What to Do if You're LGBTQ+ and Face Microaggressions in the Workplace

Microaggressions are negative comments that often play on stereotypes about a group of people. They might not be seen as outright hostile, but they can have a serious impact on a person's mental health and create a discriminatory workplace.

For many years, society in the United States defined being cisgender and heterosexual as "normal." As a result, people who are LGBTQ+ are often marginalized and discriminated against, including in the workplace. LGBTQ+ people continue to experience microaggressions and even hostile work environments.

This article provides an overview of what microaggressions look like for the LGBTQ+ community. It also discusses ways to handle them in the workplace.

What Are Microaggressions?

Microaggressions are negative comments and actions that aren't always viewed as outright hostility. They can be intentional or unintentional. Microaggressions often stem from stereotypes and tend to invalidate another person's experiences.

Those in the LGBTQ+ community often experience microaggressions at work. Some examples of microaggressions toward LGBTQ+ people in the workplace include:

  • Asking a new female coworker if she has a husband or boyfriend, assuming that everyone is heterosexual
  • Asking someone in a queer relationship if they are “the man" and their partner is “the woman," or vice versa
  • Telling someone they don't “look" queer or trans. This reinforces stereotypes and assumes all gay people have the same personality or interests, etc.
  • Leaving bisexual people out when talking about diversity in the workplace, invalidating their sexuality and experience
  • Asking invasive questions like what private parts someone has, when a trans person is undergoing surgery, or how a queer couple has sex
  • Misgendering or refusing to acknowledge someone's gender
  • Refusing to use someone's pronouns because it's “too confusing" or “ungrammatical"
  • Giving trans or nonbinary people gendered uniforms or dress codes
  • Using derogatory language (e.g. calling something “gay")
  • Not inviting a queer employee's partner to a work function where heterosexual employees' partners are invited
  • Referring to a queer employee's partner as their “friend"
  • Asking about someone's sexual history or "coming out" story

These microaggressions can show up in different ways. They are often subtle, and others might see them as jokes or innocent remarks. But research shows that microaggressions can cause mental health impacts on LGBTQ+ people. These effects can include depression, low self-esteem, and trauma.

How To Respond to Microaggressions in the Workplace

It is always your call to decide if or how to respond to a microaggression, and there is no one “right" way to do it. Take your safety and emotional bandwidth into account when dealing with microaggressions. The best course of action will also depend on the setting. If you do feel comfortable addressing the microaggression, here are a few ways to go about doing it.

A simple way to respond to a microaggression in the moment is to ask the speaker for clarification. You could ask them to repeat what they've said or what they meant by their comment. This gives them a chance to reflect on what they said and provides them with an opportunity to apologize or correct their behavior. 

In some cases, people may not even be aware that what they're saying or doing is problematic. In those cases, it's important to make a distinction between what their intention might have been and the impact it caused. You could explain that although they may not have meant it a certain way, their statement was inappropriate or made you uncomfortable.

If you're not in a safe enough space to address the microaggression when it happens, you can also address it later. For example, if it happened in the middle of a meeting, you might need a little time to get over the shock of it. When you're ready, you could speak with a manager about the issue or bring it up with the speaker of the microaggression at a later time.

Talking to other LGBTQ+ people and sharing common experiences with microaggressions can also help you determine the best way to respond.

What Should You Do if You Witness a Microaggression in the Workplace?

There is no one way to address a microaggression as a bystander. But these steps can help guide you if you come across a microaggression in the workplace:

1. Identify the Microaggression

Educate yourself on microaggressions and how they can present to different affected communities. Microaggressions are often unseen by the people not part of the affected community.

2. Address the Microaggression

When appropriate, address a microaggression if you see one. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways. For example, you could provide a gentle reminder like, “Let's make sure we're using everyone's correct pronouns." When addressing microaggressions as a bystander, it's crucial to avoid speaking on behalf of others. Instead of saying, “You're making them uncomfortable," say, “What you said makes me uncomfortable."

3. Validate the Experiences of Others

Many people targeted by microaggressions experience gaslighting. So it is important to validate their experience. Some simple ways to do this are:

  • Confirming that their experience was a product of discriminatory behavior
  • Lending an ear to listen if they feel comfortable talking about the incident
  • (If in a leadership position) Asking how you can rectify the situation and provide solutions to make sure it doesn't happen again

Legal Support for Dealing With Microaggressions in the Workplace

If you experience discrimination or microaggressions at work, several legal avenues are available.
On June 15, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Bostock v. Clayton County that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) also provides protection against workplace discrimination. You can file a complaint with the EEOC within 180 days of the last incident of discrimination.

If you find that you are the target of repeated microaggressions or discrimination, keep a record of all incidents. Include details like:

  • What was said
  • Who said it
  • When the incident happened

You'll also want to keep copies of any written communication about it the incident. 

Next Steps for Employers

Most Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) training in the workplace occurs at the beginning of employment. Some employers require yearly training. But these trainings are rarely enough to build the skills needed to understand and address microaggressions.Employers should strive to provide multiple DEI trainings and exercises for employees throughout the year to educate employees on LGBTQ+ issues and create a more accepting work environment.

In addition, employers should meet with LGBTQ+ organizations to create clear non-discrimination policies that are easily accessible to employees.

Getting Legal Help

If you need guidance on what to do about microaggressions in your workplace, an employment lawyer or discrimination lawyer can help.

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