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Gender identity and sexual orientation, are businesses getting it right?

Joanne Lockwood, a Diversity & Inclusion & Belonging Specialist who also promotes transgender awareness to organisations, tells us why gender identity and sexual orientation are being confused,and why respecting an individual’s choice is at the heart of any solutions at work.

Sexual orientation is about who you are emotionally, romantically and sexually attracted to, and gender identity is about who YOU are, so why is it important to understand this at work? Firstly, discrimination with regards to either is illegal. According to FRA (European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights) in 2019, 21% of all LGBTQ Europeans reported experiencing workplace discrimination; jumping to 36% for transgender people specifically. Micro-aggressions, misgendering, bias, ridicule, exclusion, harassment and bullying are still rife in business and coming out at work can even now be very risky.

After decades of campaigning, support for the LGBTQ+ community regarding sexual orientation has probably never been higher. We Forum shows the highest support for the LGBTQ+ community to be in Spain with 73% demonstrating support, whilst Russia demonstrates the lowest support at 12%. But why aren’t we nearing 100% yet and is a lack of understanding about gender identity fueling issues?

Sexual orientation is more established whilst the construct of gender identity is newer to many. Being assigned a gender from birth, no longer means it is a given about who that person will identify as, and that may change through discovery, realisation or overcoming stigma. Freedom of thought and expression, and respect for an individual’s right to identify as whoever they are key, as is not having a cis-only lens. Many of us (regardless of our sexual orientation or gender) don’t like labels anymore or don’t fit neatly into a specific tick box.

Sexual orientation and gender identity are different facets and independent of each other. Sometimes accepting your sexual orientation may unlock a suppressed understanding of one’s gender identity or visa versa, but not necessarily. In my experience, some trans people’s orientation may change or evolve post-transition, but for many nothing changes about their sexual orientation, just who they identify as. I have been married to my wife for 36 years and I am still attracted to her as a person, even though I am also a woman myself”. I am a woman married to a woman.

Is my relationship now a lesbian or queer relationship r?  Does it make any difference if you have had surgery or not?  The closest I can come to accept a label if pushed is I am a transgender woman, who is pansexual ie I am attracted to someone regardless of their sex or gender identity. Ultimately I don’t like labels which are largely used to lump everyone together for the benefit of simplicity. Labels are for tins of baked beans, not people. We are just ourselves.

Eight tips on how to support anyone’s sexual orientation or gender identity at work:

  • Have respect at the heart of your work culture. Ensuring respect for all colleagues and having a diverse and inclusion-rich culture will move us toward everyone having the right to feel safe, accepted and valued at work.
  • Ensure psychological safety is core so everyone has the right to be who they are without fear of discrimination or microaggressions
  • Avoiding assumptions about someone’s gender identity based on how they present, look or sound is central to supporting at work. Encourage people to share their pronouns so you communicate appropriately and avoid misgendering and write yours as a part of your email signature to show allyship.
  • Talk about gender. Ensure that gender is a part of conversations. Yes, things have changed in the last ten years or so but looking through a different lens is here to stay, particularly because having your own unique identity is really resonating with the younger generations. The best way to be inclusive is to talk and to show gentle openness.
  • On the other hand, respect boundaries. Every person has their own journey and the same applies to those thinking about their gender identity and sexual orientation. People will share their personal details when they feel ready to. Don’t push someone to talk about things they aren’t ready to talk about. Be compassionate and warm so that when the timing is right, you can show support.
  • Educate yourself. Look to understand what you don’t understand. Ask questions, look things up, and show your interest. We are talking about real people.
  • Smile or have a chat with someone who might feel excluded. You might be surprised about the impact that one friendly smile can have.

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