Maybe it was the Marriage Equality Act of 2015.  Or Laverne Cox, the first openly transgender person in history to receive an Emmy nomination for her role on Orange is the New Black. Or the growing representation in mainstream and social media of LGBTQ characters and families. Whatever the source, the good news is a marked evolution of awareness in popular culture of LGBTQ communities. As awareness and a desire to be inclusive grow, however, so do opportunities for misunderstanding.

Stopping to ask “does the difference make a difference?” and insight into pronoun use can go a long way to help with LGBTQ inclusion and enhancing day-to-day interactions in the workplace.

Offensive? Or not?

“People who aren’t familiar with the LGBTQ community are often so afraid they will offend someone that they don’t say anything at all,” says Jeromé Holston, Executive Director of the LGBT Chamber of Commerce of Illinois, which represents 250 businesses across Illinois. That’s not good. But neither is the opposite: people feeling that they can say anything, fueled more and more these days by public and political discourse.

Most people know that sex is a taboo topic in the workplace (And if you don’t, well, you’re not supposed to talk about sex in the workplace.) Ask yourself, if you thought someone was heterosexual, would you ask them a question in a business context about what they do in the bedroom? Of course not. That basic etiquette doesn’t change based on a customer or colleague’s sexual orientation. “Does the difference make a difference?” is a good question to ask yourself to guide the conversation or interaction before you.

Wait, which pronoun do I use?

First, clarity on gender identity and sexual orientation, to understand where or when pronouns might even come up.

Sexual orientation is the enduring emotional, romantic or sexual attraction to other people (mostly the L, B and G). Gender identity relates to the “T” or Transgender part of the acronym, namely one’s innermost concept of self as male, female, a blend of both or neither. The Human Rights Campaign defines this as “how individuals perceive themselves and what they call themselves. One’s gender identity can be the same or different from their sex assigned at birth.” It’s here that the conversation around pronouns is most pronounced.

Understanding pronoun use is important because feeling uncomfortable or self-conscious about what to say is where bias, unconscious or blatant, can creep in. “There is still discrimination against this community,” says Holston, who attributes lack of familiarity with the community as one source of that, and encourages dialogue as a way to combat it.


When in doubt, ask.

He, She and They are still the primary pronouns to refer to people in the third person, with They being the default singular gender neutral pronoun. Which one should you use? First, remember if you are speaking directly to someone, you can call them by their name—you may not need a pronoun at all. Second (or really first), the pronoun to use is the one preferred by the person about whom you are referring. Third, when in doubt, ask. And if you can’t ask, use the pronoun that is consistent with the person’s appearance and gender expression, or use the gender neutral pronoun, they.

Despite some debunked claims to the contrary, the recently passed Amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Code (Bill C-16) does not criminalize wrong pronoun use, outside of some connection to deeper hate speech. Pronoun use mistakes stem mostly from not knowing. Be sure to listen to how people refer to themselves and follow their lead. And if you are corrected after making a mistake? Take the correction as a gift, rather than a reason to be defensive or to distance yourself. A simple “thank you, of course,” can be sufficient to continuing the conversation.

One note on asking, you may want to do it privately rather than in a public setting like the staff meeting—which could single someone out or put them on the spot. Have the conversation casually but discreetly. And once you know, you don’t need to make a formal announcement to the team. Simply lead by example in using the preferred pronoun.

Someone’s preferred gender pronoun is not about you. It is about them.

“Businesses can show they are welcoming and inclusive in so many ways,” says Holston, including participating in a PRIDE month event, posting a rainbow flag in your window, putting a Diversity and Inclusion statement on your website. “These are things that companies can do to engage customers that also send a positive and affirming message to employees.”

The Illinois Diversity Council is partnering with the LGBT Chamber of Commerce to present the 1st annual LGBTQIA Roundtable on June 14. The event aims to create awareness and advocacy for LGBTQIA equality in the workplace. “Our goal is to create business environments where all associates are welcomed, respected, valued, heard and supported,” says Charles Lilly, Program Manager for Talent Acquisition at Hub International and chair of this inaugural event.

Lilly says the agenda will offer help for business owners on things like the case for ROI, understanding bathroom protocols and help with understanding more about transgender issues. The target audience is corporate Human Resources or Diversity & Inclusion representatives, Employee Resource Group leaders and members, people from the LGBTQIA community and anyone who has an interest in diversity in general.  

“We are trying to take it past the simple awareness level. The goal is to offer deeper insights into the LGBTQIA community, to go beyond the barrier of perceived language protocols and on the road to deeper engagement,” says Lilly.

Learn more and register here.

Dr. Margo Jacquot, Psy.D., CSADC, BCETS, is founder and director of The Juniper Center: The Heart and Science of Meaningful Change. The Juniper Center provides counseling and therapy for Trauma Recovery; Anxiety and Depression; Addictions Treatment; LGBTQ, Sexuality and Gender; and Relationship Therapy, in five Chicagoland locations.



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