Three steps to fight discrimination in the workplace and become an LGBTI ally

Gurchaten Sandhu, Chief Technical Advisor

Imagine coming into work one morning and sharing with your colleagues the movie or TV programme you watched last night with your partner. Yet because your partner is the same sex as you, you change their name, to one of the opposite sex, or you change the details to conceal their gender. Or imagine going in to work and having someone using a name and pronouns which don’t align with your sex or your gender identity and expression. And you live this every day. It would become exhausting right?


This is the reality that many lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans workers face each day regardless of where they live, not just in the 70 countries that criminalize same sex consensual activity. And it’s something to think about as we mark International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia & Biphobia (IDAHOTB).

As adults we spend most of our time at work. And this time shouldn’t be spent hiding and being someone we are not. Living a lie or concealing aspects of our personal life at work can be exhausting and will impact our productivity. The reality is that people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans or intersex (LGBTI) disproportionately experience harassment and discrimination at work simply because of who they love and how they identify. Many are turned away from jobs, and when in work, are overlooked for promotion.

Acceptance of LGBTI people has increased globally in the past decades, largely as a result of anti-discrimination legislations and policies. What is needed now is real change in people’s minds and attitudes.  Alliances need to be forged and strengthened within both the LGBTI and non-LGBTI communities.

So what makes an ally? Am I an ally?

Well, if you accept, support and/or advocate for the equal and fair treatment of LGBTI people, without any exception, then yes, you are an ally. And if you still harbour some doubt, inform yourself, speak to an expert, and become an ally. The following information will help you.

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Step 1: Understand

Recognising that biases exist and that you have them is the first step towards being a better ally. We all have biases, it’s natural. To unlock these biases and to strengthen your alliances to the LGBTI community, you need to start by being better informed and learn about sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and sex characteristics. Several websites have useful definitions, including the Gender Unicorn.

These are not easy concepts to grasp, so take your time and unlearn ideas that have been engrained into you from childhood. We all have a sexuality, gender identity, gender expression and sex characteristics. Ask yourself where you fall on the spectrum.

Once you’re equipped with better knowledge and understanding, why not explore and learn more about the experiences of LGBTI people by watching the videos produced by the UN’s Free and Equal campaign. You can also  learn about the issues faced by LGBTI people in the workplace by reading the summary of the ILO’s Promoting Rights, Diversity and Equality in the World of Work (PRIDE)’ project funded by the Government of Norway.

Step 2: Engage

Being an informed ally is just the first step. Engaging with LGBTI people and making them feel more welcome and accepted, particularly in the workplace, is equally important. Don’t make assumptions about a colleague’s sexuality, gender identity or expression. If you do not know, use gender-neutral wording when talking about their personal life. And when someone shares what can be very intimate and personal information, listen without making any judgment. For instance, if someone tells you that they identify as a lesbian, don’t respond by saying “oh you don’t look like a lesbian!”

Not all LGBTI people want to disclose personal information, particularly if they live and work in a country where same-sex consensual adult relationships are forbidden or the country has cross-dressing laws. For many LGBTI people, “coming out” is not an option. At the same time the concept of “coming out” doesn’t exist in all cultures. In fact many countries don’t even have words for gay, lesbian, trans, or intersex. So “coming out” isn’t really possible when the words simply don’t exist in your language.

Step 3: Speak out

How does an LGBTI person know you’re an ally? Your voice and actions are critical in promoting a culture of acceptance. And unless you speak out, no-one will know what you think, and that includes LGBTI people. Speak positively about LGBTI people and speak up when encountering homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in the workplace. Let people know that homophobic, biphobic and transphobic jokes or slurs are not okay. Here at the ILO in Geneva, we did exactly that through an internal campaign LGBTIallies@ILO. Colleagues came out to show their solidary as allies to LGBTI colleagues.  This year, let people know you’re an ally by speaking out through social media using “#LGBTIallies @ILO”

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