'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.

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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