Alphabet soup: How to refer to my LGBTTQI+ colleague

The alphabet soup LGBTTQI+ of sexual orientation and gender identity only gets larger. Referring to someone who is not straight or cisgender may be a challenge to a lot of people.

If you want to know more then please contact our resident expert in Human Rights and LGBTTQI+ Rights Gustavo Bussmann.

As a matter of inclusivity, the old initials LGBT gave space to LGBTTQI+ (lesbians, gays, bi-sexuals, transexuals, transgenders, queer, intersexual people and others), but it still may not represent all of the possibilities on how people deal with their own identities and sexualities. The New York City Commission of Human Rights, for instance, released a non-exhaustive list of 31 gender identities.

If instead of the 7 letters LGBTTQI we start to think of the 31 possibilities the government of NY found existent, or the many more possibilities human nature can identify, no list of letters would be long enough to encompass the floating character of human sexuality.

What is cisgender and transgender?

Cisgender is the individual who is happy and comfortable with the gender assigned to them when they were born. The term is linked to biology.

Transgender is a person whose sense of personal identity does not correspond to their birth sex – and this has nothing to do with their sexuality.

Straight refers to heterosexuals, and gay/lesbian refers to homosexuals. But this is not all, and the whole spectrum of possibilities could not be put down in words.

Binary vs fluidity

Against the idea that only two forms of sexual orientation or two forms of gender identity were possible, being queer stands as the refusal to choose one label to define someone. But more than that, it is also a political statement that advocates to break with the binary way of thinking of only straight or gay, cis or trans. Considering that sexual orientation and gender identity is potentially fluid, being queer is a way to defend the complexity of sexual behaviours and desires. It is the idea that the world is constantly changing and we cannot stand for fixed ideas or immutable concepts.

The importance of this terminology is that for a long time it was an offensive way to refer to people. So taking pride in this umbrella that shelters all forms of sexuality reinforces that homophobia shall not be tolerated anymore – it is a loud message that things are in constant change and that plurality is the key for a better world.

Beyond labels

Beyond terminologies and labels, political statements and moral values, apart from written norms and unspoken rules, empathy and otherness should be the key to promote human rights on a daily basis and spread a message of acceptance in a work place. Otherness, I must say, is the philosophical concept of recognizing yourself in the other; to understand that regardless of all the differences you may have and all the characteristics that make both unique, humanity is shared.

A careful conversation with a colleague and the ‘try to relate’ to them can easily bring a way of understanding that creates a healthy environment and a safe place to everyone. By trying to relate I mean this concept of otherness, the ideal that diversity is a gift and that it is appreciated to share this world with people that feel and express themselves in a way different from you.

Considering all the hazards of being queer in this world, the prejudice, homophobia and repression, embracing this may be a political act, may be the message of acceptance that will start the difference needed in our society. So there are three easy and important steps that could make your colleague feel comfortable and embraced, as:

  • Being empathic and trying to see the humanity in the other human being;
  • Recognizing the beauty in the difference;
  • Reinforcing that everyone should feel confident and proud to be themselves.

Moving away from the walls of language and beyond the labels that define people in an ‘one-size fits all’ approach, dialogue and open discussions about how someone would like to be recognized are the first step towards to the promotion of a safe ambiance where people have the confidence to be themselves and to express their identities.

Being loud and clear about being an ally and standing out against any form of homophobic language and behavior are part of this important part of embracing diversity and people who are not heterosexual and cisgender. So as clumsy as the first conversation may be, being frank and well intentioned to approach someone is a great first step to break the boundaries and guarantee a relevant conversation.

“Hi, I’m Gustavo and I use the pronoun ‘he’”

Being the first to say: “Hi, I’m Gustavo and I use the pronoun ‘he’” creates a safe space where your colleague will feel confident to do the same without fear and understand that it is ok to feel masculine or feminine, or both, or neither. Aim to:

  • listen to others’ feelings and expectations;
  • don’t count on premises and assumptions about how gender and sexuality should be;
  • start a conversation with openness and genuine interest about how would your colleague would like to be referred to and what would make him/her feel comfortable in your workplace.

This can be helpful to improve productivity or to enhance business relations, but may also be a trigger to reformulations and changes in our society; may enable people to relate to the ones they encounter with confidence, pride, freedom and equality, and this is what ultimately brings one to life.

To further information, please refer to: New York City Hall, Gender Identity/Gender Expression: Legal Enforcement Guidance. Accessed 20 nov 2016.