By Savvy Ally Action Founder, Jeannie Gainsburg, MSS
A few years into my work as an LGBTQ+* educator, I was reflecting on a course I took in graduate school, “Diversity in Social Work,” circa 1991, and I realized that LGBTQ+ individuals had not been included in the curriculum. I presumed that things had changed in the intervening years. But in 2016, a young social work master’s-degree candidate, who was participating in one of my workshops, told me that the same was true in her diversity class. I’ve asked around a bit and found that in 2021 it does look like this situation is finally starting to change, but it brings up an important point. Historically, even in diversity and inclusion conversations, LGBTQ+ people have been left out.
What does this mean for folks who want to show their support for the LGBTQ+ communities? It means that offering up general statements, like, “We do not discriminate” or “Everyone is welcome here,” might be received with the subtext: “except for LGBTQ+ people.” When an LGBTQ+ student walks into your office, you can be sure they’re listening for specific language from you that doesn’t assume orientation or gender and they’re looking for specific signs that indicate that you’ll support them as an LGBTQ+ person.
So, how do you let these (often invisible) LGBTQ+ students know that you are there to support them and that you are a safe person to talk to? Below are 5 easy, everyday ally actions that will help you create those welcoming and inclusive spaces.
Ungender your language. Using ungendered language is a great way to indicate to students that you understand that not everyone is straight and cisgender (i.e., not transgender). It tells them that you are open to hearing about their authentic selves, their families, and their loved ones. Use words like partner, special person, or adult instead of boyfriend, girlfriend, or mom and dad. Try folks, friends, or team instead of ladies, guys, or girls and boys. Use they instead of he or she if you are unsure of the correct pronoun.
Mirror terms. One of the simplest and most effective ways to be respectful with our language is to mirror the terms that people use for themselves, their loved ones, and their relationships. If you ask a student, “Are there any adults at your home right now?” and they respond, “Yeah. Both of my moms are working from home today,” then you’ve just received valuable information on how to be respectful to this student. You should now switch from your previous, excellently chosen ungendered term of adults to moms.
Be aware of common LGBTQ+ language bloopers. You don’t need to know every LGBTQ+ term or identity under the sun in order to have respectful conversations with LGBTQ+ people, but it is important to be aware of some very common language bloopers. For example, saying “sexual preference” instead of “sexual orientation.” “Preference” means having a partiality or fondness for something, as in, “My preference is pepperoni pizza, but mushroom will do.” Orientation is part of someone’s identity, not something they choose. Please click on the images below and check out these 3-minute videos for the 6 most common LGBTQ+ language bloopers.
Ask everyone how you should refer to them. Regardless of whether you believe someone is part of the LGBTQ+ communities or not, asking every student and their family members how they would like to be addressed is a great way to make all people feel comfortable and respected. For a less awkward transaction, try offering your information first. For example, “Hi. I’m Ms. Johnson. My pronouns are she, her, and hers. How may I address you?”
Visibly indicate your support. Create a safer and more welcoming school by visibly showing that you support the LGBTQ+ communities. Wear a rainbow button or pin. Hang a sign in your office that says, “All students and families welcome here,” with a big rainbow on it. Take a Safe Zone or Safe Space training and display your sticker. Place an LGBTQ+ magazine in your waiting area. Casually leave my brightly colored book, The Savvy Ally, on your desk. Include a rainbow and a statement of LGBTQ+ support on your website. Add your pronouns to your desk nameplate, door sign, webpage, virtual meeting platform and/or email signature.
Helpful Hint If your pronouns are obvious (i.e., no one ever misgenders you), you may wonder why sharing your pronouns is so important. Here are a few great reasons. Displaying and stating your pronouns helps normalize the practice and makes it much easier for others, whose pronouns may not be as obvious, to do so. When we create a culture where displaying and stating our pronouns is the norm, we’ll no longer have those embarrassing moments when we aren’t sure how to refer to someone. In addition, violence against transgender people is a horrible reality. It creates a dangerous situation for transgender people if they are the only ones displaying their pronouns. Finally, displaying your pronoun is a way to visibly indicate your support for the trans communities.
Okay, so that was a lot. Believe me when I say that you’re going to mess up. We all do. Being an ally is an ongoing journey of messing up, making an appropriate apology, forgiving yourself, and working towards getting it right the next time. So, here’s a brief bonus tip on how to mess up properly.
Bonus Tip: When you accidentally use the wrong name, pronoun, or term for someone, apologize as if you just accidentally bumped into them on the street. If you bump into someone, you’re unlikely to walk by without saying anything (this is rude), but you’re also unlikely to get down on your knees, tell the person how awful you feel, and beg for their forgiveness. You will probably simply say something like, “Excuse me,” and move on. If you’re reading this blog, my guess is you’re a person who is interested in being as respectful as possible, so it’s likely that when you mess up you’re going to feel terrible and your instinct might be to over-apologize. In general, this makes the situation worse because you shift the focus onto yourself. The person whom you messed up with now may feel the need to make YOU feel better. So, try not to draw too much attention to your mistake. Simply apologize and move on—but do put in the work to get it right the next time. For a brief video with tips on getting it right the next time, please click on the image below.
Changing your everyday language and behaviors is a process. It won’t happen overnight, and no one expects it to. If you’re on board with these tips and you feel that they’re important to implement, consider taking them one at a time. Pick a problematic word or phrase that you catch yourself using often. Focus on that until you have it down, and then move onto another. Breaking old habits takes patience and time. So be kind to yourself while you’re under construction. And keep in mind that with language, we’re always under construction! Thank you for making the world a better place, one word at a time.
* Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, plus so much more!
Jeannie Gainsburg is the founder of Savvy Ally Action and author of the book, The Savvy Ally: A Guide for Becoming a Skilled LGBTQ+ Advocate (Teaching Tolerance magazine’s spring 2021 staff pick in the category of professional development). She has a Master of Social Work and Social Research from Bryn Mawr College. Prior to her work with Savvy Ally Action, Jeannie worked for 15 years directing and supervising the LGBTQ Academy at the Out Alliance in Rochester, NY. Her goal, with her encouraging and fun approach to LGBTQ+ inclusion, is to jumpstart even the most tentative ally.