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Eight things you need to hear from my LGBTQ+ colleagues

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

I’m proud to work for a company where conversations between employees around diversity, equity and inclusion can happen openly, respectfully and at the initiative of anyone. Earlier this year, at Vend by Lightspeed, we decided to organise an event that would help raise awareness internally about the LGBTQ+ community. We wanted to start a conversation on important topics like allyship, the importance of representation, language etc.

We organised a 1-hour “Rainbow Panel Discussion” event for our Auckland, Melbourne, Toronto and London offices — with a panel composed of three employees from the LGBTQ+ community. It was a great success! So many people attended, and if I speak for myself, it was one of these profoundly inspirational moments when something clicks inside you, and you feel like you see the world more clearly.

Before reading the rest of this article, you must perceive how hard it was for our panellists to share these stories. They shared their truths very candidly. The room was electric and filled with emotion. It was deep. Tears were shed. This session was very special, they chose to share their experience, and we decided what would be discussed beforehand. Many of the questions we asked would NOT be appropriate to ask a random LGBTQ+ person.

With their permission, I summarised the most impactful messages that were shared, hoping that more of you would hear their voices.

People are who they say they are.

We use the rainbow symbol for a reason: the LGBTQ+ community is made of a diverse group of people, and the way they experience their journey is also very diverse. That’s why there are so many different acronyms: LGBT, LGBTQIA, LGBTQ2S+… because just like people, it’s constantly evolving. It’s ok if you don’t understand all of these acronyms and are unsure which one to use. The most important thing is to understand and acknowledge this: people have the freedom to self define.

“People are who they say they are. Imagine going up to someone who just published a doctorate paper, reading two or three sentences of the executive summary and then saying that you don’t understand or you disagree with that little tiny part you read. People learn through trial and error their entire life, they can’t just summarise everything for you and they don’t owe you explanations. A good example of misunderstanding is thinking that being non binary means “you’re both”, or “you’re in the middle”. For some people that might be fair and accurate but it’s not for everyone. You just have to accept that you may not be able to understand. People are who they say they are. They should be addressed the way they wish to be addressed. Anything beyond that is not your privilege or your right to accept.”

All LGBTQ+ journeys are different, and they’re not all sad.

Not all people who identify as gay, lesbian or trans will share the same experience. So you can not talk about them as a block of people who all go through the same journey. The story our society tells us is that LGBTQ+ people necessarily go through a lot of pain and trauma because they have to come out, and it’s an awful experience. Sadly, it’s the case for many, but it doesn’t represent the full spectrum of this community’s experience, which can also be filled with joy and happy coming out stories.

“The day after I came out to my parents, I was walking down the main street of Wellington with my brother. I was 19, he’s five years older than me, and we get on very well. I remember we were on our way to get coffee or something. He turned to me and said “I talked to mum and dad last night. So… big news!”. I said “yeah, I suppose”. He said “can I tell all my friends about my cool alternative sister now?”. I laughed and said “yes of course”, he said “awesome”, and that was it. I love my brother because he didn’t make it a big deal. He didn’t make it about him or how he felt about it.”

Representation matters.

From a young age, the world sets untold expectations for us about the “default” and how everyone has to fit in that default. And that’s one of the root causes of the problem. People should not have to out themselves. We need to deconstruct the expectation that people outside of that “default” have to go out of their way to officially mark themselves as not fitting the mould. That’s why representation matters so much.

“I went to high school and University in New Zealand, and spent most of my life in two of the major cities here, both of which are very well known for being diverse, accepting and queer friendly. But I didn’t have a lot of gay or queer, and definitely not trans role model when I was growing up. In fact, I didn’t really realise that I was gay because I didn’t have the language to describe it until I was in the last year of high school. One of my best friend came out and when talking to her about what she was going through, it made me realise “oh, that’s me too!”. Representation is so important. It really is.”

Where LGBTQ+ rights exist, they are only recent.

If you live in Canada, France, New Zealand or Australia, the right to same-sex marriage is new. Like our generation new. In Canada, the Civil Marriage Act was passed in 2005. In New Zealand and France, same-sex marriage became legal in 2013. In Australia, it only became legal in 2017. So if you live in one of these countries, realise how recent it is that gay people have been told they were having valid relationships in the eyes of the law.

“When the news broke that the marriage equality act passed, I burst into tears. I hadn’t thought I wanted to get married. It was founded in the patriarchy and I didn’t need to perpetuate that it’s the only valid type of relationship. But in that moment, I was being told that finally, in the eyes of the law and society, I wasn’t lesser anymore. I wasn’t some kind of a second class citizen anymore. That was very powerful. I hadn’t realised how much that had been internalised in me. I couldn’t do something because of who I loved, and somehow it meant that I was lesser. Now I could chose to marry or not. Just like anybody else.”

Photo by Wallace Araujo from Pexels

The importance of awareness.

The LGBTQ+ community is faced with challenges like stigma, harassment and discrimination, which often leads to isolation. Many trans people don’t have access to the right level of resources, information, support or care, and in this situation, what they need goes beyond representation. Imagine how someone must feel if they think it’s just not possible to be who they want to be. Widespread awareness and education about LGBTQ+ issues are essential.

“Trying to be something that you’re not, without having any understanding that there’s a way to resolve that… leads to things like nihilism. It leads to deep dark places. I had to figure things out on my own, the only image of trans people I had until like a couple of years ago, was really bad. Quite understandably, as a young person, I went “That’s not me!”. You have to figure out by trial and error and especially without any role model or people’s experiences to draw from. If I had known some of the people that I know now, and had a context for how to interpret some of those things, I probably would have medically transitioned at like 16 — which is more than half of my life ago.”

The power of true allyship.

They need more allies in their personal and work lives. So how can we help? It starts by getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, and it goes beyond treating LGBTQ+ folks as equals. Allyship is about listening, creating space and speaking up for them. We can empathise and be present, but we have not necessarily walked in their shoes. That’s why the education piece is critical.

“Good allyship is “Hey, can I confirm your pronouns?”, and then “great, thanks” and the discussion is over. Making the person feel like it’s a big deal, even if it’s a positive big deal is always a bad thing. Allyship means proactively creating space and speaking up for people, not just accepting that we exist. I would compare it to trying not to be racist and actively engaging in anti-racism, they are very different things.”

Be mindful of your language.

We can instantly create a more inclusive space for our LGBTQ+ friends by simply changing the words we use. For example, gendered language like “ladies and gentlemen” or “guys” are not inclusive. Why not say “team”, “friends”, or “folks” instead? Another thing is the pronouns you use when referring to someone. They are not a question of preference like you would prefer white chocolate over dark chocolate (some weird people do). It’s about who the person is, and they know that better than you.

There are simple things you can do, like using the pronouns you’re told to use. Sometimes it feels a bit weird. “They/them? But isn’t that a plural?” Could be, but it’s not always. Just use the pronouns, and if you mess up… we’re all humans. Apologise and move on. Don’t go on and on about how sorry you are, because it would be like saying “I need to express how uncomfortable I am about messing up at your expense”. Apologising, moving on, and not doing it again, is a more powerful thing to do than saying “I’m sorry” over and over again.”

Recognise and understand your privilege.

As cisgender heterosexual people, we have a privilege over the LGBTQ+ community because our gender and sexual identities match what society considers as the “norm”. This privilege looks like not having to fear verbal abuse or physical intimidation when using public restrooms or not having strangers assume they can ask about your genitals or sexual life—that kind of privilege.

“Being queer or trans is not a safe experience all the time. It’s horrible that it has to be true, but we’ve learnt how to know if we’re safe. We constantly come out and that’s not easy. I have to come out in interviews, just to see if it’s safe. We also pick up on the cues, we pick up on the way people react to us and we pick up on the little things that sometimes you wouldn’t necessarily think.”

Hearing from these amazing women made me realise how much I needed to learn about gender, sexuality and identity. If you’re a cisgender heterosexual person like me, I hope you’ve learned from them too.

Many other great people are going out of their way to educate the public about LGBTQ+ issues and raise awareness about diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace. You can follow Joanne Lockwood, Dee Jas or any of these 125 People on LinkedIn.

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Miléna Le Mancq

Miléna Le Mancq

French Recruiter, living in beautiful New Zealand. I write stories about recruitment and DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion).

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