When it comes to being an LGBTQ ally, language matters

‘Speak up, but never over’ and other tips for being the best supporter

When he chats with coworkers about how they can support the LGBTQ community, Peter Lam brings up the theater.

“When watching a play, there are always going to be leads,” says Lam, who works at WeWork in New York. “What makes it complete is the ensemble. The ensemble knows how add to and support the scene, without stealing focus.”

He says allies have pretty much the same function when it comes to the LGBTQ community.

“Allies are very much so a part of the fabric of our community and provide a major support for all of us, but they shouldn’t dictate the narrative,” he says.

Christian Dade, a community associate at WeWork Los Angeles, puts it even more succinctly: Speak up, but never over.

“Allyship is about support,” says Dade. “While I think it’s very important for allied voices to be heard, they should never try to control or dictate. Groups that need allies are groups that are often silenced or unheard. Giving the stage to these groups and paying attention is a great way to be an ally.”

We talked with more than a dozen WeWork staffers about what it takes to be a good ally to the LGBTQ community. Their key takeaways: Language matters. Educate yourself. And, perhaps most important, you’ve got to walk the walk.

Language matters

Many people agree that language is a powerful way to support LGBTQ coworkers. It is the easiest way to help people feel like part of the larger community.

But it’s also something that can be unintentionally hurtful. Jodi Callender, a senior logistics specialist at WeWork, says that even things said in an offhand manner can sound insensitive.

“Throwaway comments like ‘that’s so gay’ can be casually bigoted, and are subtle ways that we ‘other’ our colleagues and friends,” says Callender. “As members of a beautifully diverse community, I think we all have a responsibility to affirm each other. Speaking up when we hear something wrong is one way to do it.”

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The best allies pay attention to the language people use to describe themselves.

Not sure how to identify someone? Emily Meyers, associate general counsel at WeWork, says pay attention to the language people use to describe themselves.

“The first thing that came to my mind is to be a great ally, be sensitive to language—whether that’s pronouns, or how we refer to our significant other,” says Meyers. “Listen and follow our lead, or else ask what we’d prefer. It drives me nuts when I refer to ‘my wife’ and in the next sentence, the person I’m speaking to refers to my ‘partner.’

Kyle Raiche, onboarding senior manager, agrees, adding that when in doubt, don’t be afraid to ask.

“The best piece of advice I ever got was: If you are curious about whether or not someone is LGBTQ, the best way to ask is: ‘How do you prefer to identify?’ says Raiche. “Having that exact language at the ready prepares you for the question and keeps you from unintentionally misspeaking later down the line.”

Chloe Rubenstein, a community lead at WeWork Boston, says sexual orientation is important, but you should also pay attention to gender.

“Part of being a great ally is to always be aware that not everyone has a gendered pronoun,” says Rubenstein. “If you don’t know someone’s preferred pronoun, it’s best that you refer to them as they and them. No one will ever be offended if you ask them what their pronouns are. It’s okay to make a mistake because that’s how you learn. The most important part is that you are learning, and we all appreciate that.”

Ashley England, a learning experience designer at WeWork, says allies can help push the conversation about gender forward in many ways.

“I added my pronouns to my email signature,” says England. “It’s a simple way for people to show you’re an ally. I’ve received good feedback and had positive conversations about it with colleagues wanting to know more. I call it a ‘micro-progression.’”

Educate yourself

But allies have to do some of the groundwork themselves. WeWork staffers say that one of the best things that supporter can do is show up with an understanding of what the LGBTQ community is all about.

“To be a great ally, you need to educate yourself,” says software engineer Chelsea Kochan. “Learning about the issues and experiences of the LBGTQ community can help you to be a more supportive ally. For me, it has shown me the subtle and not subtle inequality that people face everyday. When I notice insensitivity, I speak up and try to educate others.”

Rocky Kerns, who runs orientation for WeWork’s new hires, says that instead of just expressing their support, allies should know what’s going on in the LGBTQ community.

“For me, I feel that if you truly want to support someone, it’s best to understand what they go through as best you can,” says Kerns. “A great way to do that is to actively explore and learn about what’s going on in their larger community as much as possible. What are the battles that their larger community is facing in the world today? What are the victories that they’re celebrating?”

Kerns says being able to talk about the issues inevitably leads to deeper connections.

“If you know about these things when you participate in events those communities may have, you can fully engage with them,” Kerns says. “There’s nothing more powerful than education in any context.”

Hannah Schon, community lead at WeWork in Austin, says that knowing about the issues is one thing. She says you should show your support in concrete ways, like in the voting booth.

“I believe being an ally is through voting,” says Schon. “During this crazy 24-hour news cycle, it’s now more important than ever to know who your representatives are that can fight the fight for our friends and family. Through WeWork, I was able to register 11 members to vote in Austin’s local elections, and it was so easy. Let your voice be heard on behalf of your community and change will come.”

Walk the walk

The best allies go the extra mile, expressing their support beyond just words.

“Being a great ally means so much more than just being well-intentioned matchmaker or adopting queer folk as your new sassy best friend,” says Los Angeles-based learning specialist Kris Rapp. “Being a great ally means being willing to risk discomfort to challenge stale cultural norms that marginalize or limit people. It means listening when you don’t understand, speaking up when someone disparages others, and jumping at the chance to stand up for a more inclusive, fair society.”

Christopher Clermont, WeWork’s diversity and inclusion program lead, says it’s often the small gestures that matter most.

“There are many ways that our community can demonstrate their engagement as an ally, from reading articles, watching a LGBTQ movie or television show, attending a local LGBTQ community events, or putting a sticker on their laptop,” says Clermont. “It can’t be lukewarm goodwill. We have to create time and space for human experiences different than us.”

Learning specialist Cameron Heron believes it’s important to make sure there’s a welcoming atmosphere at work.

“One of the things I appreciate most from allies is when they create the space for LGBTQ folks to share their authentic selves in groups and situations where we otherwise may not feel comfortable opening up,” Heron says. ”For example, it can be difficult to bring up a same-sex partner when everyone around you is talking about their straight relationships. A great ally opens the door and invites us in to a conversation so we don’t have to wonder if we’ll be welcome.”

Antonio Santos Neto, a community lead at WeWork Brazil, says that he’s happy that his colleagues at WeWork “recognize my unique way of being and living my own life.”

“I’m all for adding my voice and perspective to whatever concerns our struggle and fight, as well as helping to clarify and inform everyone who might want to keep up with diversity,” says Santos Neto. “Fortunately, WeWork has proven itself as a great work environment to do all that. I am more than happy to bring my true self—the average gay guy Tony—to the workplace for the first time in a couple decades of work experience.”

Photos by Katelyn Perry

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