HR and people management

Alphabet soup: How to refer to my LGBTQI+ colleague

The alphabet soup LGBTQI+ of sexual orientation and gender identity only gets larger. Referring to someone who is not straight or cisgender may be a challenge to a lot of people.

LGBTQ+ umbrella

Gustavo, legal adviser with experience in human rights and international law, shares some background and tips.

As a matter of inclusivity, the old initials LGBT gave space to LGBTTQI+ (lesbians, gays, bi-sexuals, 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 seven 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.

What is cisgender and transgender?

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.

Straight refers to heterosexuals, and gay/lesbian refers to homosexuals. But this is not all, and the whole spectrum of possibilities could not be put down in words.

Binary vs fluidity

Against the idea that only two forms of sexual orientation or two forms of gender identity are possible, being queer 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, being queer is a way to defend the complexity of sexual behaviours and desires. It is the idea that the world is constantly changing and we cannot stand for fixed ideas or immutable concepts.

We're here. We're queer. Get used to it

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.

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 a work place.

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, humanity is shared.

"Hi, I'm Gustavo and I use the pronoun 'he'"

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 workplace.  

Being the first to say: "Hi, I'm Gustavo and I use the pronoun 'he'" creates a safe space where 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. Aim to:

  • 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

Being loud and clear about being an ally and standing out against any form of homophobic language and behavior are part of embracing the diversity of people who are not heterosexual and cisgender. The first conversation may be clumsy, but being frank and well intentioned to approach someone is a great first step to break the boundaries for a relevant conversation.

This can be helpful to improve productivity or to enhance business relations, but may also be a trigger to reformulations and changes in our society; so people  can relate to the ones they encounter with confidence, pride, freedom and equality, and this is what ultimately brings one to life.


Views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Law Society.

Maximise your Law Society membership with My LS