Despite all the progress made in recent years for people from the LGBTQ+ community, the fight for equity is far from over.
Across the country, anti-trans bills are attempting to keep trans youth from accessing healthcare and playing sports. Violence against trans people, particularly among those who are Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC), is on the rise. Trans and bi people face healthcare discrimination and poorer mental health.
May 17 is International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. While it’s great this recognition exists, the work to dismantle discriminatory and oppressive systems and attitudes must continue year-round.
If you’re a straight, cisgender ally, here are some ways to support the LGBTQ+ people in your life. And for fellow community members, here is a reminder for us to show up for each other in all our different identities.
Not actually a “phobia”
First, let’s get one thing clear: Transphobia, homophobia and biphobia aren’t actually phobias. They are discrimination, plain and simple.
“People aren’t afraid of someone making them trans or gay, they just view LGBTQ+ identified people as inferior or unacceptable. For me, the term ‘phobia’ is reductive and gives the impression that LGBTQ+ bias is somewhat involuntary, making it easier for both systems and individuals to avoid examining their biases and discriminatory practices. This does a disservice to the urgency and acuteness of our discrimination,” says Sean Johnson, LSWAIC, program operations specialist for the Transgender and Gender Non-Binary Health Program at UW Medicine.
Discrimination isn’t just hateful but is directly harmful to LGBTQ+ people. Research shows that gay, lesbian, bi and trans youth are far more likely than cisgender, straight peers to consider suicide. And that is just one example.
Efforts to fight discrimination and validate LGBTQ+ identities are directly helpful. For example, Johnson cites research that shows how being able to use their chosen name at home, work and among family and friends significantly decreased depression symptoms and suicidal thoughts and attempts among trans youth.
How to build your ally skills
From something as seemingly simple — but deeply impactful — as using someone’s chosen name and pronouns, to broader-reaching actions, here are Johnson’s tips for how to show up for the LGBTQ+ community.
Validate, don’t stereotype
There is no one or “right” way to be gay, lesbian, trans, nonbinary, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, intersex or any other identity under the LGBTQ+ umbrella. Even though stereotypes about queer people are still rampant in society and culture, it’s important to remember that real people aren’t stereotypes.
For example, many bisexual people and others who are attracted to multiple genders deal with the stereotype that we’re just “confused” and will eventually realize we’re either straight or gay.
Validate each person’s uniqueness and how they want to be seen. At the same time, recognize that their queerness is an important part of their identity but doesn’t define them.
Use someone’s chosen name and pronouns
This one is pretty simple. It doesn’t take much effort to use the name and pronouns someone has communicated that they use, but it makes a big difference in their lives and shows respect for their identity.
This doesn’t just go for the LGBTQ+ adults in your life, but youth as well.
Additionally, sharing your own pronouns in your email signature, on your Zoom profile or when you meet someone for the first time is a great way to establish a space where people feel more comfortable to share their own.
Don’t minimize someone’s trauma
While the LGBTQ+ community is resilient, strong, joyous and celebratory, people in the community also know that we have been discriminated against for a long time.
“Sexual orientation and trans identity has been pathologized in history. Homosexuality was a diagnosable illness until 1973, but state legislatures across the country are still debating conversion therapy. While gender dysphoria, the current diagnosis for transgender individuals, has improved medical access with the expansion of coverage by insurers, the stigma and burden it bears remains,” says Johnson.
The DSM is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, used throughout the country as the standard diagnostic tool for mental illness. Homosexuality has since been removed, but gender dysphoria is still included.
If someone confides in you about invalidating or violent experiences they have had — or even just mentions them — accept that what they’re saying is true. Just listening and offering your support can make a big difference for that person.
Learn to recognize and call out microaggressions
There are many types of microaggressions. Some are directly confrontational, such as repeatedly deadnaming (using their former/birth name) someone after being corrected. Some are unintentional, like making assumptions or acting out of misplaced curiosity.
Assumptions can look like assuming someone uses they/them pronouns if they dress androgynously or assuming a trans person subscribes to the gender binary (identifies as either male or female) or wants gender-affirming surgery.
Microaggressions that come from a place of curiosity are often an attempt to get to know someone or show interest in their identity, but usually come off as invasive because you don’t have a close enough relationship with that person for your curiosity to be comfortable for them.
“You wouldn’t meet a cis, straight person a few times and ask about their genitals or how they have sex,” Johnson points out.
Before you ask questions, determine how you would feel if someone asked you those questions. If being asked would make you feel uncomfortable then don’t ask other people.
And if you witness someone else making microaggressions, name them as such and call the person out.
Do your own research
Going back to curiosity for a moment: Showing interest in people who are different from you is a good thing, as is wanting to learn more about different communities.
However, often people in underrepresented communities are expected to educate others. This takes a lot of time and emotional labor, and people who already have to live with discrimination shouldn’t have to then use their energy to educate people who don’t face that same kind of discrimination.
If you’re curious about some aspect of LGBTQ+ identity, community or culture, do your own research. Educate yourself. There are countless books, articles, podcasts, documentaries and even TV shows and movies to turn to (though, admittedly, some of them may rely on stereotypes). “Disclosure,” which you can find on Netflix, is one of Johnson’s recommendations.
Plus, Google (and articles like this) are free. Focus on research-backed content from organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign, Gender Justice League, Bisexual Resource Center, GLAAD and the Trevor Project.
Follow, don’t lead
Wanting to be supportive of and show up for LGBTQ+ people is great, but it’s also important to take a step back and consider your intentions.
Your intention shouldn’t be to prove how good of an ally you are or to take center stage. Instead, listen to what people in the community say are the main issues they face, follow their lead, don’t speak over them and recognize what privileges you bring to their spaces.
“As a white transmasculine person, I occupy areas of privilege, and am just one person that can’t represent everyone accurately. I have a good understanding of my community, but I still have to be careful to acknowledge that I won’t get it right all the time, which is why it is crucial to work across community groups and make sure those voices and concerns are at the table,” Johnson says.
When in doubt, ask someone how you can help instead of assuming you know what they need.