How to Get LGBTQIA Terminology and Pronouns Right, & Why it Matters
There's more to equality in the workplace than putting up rainbow flags during Pride Month: Ezra discusses the importance of encouraging and adopting the use of correct LGBTQIA+ terminology and pronouns in a professional environment, and how this builds a more inclusive environment for all employees.
Once again Pride Month is upon us, a month-long celebration of the LGBT+ community worldwide and their hard-fought struggle to find their place within modern society.
While many of us will undoubtedly be looking forward to the bright, colorful and absolutely fabulous parades and celebrations, Pride Month is also an important opportunity to learn about diversity and inclusion.
It is important for all companies to ensure that people’s identities are respected, as refusing any aspect of their sexuality or gender identity is a rejection of them as a person. This creates a hugely hostile working environment, which negatively impacts the mental health and motivation of those it affects.
By respecting and affirming the identities and personhood of your team, you can help make the workplace a more welcoming and safer environment and set out a good example of conduct for others in your society.
LGBT? LGBTQ? LGBTQIA?
You may have heard these terms before in various places and be confused as to what the difference is. You may also be concerned that one term may be more offensive than the other.
Truthfully, there is no right or wrong term to use – if you were to use any of these acronyms people will still know what you were referring to and accept it as such. However, because of the broad scope and depth of the community, people will often add letters to include other groups in the listing. Doing so is thought to be more inclusive and affirming.
At its core, LGBT means Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transexual/Transgender. People may also add on the following:
There are lots of other groups and corresponding letters that people may want to add in as well, but to prevent the acronym from becoming too unwieldy these will often be represented with the plus (+) sign.
Some people will prefer certain terms and acronyms more than others, while some would argue that people should not use acronyms at all. As we’ve said there’s not really a right or wrong approach here. It’s just a case of personal preference and approach. People will mix, match, and reinterpret as they find most comfortable.
But What Do All These Mean?
For people unused to talking about these kinds of topics, keeping on top of all the terms and labels can be overwhelming. Because gender and sexual identity is so hugely personal and varied it’s almost impossible to create an overview that can cover everyone, so we’ll handle the largest and most common terms you’re likely to encounter.
- Gender vs Sex. Gender and sex are not interchangeable – the latter is the biological characteristics of a person identified by a doctor at birth, whereas the former is the social roles, norms, expectations, and status assigned to someone’s assumed masculinity or femininity. In Western culture, someone’s gender is usually determined by their sex, but this is an imperfect system.
- Gender identity is how someone personally relates to both of these, and their gender identity will not always match up either with their sex or their assigned gender.
- Cisgender vs Transgender. A cis-gendered person, sometimes shortened to “cis”, is someone whose gender identity matches up with their assigned gender and sex at birth. A transgendered person meanwhile is someone whose gender identity is different from their assigned gender.
- Genderfluid. Gender is not always fixed either; some people’s gender identities change or vary over time. These people are called “genderfluid”.
- Queer. The term “queer” is controversial, owing to its history as a slur against the LGBT+ community. While the term has been reclaimed and is proudly used by some, others still find it offensive to use. Queer is sometimes used as a catch-all term for any member of the community, simply meaning “not straight” or “not cis”.
- Non-binary/Genderqueer. These refer to people whose gender identities are neither masculine or feminine, or they may be a bit of both. Some people will prefer one term over the other.
- Intersex. An intersex person is someone who doesn’t fit into the usual sexual binary of male or female. They have a mixture of physical characteristics, such as chromosomes, genitals, or hormones, and include a wide range of people. Some intersex people are identifiable at birth, while in others it may only become apparent during puberty.
As with anything in life, if you ever come across a term that you’re not familiar with then just ask what it means. Nothing is offensive about wanting to learn more, and no one will be offended by you making sure you understand what is being said.
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The Importance of Pronouns
One of the most immediate and important ways we can demonstrate our sexual and gender identities is through the use of pronouns.
Pronouns are words used to refer to a specific person without using their name (a proper noun), and they are usually gendered in some way. For example, in the phrase “After I met Sally, she and I went for coffee” the word she is the pronoun.
It’s important that we get these pronouns right when referring to people, as if people are given pronouns that do not fit in with their gender identity – referred to as “misgendering” – it can make them uncomfortable or stressed. This is common behavior; nobody likes being referred to by an incorrect gender.
Imagine if someone repeatedly kept referring to you by the wrong pronoun. How would you feel after a while?
In the English language there are three gendered pronouns that are in common use. These are He/Him (male), She/Her (female), and They/Them (gender-neutral). There also exist additional pronouns that people may use in place of the traditional three, such as ze/hir, ve/ver, or ey/em, which are often used to refer to nonbinary or genderfluid individuals.
Naturally, the term “it” is considered highly offensive. We’re talking about people, after all, not things.
An important rule with pronouns is not to assume. Just because someone seems feminine to you does not necessarily mean they see themselves as feminine, and making that assumption invalidates the individual’s gender identity. Always try to ask people what their pronouns are rather than assuming them on something as superficial as appearance.
If you do stumble and accidentally assume a pronoun or use an incorrect one, always remember not to worry about it too much.
People make mistakes. It’s fine. It’s human.
The best thing to do is just to acknowledge the mistake, apologize for it, correct yourself and move on. You’ll do better next time!
How to Normalise Pronoun Sensitivity at Work
A crucial way we can all work to promote awareness of pronouns and gender identity is by normalizing pronoun introductions in the workplace. In the modern company people of all kinds of gender expression can find themselves working alongside one another, so it’s important to streamline the process of pronoun familiarity early.
One simple way is simply to encourage people to list their pronouns when they introduce themselves to others, as well as to ask people for their pronouns. For example:
“Hello, my name is Ashley! My pronouns are he/him/them. What’s your name and pronouns?”
Likewise, business cards and email signatures are another great method for making people aware of your pronouns, as well as showing that you understand their importance. Try to include your pronouns in them to keep people aware.
Never underestimate the power of watching out for each other too.
If ever you hear someone misgendering a co-worker by using an incorrect pronoun, never feel shy about correcting them. As above, when you make a mistake, don’t draw too much attention to it. Just point out the mistake, let the speaker have a moment to correct themselves, then move on.
All these can play their part in promoting a work environment that’s inclusive and welcoming to all people regardless of gender expression, creating a more vibrant and dynamic team.
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