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

Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender: What Not to SayThe 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 an 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.”

Things NOT to Say to LGBT Employees

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.

More Things Not to Say

  • 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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6 Comments

  • 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.

  • 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.
    Versus
    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.
    Versus
    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 or Hobby Lobby. Or Marcus Bachmann. Or stay home. 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.

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