How to ‘come out’ as an LGBTQ+ ally at work

Three tech employees talk about how to build up your ally muscle and the difference it can make for others

Building your career is a journey filled with challenges, excitement, and forks in the road. And journeys are easier with maps. In this column, job experts answer your questions and deliver advice to help you take the next step.

Question: I want to help my coworkers feel respected for who they really are. But sometimes I’m not sure what to do or say to show that I’m an ally, and I don’t want to mess up or hurt anyone’s feelings. How can I be a better ally?

Answer: The first step to becoming a better ally is wanting to be one—so you’re on the path already! There are many ways to be an ally in your professional realm, including connecting with coworkers to learn what they face and care about, stepping in when someone isn’t being treated with respect, and educating others. These Microsoft employees, who are all allies or members of the LGBTQ+ community, have some advice.

Know what an ally is and why you should be one

An LGBTQ+ ally is someone who respects equal rights, gender equality, and LGBTQ+ social movements; stands up for members of the LGBTQ+ community; and challenges homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia. Allies increase protection, safety, and equality.

“Coming out” as an ally in the workplace sends a powerful message of affirmation and support to LGBTQ+ employees, which can help them feel more respected and able to do their work.

Spend a little time thinking about why you want to be an ally—and think about why allies are needed and how you could make a difference, said Andrea Llamas, a senior human resources advisor.

Often, the motivation to be an ally comes from personal stories and connections.

“Everyone has a friend or family member that is part of the LGBTQ+ community,” Llamas said. “To make the world a better place for the people in that community, [we need to get to the place where] sexual orientation or gender identity is not important.”

Once you know why you want to be an ally and what you might want to accomplish by being one—whether it’s as simple as making another person feel comfortable or as big as becoming a vocal advocate for change—you can figure out how to do it.

Set out to learn more

Many people feel unsure of their role as allies in part because they aren’t familiar with the experiences or realities of LGBTQ+ people. Don’t worry if you don’t know what a term means or if you aren’t familiar with an issue. Research is where to start, Llamas said.

“If you don’t have the information you need and if you are curious, ask,” she said.

If you do ask a coworker who is a member of the LGBTQ+ community, make sure that you pose your question in a respectful way and perhaps in private. First and foremost, communicate your openness and desire to learn so that you can support.

If you’re worried about saying the wrong thing to LGBTQ+ coworkers—such as using the wrong pronoun—respectfully ask them how they prefer to be addressed or how you should refer to something. You might also ask how they would prefer that people address mistakes when they happen, suggested Michael Tan, a Microsoft manager of a transgender employee.

But don’t rely on LGBTQ+ people to educate you on everything; do your own research. Morty Scanlon, a business program manager, suggests using resources from Straight for Equality, The Human Rights Campaign, and Outstanding to learn more.

Members of Microsoft’s LGBTQ+ employee resource group GLEAM, which stands for Gay and Lesbian Employees at Microsoft, have helped create resources and workshops for coworkers who want to be allies. Find out whether your company has similar resources, suggest that they be created, or even help compile them, said Scanlon, cochair of GLEAM.

“When people have resources at their disposal, they can see a path toward their own allyship to materialize,” he said.

As you do your research, look at your own assumptions. Take the opportunity to recognize and move past bias. Use these questions as guides:

  • What assumptions have you made?
  • Do you know if they are true?
  • How could you find out?

Show support and speak up

Some gestures by allies might seem small, but they can mean a lot. For example, Llamas said, “Don’t hide any relations you have to someone in the LGBTQ+ community, such as friends or family members.” Talking about your gay brother or transgender cousin the same way that you talk about any family member or friend shows that you value people equally regardless of their identities.

You can also communicate your support in simple ways, such as by putting stickers on your computer or signs at your desk, by attending LGBTQ+ support events, or by joining an advocacy effort. These actions show people who have faced challenges or who have previously not been accepted for who they are that they have your support in little and big ways.

“Remember that there are many ways to let people know that you are an ally,” said Llamas, who serves as the GLEAM Mexico lead.

Being an ally also means speaking up when some voices aren’t heard, when someone is excluded, or when something harmful is said. Listen fully to others’ ideas, contributions, and stories. Intervene when someone is being discounted or ignored or if harmful language is used. If someone has been treated with harm, approach them to see what they need and offer support.

And people who need allies themselves can also be an ally to others, Scanlon said.

“In the same way that allies are essential to the LGBTQ+ community, we also have a responsibility to be allies for others. The lessons I’ve learned in working to be a better ally to the transgender community are lessons that I can apply to evolve my allyship beyond my own community and apply more broadly to the workplace: examining my assumptions, listening to understand, identifying and addressing my blind spots, and being brave.”

Let empathy lead

When Michael Tan, director of strategy, learned that a member of his team was transgender and would be transitioning, he set out to determine how he could help.

“My first role was trying to make sure that the work environment would respond appropriately and that people were respectful,” he said.

But he didn’t immediately know how to be an ally.

“I was in the camp initially where you’re so afraid of saying the wrong thing. I saw other people also so afraid of saying the wrong thing or using the wrong pronoun that they took the path of least resistance and didn’t reach out at all.”

Tan invited the Ingersoll Gender Center to talk to his group. The speakers shared firsthand experiences, background about the transgender community in the workplace, common challenges transgender employees often face, and guidance on how to be supportive.

Listening directly to people’s experiences sparked empathy, Tan said. However you can, seek out others’ stories—they will help you feel connected.

Try to understand the emotional journey that someone else goes through, he said. It’s a powerful display of support “to find out, and then do, what they need to feel comfortable.”