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Let’s Celebrate Our True Colors: Part One
Understanding inclusive LGBTQ+ identity in the workplace
It’s a funny thing (in a peculiar but not surprising kind of way) that when you do a quick online search for LGBTQ+ stats in North America, the definitions used aren’t nearly as inclusive as one might expect. To be fair, the language or words dealing with gender identity and sexual orientation are constantly evolving. So, to toss around a few stats seems, well, a moot point. What’s certain, though, is there’s a sizable LGBTQ+ population in our workplaces. And their voices need to be heard and factored into our organizations’ policies and practices just as loudly and clearly as people of color, people working with disabilities, people of different ethnicities or beliefs, older workers, younger workers and everyone else in between.
That’s precisely why LGBTQ+ self-identification is so fundamentally important.
Data is the first step in understanding the needs and gaps in our organizations. It’s revelatory. Maybe there’s a high turnover rate with LGBTQ+ employees, or few to none among leadership – which reflects on workplace culture, yes? As HR professionals, we need this data for the recruitment, retention, and promotion of LGBTQ+ employees and in support of our overarching diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) strategies.
But where to begin? Or return for a refresher? A good place is to understand and use inclusive language.
Sexual orientation is who you may go to bed WITH.
Gender identity is who you go to bed AS.
Some might question why an organization would want to know about their employees’ sexual orientation. Isn’t that a topic better left in the bedroom? The truth is people have been communicating their sexual orientation for a long, long time. Think of those casual conversations we all have when we discuss our family or dating, or the pictures in our office. If LGBTQ+ people have to cover up that part of themselves or are constantly faced with having to “come out” when someone makes an incorrect assumption, that can lead to feelings of inauthenticity and steamroll levels of engagement and productivity.
Queer is an overarching umbrella term, often used to challenge the idea of labelling. As is the case with many identifying labels, being queer can mean different things to different people. In an interview with Bustle.com, Satori Madrone, sexuality, gender, and relationship therapist and educator says some people experience “multiple ways of being queer, including sexual, gender, or relationship fluidity,” instead of identifying with just one dimension of the LGBTQ2+ experience. “Therefore, claiming a ‘queer’ identity allows for an unlimited, personalized and unfolding experience of being, feeling, and expressing queerness.”
Words dealing with identity hold a specific importance to those that embrace a particular label. Learning about these labels is a good place to start or refine your queer-inclusive strategies. Listening to and then going with a person’s self-understanding and getting your full organization onboard doing the same, is a close second. Here’s a quick reference of terms (by no means complete) to add to your organization’s inclusionary language.
LGBTQ+ sexual orientation identifications
Lesbian: referring to women whose enduring physical, romantic and/or emotional attraction is to other women.
Gay: referring to people whose enduring physical, romantic and/or emotional attractions are to people of the same gender.
Bisexual: referring to a person who has the capacity to form enduring physical, romantic and/or emotional attractions to those of the same gender or those of different genders.
Asexual: referring to a person who doesn’t experience sexual attraction. Asexuality can be a spectrum. Some people identify as “demisexual” meaning they only experience sexual attraction after an emotional bond is formed
Pansexual: describes a person who experiences enduring physical, romantic, and/or emotional attraction for members of all gender identities/expressions.
BI+ (bi plus): is a fluid umbrella term for people who are attracted to more than one gender (and is increasing in popularity).
LGBTQ+ gender identities/expressions
Assuming someone’s gender identification based on visual appearance alone does not set the stage for an LGBTQ+ inclusive work environment. Challenge yourself and others not to make assumptions about someone’s gender identity until they’ve clarified it themselves.
Gender identity refers to a person’s innate, deeply felt psychological identification of gender which may or may not correspond to the person’s sex assigned at birth or listed on their birth certificate. Gender expression is the external display of one’s gender through a combination of clothing, grooming, demeanor, social behavior and other factors, generally made sense of on scales of masculinity and femininity. It’s important to understand an individual’s gender identity and gender expression can be different, for instance, someone can identify as a man and express their gender more femininely.
Transgender: is an umbrella term referring to people who identify with a gender different than the one assigned to them at birth. Some people identify under the transgender umbrella and others do not.
Intersex: is an umbrella term referring to people who carry variations in their reproductive and sexual anatomy that differ from what is traditionally considered “male” or “female”. These differences can be relating to external genitalia, internal reproductive organs, chromosomes, hormones, and other secondary sex characteristics that develop later on in life.
Two-Spirit: is an umbrella term that refers to another gender role believed to be common among North American Indigenous nations.
Non-binary: refers to people who experience their gender identity and/or gender expression as falling outside the categories of “man” and “woman”.
Related to gender identity are gender-neutral pronouns that don’t associate a gender with an individual (such as they, them and theirs). In tandem with these gender-inclusive ways of referring to people, is the Honorific “Mx” (pronounced as mix or miks). Rather than using Mr. Mrs. or Ms,“Mx” is often the option of choice for folks who don’t identify within the gender binary of male or female.
Be aware there are variations and diversity across this spectrum of descriptions and any configuration is possible. These different dimensions of gender and sexuality form a complete picture. It’s easy to get confused. But what’s important to remember, is to keep gender identity and sexual orientation questions and information distinct from one another in any LGBTQ+ inclusion strategies
How to implement or refine LGBTQ+ self-identification initiatives
There’s no debating the fact that gender self-identity covers a breadth of variations. But there’s a simple, well-phrased question that gets to the crux of what you’re looking to learn:
How would you describe your gender identity? Select all that apply…
Allow for a selection of multiple gender identities (like intersex, man, non-binary, woman and so on) as well as an option to self-report a gender identity not listed. Keep gender fluidity in mind – rather than include categories like “trans man” or “trans woman” – simply use the term “transgender.”
Similarly, sexual orientation self-identification includes a range of sexual identities beyond heterosexual or gay or lesbian (such as bisexual, asexual, pansexual and so on). Once again, allow for the selection of multiple sexual identities and an option to self-report a sexual identity not listed.
Once you’ve identified the diverse makeup of your employees across these different demographics, dig deeper. Overlay findings with workplace experience scores to better understand inclusion and whether people who identify as LGBTQ+ feel they “belong” the same way as their colleagues.
Collecting and analyzing this information leads to a deeper understanding of the depth and breadth and complexity of people and how you can better support them. And that’s where the real power lies.
To be sure, a self-ID program is a complicated process fraught with lots of legal components. A third-party can help you get it right when you’re launching into it or catching up and making modifications. Whatever the stage of your organization’s LGBTQ+ DE&I efforts, there are two fundamental elements that must remain front and center of any sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) initiative:
- It must be voluntary and confidential. Be sure to include a consent form explaining how SOGI data is handled, used, and updated. Emphasize that NO employees, team members, peers, and managers or executives will see this information. Ever. You can add a note that this data may be shared in an aggregated form with others; communicating collective numbers prevents the identification of individuals yet allows for advocacy to leadership around how LGBTQ+ people are faring at different levels across the organization. Only a very select few HR leaders who have signed a non-disclosure agreement should have access to this data.
- Data privacy regulations vary in different countries. Before piloting or updating a self-ID program, do an audit of compliance and data privacy regulations for each country where your business operates.
Expect significant underreporting in the initial years of self-identification. It takes time for employees to trust the process and stated goals. Also, keep in mind older generations (people perhaps accustomed to covering their identity) might be more reluctant to share information than younger generations where it’s more accepted – so there may be age discrepancies in data.
Nonetheless, you’ll have data in hand. A baseline in place. Solid strategies driving your organization’s DE&I initiatives. And the empowered queer voice rising in chorus. Turn up the volume and start celebrating your organization’s true colors.
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