A friendly bilingual designer recently forwarded us a media request entitled “What can businesses do to be LGBT friendly?”. She knows the queer community is close to our hearts, so it was a thoughtful message. But to submit our response, we’d have had to pay £49. Instead, we decided to tackle the question here. So, how do you make your company LGBTQQIA+ friendly and inclusive?
But if you’re reading this, the chances are you’re already aware and open to the needs and desires of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer, Questioning, Intersex and Asexual folks and their allies (LGBTQQIA+). That’s because intersectional feminism interlinks LGBTQQIA+ issues by saying no to racism, antisemitism, bigotry and ableism. It’s this stance that ultimately unites social enterprises and purpose-driven organisations around the world, as both care deeply about real diversity and inclusion. In these kind of organisations, business models build on strategies and programmes that aim at equity rather than mere equal rights. Whether your organisation is already a vocal LGBTQQIA+ ally or you’re just getting started, here are some helpful tips from our experience writing inclusive copy for inclusive brands. We should add that linguistic and social studies in this area keep progressing, and ultimately it’s up to queer communities and individuals themselves to determine their needs and desires. So please treat the following points as a humble offering to guide your inclusion efforts.
Heiko Motschenbacher, Full Professor of English as a Second/Foreign Language at Western Norway University of Applied Sciences, Bergen, explains:
Heteronormativity is a concept that is critically discussed in Queer Theory more broadly and Queer linguistics more specifically. It refers to the discursive (and therefore partly linguistic) construction of (certain forms of) heterosexuality as natural, normal, desirable or preferable to alternative sexualities. Non-heteronormative language policies aim at countering heteronormative structures, especially gender and sexual binarisms, by offering alternative ways of expression that do not further entrench such traditional discourses.(source)
In other words, heteronormative language assumes someone’s or their family member’s/spouse’s gender identity, sexual identity, etc. It refers to heterosexual orientation as ‘the norm’ or ‘normal’. This kind of discriminatory language marginalises queer people. Much better, then, to use inclusive, gender-fair, LGBT-friendly language. Especially when asking about family and on +1 invites for events. For instance, we shouldn’t ask all female-presenting employees, students or customers about their husbands or boyfriends, and all male-presenting ones about their girlfriends or wives. In her article in Bustle, Maya M explains why:
One of the most common ways I personally encounter heteronormativity in my day-to-day life is in the form of one seemingly simple question: “Do you have a boyfriend?” This question is posed to me because I’m a woman, and the common assumption is that women in relationships have either boyfriends or husbands. This question perpetuates heteronormativity because it assumes that women always date men, when in reality women can and do date whomever they prefer to date. A man is not necessarily anywhere in the picture; indeed, people might choose not to date someone at all.
As a much subtler example, she cites the common fashion term “boyfriend jeans”:
the trend of calling loosely fitting clothing for women “boyfriend”-fit suggests two things: One, that in order for a woman to acceptably wear non-form-fitting clothing, it must be something she is borrowing from her boyfriend (which actually implies another tangentially related assumption — that her boyfriend is larger than she is); and two, that women should have boyfriends in the first place.
We can go a step further and get rid of simplistic categories that only serve to polarise. In practice, that means we avoid representing men and women as opposites (as in, ‘members of the opposite sex’). And remember that heterosexual trans and intersex people can be part of LGBTQQIA+ communities, too (source). The Victorian Public Sector (VPS) in Australia points to “words and phrases such as ‘partner’, ‘parents’, ‘relationship’, ‘in a relationship’” as examples of inclusive language. They’ve put together an extremely practical LGBTIQ+ Inclusive Language Guide for their staff, and we’d recommend all organisations train their teams using such a document. The VPS also offers a short dictionary of commonly used terms on their website, which makes an excellent starting point for (self-)education.
That’s why it doesn’t work to settle for exclusively heterosexual examples in our storytelling. Instead, we can show queer athletes, influencers and parents. This applies to imagery as well, so make sure it’s as inclusive as possible. Don’t go for the first stock photo that comes up when you search for ‘family’, for example. As the following screenshot from Unsplash shows, they’re likely to present only male-female couples and their children: Finally, consider mentioning people’s sexual orientation (with consent!) — even when you’re not talking or writing about sex. It’s time that everyone knew being queer is not just about sexual activity, but a whole way of life. To give an example from German politics: on 20 September 2020, BILD Live asked Friedrich Merz whether he’d have any reservations about a gay man becoming Federal Chancellor of Germany. (Merz wants to become the next leader of German conservative party CDU.) His response (our translation):
“Let me put it this way. The question of sexual orientation is none of the public’s business. As long as it’s in line with the law and as long as it doesn’t concern children — and I would draw an absolute line at that — this is no topic that should be discussed publicly.”
Many politicians and media outlets were rightly outraged at the archaic suggestion that being gay is somehow related to being a pedophile. In all that noise, most people overlook Merz’s more subtle message. Namely that it’s apparently not OK to be ‘publicly’ gay but somehow it’s totally fine if a heterosexual politician is seen with their spouse in public?! That kind of worldview shows how much work we still have to do in order to normalise queer lifestyles in (German) society.
Do you want people to refer to you as “she/her”? “He/him?” “They/their”? Or something else? Traditionally, female-looking people with feminine-sounding names were assumed to be “she”, and male-looking people with masculine-sounding names were referred to as “he”. As Professor Motschenbacher explains, such binary structures
continually construct people as either female or male (and, therefore, as part of either of the two gendered opposites that attract each other), thereby eradicating or stigmatising alternative identifications.
Rather than asking only openly trans and non-binary folks to disclose possibly “alternative identifications” and putting them on the spot, make your pronouns known in tools such as Slack, on Twitter or LinkedIn. Others will follow your example, and suddenly it becomes a little easier to challenge the assumption that there are only women and men. If you’re on the fence about whether it’s worth the effort, check out this Instagram post by @jordie_slonim. Here’s the caption of their post:
My pronouns are they/them.The first time I saw someone’s pronouns on an email signature was about a year ago. I had contacted her for some research I was doing about the divided feminine. This person is a cisgendered, heteronormative woman. Seeing those pronouns, I felt welcomed, included, safe. This person is an ally. Even though I had realised I am gender queer about 6 months earlier & my pronouns are they/them, I hadn’t actually contemplated doing that. I immediately added my pronouns to my email signature, my social media profiles & more recently, my zoom name. It’s pretty easy thing for anyone to do. It helps us folx to know that you give a shit & that you won’t assume gender. It’s something you can do to normalise an understanding that gender identity & expression are a spectrum. And it helps us to feel seen & heard, safe, welcomed & included.
As a next step, write internal and external documents using the pronouns people have requested. When referring to unknown people or groups, apply the principle of gender neutralisation. Using “they” to refer to someone “treats women and men (and all other gendered identities) on an equal footing without supporting traditional gender discourses, And it does not further entrench gender binaries on the discursive level” (source).
We usually come across outdated expressions like this in texts that were translated into English. Very occasionally, we find this terminology in clumsily written (or staunchly conservative, or historic) English texts. As the American Psychological Association explains, “the term homosexuality has been associated in the past with deviance, mental illness, and criminal behavior”. In a document from 1991 (!), they recommend:
- The terms lesbian sexual orientation, heterosexual sexual orientation, gay male sexual orientation, and bisexual sexual orientation are preferable to lesbianism, heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality. The former terms focus on people, and some of the latter terms have in the past been associated with pathology.
- Lesbian and gay male are preferred to the word homosexual when used as an adjective referring to specific persons or groups, and the terms lesbians and gay men are preferred to homosexuals used as nouns when referring to specific persons or groups. The word homosexual has several problems of designation. First, it may perpetuate negative stereotypes because of its historical associations with pathology and criminal behavior. Second, it is ambiguous in reference because it is often assumed to refer exclusively to men and thus renders lesbians invisible. Third, it is often unclear.
On a similar note, avoid referring to heterosexual people as ‘straight’ “because of its association with the offensive opposite term bent for non-heterosexual people” (source).
Devon Price offers a beautiful example of how to find the right words when you’re unsure how to describe someone’s gender or sexual identity:
“Well, what are you trying to get at here?” she asked, in a calm, neutral tone of voice. “Does the kid see themselves as a blend of masculine and feminine qualities, or as shifting between identities? Or as kind of having no gender?”“Blend I think sounds closest,” Ben replied. “Honestly I don’t know how the kid would put it.”“It sounds like you should ask your girlfriend,” Sherry ventured. “Or even better, ask the kid. Just see how they describe it.”“Yeah, you’re probably right.” Ben looked at me kinda sheepishly. “I’m sorry, I guess I probably sound like an old moron.”“You’re fine, you’re still learning,” I said, surprised that I no longer felt angry or on edge.
In brief: “If you need to write or talk about it, ask people how they describe their relationships and use their terminology” (source).
Bi+ and pansexual people are often invisible. If they’re in a same-sex relationship, it’s easy to assume that they’re gay or lesbian. And if they’re in a heterosexual relationship, they present as ‘straight’. In a way, someone who’s bi or pansexual is more likely to show only part of their identity to the outside world — which can cause them pain. What’s more worrying, this invisibility creates the perfect breeding ground for myths (‘bisexual people are also polygamous’) and turning bisexual lifestyles into a fetish (hello, internet porn). Folks who are looking for peers or wondering if they might be bi+ or pansexual also have a much harder time finding others to identify with. Pansexual and bisexual communities tend to be much less visible than many gay or trans communities, so it’s more difficult for bi+ and pan people to find support. That’s why it’s so important not to omit the ‘B’ in LGBTQQIA+. These “terms are often omitted in discussions of sexual orientation and thus give the erroneous impression that all people relate exclusively to one gender” (source). It’s not just a case of educating yourself and your customers. It’s also essential to educate your staff about bi+ and pansexual lifestyles to avoid these becoming fetishised in the workplace and in culture in general.
The world is full of stereotypes and clichés about the rainbow communities. Needless to say they’re usually not accurate. But some have even been promoted by scientific discourse. Chloe Gan explains that Professor of Linguistics Robin Lakoff
proposed a women’s language (WL) (1973), characterized to include super-polite forms, rising intonations, question tags, and usage of adjectives and elaborate colour terms.This was seen to be ‘replicated’ in gay speech according to Lakoff, and she suggested that gay men imitated these speech patterns on purpose.However, WL has been shown to reflect beliefs on how women speak, instead of how they actually speak. …Lakoff also stated that the opposite of WL is not Men’s Language, but a Neutral Language. This suggest that the norm, is to speak ‘like a man’, and if you deviate, you speak ‘like a woman’ or you ‘sound gay’.To say that every gay man speaks a certain way is unfair, as there are so many different subcultures in the gay community, and classifying them as a linguistically homogeneous group is simply not representative. The gay stereotype of hyper-feminine speech has been further exacerbated by popular culture, where gay men are portrayed as overly flamboyant and shrill, and used as the comic relief.
Other harmful and inaccurate clichés include…
(image source) There are plenty more — some subtle, some less so. If you want to promote inclusion, we suggest you question these clichés and reject them altogether. 7.
We’ve encountered countless email sign up forms, order forms, and even job application processes that asked us to choose a gendered title, tick a box stating we’re male or female, and indicate whether we’re married or single. Did that information impact the kinds of emails or products we received? Probably not. Did it affect our employability? Hmmmm… It’s now two years since the GDPR came into force so we shouldn’t even be having to discuss data minimisation. It essentially means we always ask for as little personal information as possible. So only ask for what you absolutely need to know for your specific purpose. We’d argue that gender and marital status are not required when someone places an order or subscribes to emails. It’s the same with job applications, but some companies must ask for this information as part of legislation aimed at improving diversity and inclusion efforts. In the UK, for instance, job applications often involve an Equal Opportunities Monitoring Form that asks about things like ethnicity, disability and sexual orientation (here’s an example). That form is collected separately from the rest of the application and is supposed to help increase diversity in the workplace. At the same time, though, filling it out can make people feel vulnerable. What if that information is (inadvertently) shared after all? If these forms are essential at work, there’s one important point anyone who sees this paperwork has to bear in mind. Filling in the form does not equal ‘being out’ at work. ‘Coming out’ is a multi-layered, complex process and heavily influenced by a person’s cultural heritage:
Often, LGBTIQ people from different cultures or faith traditions have different family or workplace traditions around disclosure or ‘coming out’. Do not assume every person who may be comfortable being ‘out’ in the workplace is ‘out’ in other settings – people have the right to disclose about their sexuality or gender identity in their own time and on their own terms.(source)
If you absolutely need to know about gender or relationships, at the very least, your form needs to mirror reality by offering more than a simple binary choice. There’s more to gender than being male OR female. There’s more to relationships than being single OR married. In other words, don’t make “lesbians, gay men, and bisexual persons as well as heterosexual people in cohabiting relationships invisible” by “describing people as either married or single” (source).
While language can incite change, sometimes actions do speak louder than words. So this article wouldn’t be complete without the following non-linguistic recommendations:
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