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Alphabet soup: How to refer to my LGBTI+ colleague

The alphabet soup of LGBTTQI+ of sexual orientation and gender identity only gets larger. Referring to someone who is not cisgender or heterosexual may be a challenge to a lot of people.As a matter of inclusivity, the old initials LGBT gave space to LGBTTQI+ (lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transsexuals, transgenders, queer, intersexual people and others), but this still may not represent all of the possibilities on how people deal with their own identities and sexualities.

The New York City Commission of Human Rights, for instance, released a non-exhaustive list of 31 gender identities.If instead of the 7 letters LGBTTQI we start to think of the 31 possibilities the government of NY found existent, or the many more possibilities human nature can identify, no list of letters would be long enough to encompass the floating character of human sexuality.

So here are some tips to make everyone’s life easier:


1. What is cisgender and transgender / hetero and homo? Cisgender is the individual who is happy and comfortable with the gender assigned to them when they were born. The term is linked to biology.Transgender is a person whose sense of personal identity does not correspond to their birth sex – and this has nothing to do with their sexuality. We write trans man and trans woman, two different words – an adjective, just like ‘strong’ or ‘powerful’.Heterosexual refers to those commonly addressed as straight, in opposition to homosexual - i.e. gay or lesbian. But this is not all, the whole spectrum of possibilities could not be put down in words. People usually like to be referred as “gay men” and “lesbian women” – but if in doubt, the best option is to ask.


2. Binary vs fluidity Against the idea that only two forms of sexual orientation or two forms of gender identity are possible and tackling the issue where all the other ‘letters’ come from, the idea of fluidity stands as the refusal to choose one label to define someone. More than that, it is also a political statement that advocates to break with the binary way of thinking of only straight or gay / cis or trans. Considering that sexual orientation and gender identity is potentially fluid, therefore, leads us to the concept of being queer, a way to defend the complexity of sexual behaviors and desires. It is the idea that the world is constantly changing, and we cannot stand for fixed ideas or immutable concepts.


3. Can I say queer? The importance of this terminology is that for a long time queer was an offensive way to refer to people. Taking pride in this umbrella that shelters all forms of sexuality reinforces that homophobia shall not be tolerated anymore – it is a loud message that things are in constant change and that plurality is the key for a better world – and especially in our workplace. You can say it with the intention of being an ally, never as a something bad.


4. Beyond labels: otherness Beyond terminologies and labels, 'the one-size fits all' approach, political statements, moral values, and unspoken rules; empathy and otherness should be the key to promote human rights and spread a message of acceptance in the workplace. Otherness is the philosophical concept of recognizing yourself in the other; to understand that regardless of all the differences you may have and all the characteristics that make you both unique, that humanity is shared.

Dialogue and open discussions about how someone would like to be recognized and what would make him/her feel comfortable in your workplace are the first steps towards the promotion of an inclusive workplaceIt helps to create a safe space where you and your colleague will feel confident to do the same without fear and understand that it is ok to feel masculine or feminine, or both, or neither.

Here’s an idea:


Listen to others' feelings and expectations

Be empathic and try to see the humanity in the other human being

Recognize the beauty in the difference 

Reinforce that everyone should feel confident and proud to be themselves

Don't count on preconceptions and assumptions about how gender and sexuality should be.





Gus Bussmann, PhD

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