, others will be too.

  • Interesting there are so many rules. The rules are articulated as if they have a real moral foundation. Whose morality are we submitting to and what is the foundation of these rules?

    Do we feel more comfortable if someone else is telling us what to do? What if they are totally wrong and leading us down a dark path?

  • I have not been guilty of most of the offensive statements to LGBT individuals, but I have said that I love gay people, which I realize now is just as much of an over-generalization and almost as offensive as saying I hate gay people. Live and learn!

  • another thing no to say is:

    Have you always been [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender]?

  • What the hell is happening here? World has so many problems, war, poverty, global warming and all I see posts about, is f.. gays and lesbians. Way too much attention, nobody is discriminating against you, so annoying!! Now they have new word, LGBT people lol. I could name them shortly fags, nasty people, children of hell!! This country goes crazy!! I hope god still loves us and will forgive this craziness!

    • Leo, there’s a lot of money to be made by being in some sort of protected class. Anything someone says to a member of such a class can be inferred as an insult or slur against the “special” person. Then the person who pretends to be insulted can hire a lawyer who will sue you for some cockamamie reason. It’s just another case of “follow the lawyers and follow the money.”

      I can easily count at least a dozen times where I could have taken insult from someone’s comment and sued, but I won’t. You see, I’m the kind of woman that the left hates – strong, independant, resourceful, and self-assured to the point of arrogance. I don’t need no stinkin’ lawyers to defend myself!

      • More trump-inspired daydreaming. There’s no white person in this country who would benefit by trading places with the average Black or Latino person. White people had segregated schools, jobs, banks, housing, voting and religion for nearly 300 years and the failures blame “Mexicans” for their problems.

        I’ll bet you can count at least a dozen times you were insulted. With the chip on your shoulder, it’s a wonder you can get out of bed.

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