LGBTQ Microaggressions in the Workplace

As many institutions are increasing their awareness about LGBTQ inclusion, they are examining the impact of LGBTQ microaggressions in the workplace. These harmful messages, ranging from subtle implications to outright derogatory language, can make LGBTQ employees, clients, & other stakeholders uncomfortable, as well as undermine our professional relationship with that person.

What is a microaggression?

Microaggressions are everyday verbal & environmental messages that communicate derogatory or hostile messages towards a group of people based on their identities. Derald Wing Sue coined the modern version of this term, which can be applied to racist, heterosexist, cissexist, classist, ableist, and many other versions of bias.

LGBTQ microaggressions are everyday slights, snubs, and assumptions that negatively impact LGBTQ people. Often, people who perpetrate these microaggressions do not intend to harm LGBTQ people, but do not know appropriate ways to express support, use correct language, or apologize for saying something offensive.

Some common microaggressions that impact LGBTQ people:

  1. Misgendering someone by using the wrong gender pronouns: When we use the wrong pronoun for someone, we can cause a range of individual & systemic consequences. We often assume someone’s pronoun based on their gender expression, and it’s easy to make the wrong assumption. Misgendering someone communicates disrespect, can out someone, compromise their safety, cause negative mental health effects, and can cause people to lose focus at work.
  2. Using outdated language: LGBTQ terminology evolves rapidly. If we are not part of the LGBTQ community or have relationships with LGBTQ people, we may not be familiar with the ways sexuality and gender identity language is changing. We may use outdated terms or phrases that communicate harmful messages to our colleagues, clients, or loved ones. For example, “homosexual” and “transsexual” are considered pathologizing terms by many in the community, although both terms have been used by queer and trans people to self-identify in the past. It is always best to ask someone, “What does that mean to you?” and “How can I best respect you?” when they share their identities with us. We also want to avoid placing an identity on someone unless they have used that word to describe themselves.
  3. Asking invasive questions: Often when people first meet a queer or trans person, they want to build rapport by asking questions. Sometimes, these questions go beyond appropriate professional and personal boundaries. Questions like “Who’s the man in the relationship?” “Have you had THE surgery?” or “How do you have sex?” invade LGBTQ people’s privacy. LGBTQ people are regularly asked to share details of their sexual behavior, relationship to their bodies, and experiences with discrimination merely to satisfy cisgender and/or straight people’s curiosity. If in doubt about whether a question is appropriate, imagine if your boss asked you the question during a work meeting. If it feels like it crosses the line, it does for your LGBTQ colleagues too.
  4. Denying someone’s reality: A microaggression that denies someone’s lived reality is called a microinvalidation. Common LGBTQ examples include questioning someone’ identity (“Are you really bisexual if you’re married to a man?”) or denying that someone used problematic language (“My friend is a transvestite and he doesn’t think that word is offensive.”) Identity is complex, and any time that we decide we are arbiters of what language is appropriate, we risk making a harmful mistake.

In my LGBTQ corporate inclusion trainings, we discuss LGBTQ microaggressions in the workplace, and how to respond to them. If you are interested in learning more about being an LGBTQ ally, click here to book a training, or contact me here.

Learn more about my background and experiences here. I look forward to supporting your community!