What does it mean to be an LGBTQ ‘ally’?

Genuine inclusion requires people to move beyond passive acceptance, and employers have a vital role to play, says Jess McNicholas

‘Ally’ is a term that gets used to describe numerous relationships. Countries are geopolitical allies. Business partners are strategic allies. Even long-standing enemies can become temporary allies in the face of a common foe. Today, it is often used to describe someone who supports a social group they themselves are not a part of. But simply calling yourself an ‘ally’ of the LGBTQ community is not enough. It requires active participation and visible gestures of support for the people around us. 

Passive acceptance of the LGBTQ community (saying, for example, “I don’t have a problem with gay people”) is very different from being an active ally who supports LGBTQ inclusion. From policies on healthcare or the ability to adopt a child, to how personal relationships are viewed in the workplace, supporting LGBTQ extends far beyond flying a Pride flag.

Many people are afraid to talk about LGBTQ issues because they don’t know what the ‘right’ words are. But like any group or network, words and acronyms will have very different meanings to the individuals involved. 

For example, how a person characterises their sexuality is often misinterpreted as ’sexual preference’, which implies it’s a choice and easily changed. Instead, the correct terminology would be ’sexual orientation’, ’gay’, ’lesbian’, ’bisexual’, etc. This opportunity and choice is incredibly important for the LGBTQ community, as it allows them to put their identity into words. With gender identity, there is powerful agency and liberation in determining which pronouns you use for yourself – something that is almost always chosen for you.

We live in a society where prejudices still exist, where discrimination is far too common and where we all have our unconscious biases. After all, we’re only human. But we need to consistently work together to deconstruct those biases and preconceived notions of what LGBTQ ’looks like’ – sexual orientation is invisible, and doesn’t look like anything.

Being an ally doesn’t require you to be an expert, but whether it’s through research online or listening to other allies, you need to ask questions and educate yourself. A good rule of thumb is to proceed with genuine curiosity, politeness, and sometimes humility. If you don’t know the answer, ask someone to explain it to you. If you make a mistake, simply acknowledge it and apologise. No one is perfect, but it is better (and preferred) to ask – assume nothing. 

Empower yourself and others

It is a proven fact that diversity of thought is vital for an organisation to succeed. Different viewpoints and perspectives fuel innovative thinking and debate, which can lead to better business outcomes and drive a culture of constructive challenge and accountability. But while progress has been made, there is still work to be done. For example, the Human Rights Campaign Foundation recently revealed that almost half (46 per cent) of LGBTQ workers remain closeted at work – a rate largely unchanged over the past decade. 

At State Street, we’re helping address this with our Global Ally programme. We have started Pride networks and LGBTQ ally conversations in some of our most conservative locations to help build a partnership for all. Working together, we have managed to reflect each other’s diverse experiences and perspectives to constantly challenge each other to think differently. It’s true diversity of thought in action.

While it can often be emotionally and mentally tiring and even uncomfortable at times to be an ally, these feelings are experienced ten-fold by the LGBTQ community, and as allies, we need to help them carry that weight. Being an ally is often associated with politics, but more than anything, being an ally is about being human. 

Through advocacy and support, allies help turn ’them’ into ’us’, encouraging individuals to be themselves, and supporting them through the journey. 

Jess McNicholas is head of global diversity, inclusion and corporate citizenship, EMEA at State Street