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Australia may have come a long way with diversity in recent years, particularly in the aftermath of the hard-fought campaign for same-sex marriage.
But while it’s generally a more accepting place than it once was, people who identify as LGBTIQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer) can still face many struggles when it comes to work.
‘I think there has been a great deal of change, especially over the past 40 years or so, in social attitudes regarding sexual and gender diversity,’ says Dr Daniel Marshall, a senior lecturer in literature and also the convenor of gender and sexuality studies at Deakin.
‘The decriminalisation of homosexuality, for example, changed the landscape of possibility for homosexuals in the workplace.’ (South Australia was the first state to decriminalise homosexuality in 1975, and Tasmania the last in 1997).
However Dr Marshall says histories of stigma, bias and hate are still being played out in some corners of Australian life. Thankfully, he says the increased visibility of LGBTIQ+ people at work is helping to change the extent.
So what can you do to make sure your LGBTIQ+ employees or workmates feel supported?
Dr Marshall says one of the risks is that even when we use the acronym LGBTIQ+, ‘we might often be talking about just the ‘L’ and the ‘G’.’
‘This of course is one of the risks of the expansive LGBTIQ+ acronym – it can roll lots of different types of people together, and can encourage people to think about diverse experiences and expressions of gender and sexual diversity as all kind of being the same as each other.’
Many people lumped into the categories of ‘gay men’ or ‘bisexuals’, for instance, feel that such groupings don’t make a lot of sense, or feel foreign, he says.
There are also other, more everyday struggles that your colleagues may be facing – perhaps unbeknownst to you.
‘Lots of LGBTIQ+ people talk about self-policing at work – being careful about what they say or how they dress, or even how they walk and talk,’ Dr Marshall says.
He says people can sometimes still hold part of themselves back in ways that non- LGBTIQ+ don’t, mostly because they’re cautious about crossing an invisible line that may or may not exist.
‘I think some LGBTIQ+ workers “straighten” themselves up a bit before they enter the workspace,’ he says.
Double standards can also creep in.
For example, it’s not unusual for a non-LGBTIQ+ employee to place a photo of their partner or family on their desk. ‘Whereas when LGBTIQ+ do similar things they can sometimes be seen as being deliberately provocative or inappropriate,’ Dr Marshall says.
'I think there has been a great deal of change, especially over the past 40 years or so, in social attitudes regarding sexual and gender diversity.'
Dr Daniel Marshall,
School of Communication and Creative Arts, Deakin University
In any workplace, you should avoid making assumptions and generalisations about others, Dr Marshall says.
‘Managers and colleagues won’t always know the sexual and gender diversity of everyone they are working with so it’s important to send signals of affirmation and inclusion.’
There are also other important measures managers can take, such as reviewing policies and procedures. For example, think about gender questions on forms, or the signage in the loos.
Having a more LGBTIQ+ people in leadership positions, or as mentors, also helps.
If you’re not the boss, Dr Marshall says there’s no set formula for supporting LGBTIQ+ workmates, apart from of course being inclusive, and actually getting to know those you work with.
Feel your knowledge on LGBTIQ+ issues is a little light on? Dr Marshall suggests starting with the books Holding the Man, Colouring the Rainbow or Going Postal: More than ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.
Policies won’t always stop problems occurring, Dr Marshall says.
‘That’s why the culture of the place is so important – it is by building an affirmation of sexual and gender difference into the fabric of an organisation that organisations can build capacity for dealing with problems when they do arise.’
Some strategies might be running LGBTIQ+ events or networks. ‘Establishing LGBTIQ+ networks for staff can be really powerful for staff – even if they don’t attend,’ Dr Marshall says.
Of course if a problem does arise, Dr Marshall says policies can form a valuable ‘roadmap’. In that situation, he believes a focus on restorative justice or relationship building can be the most productive.
It pays to remember that many people quite rightly think their sexuality or gender should have very little to do with their career, Dr Marshall says.
So even if you’re trying to do the right thing, be aware that some people can be confronted by excessive attention to LGBTIQ+ issues at work.
‘By drawing attention to LGBTIQ+ people to signal affirmation and acceptance, these practices can also draw attention to their status as different-from-normal, or as uncommon or marginal,’ Dr Marshall says.
The safest bet is for workplaces to create a culture that welcomes sexual and gender differences – without people necessarily having to identify themselves in this way, Dr Marshall says.
‘In that way, it will create room for LGBTIQ+ people to expand the expression of themselves as suits them, without creating an obligation that each LGBTIQ+ employee must “carry the flag”.’
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