A businessman and member of the LGBTQ+ community shake hands over a background with the colors of the transgender pride flag

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When it comes to queer representation in the workplace, there’s what companies say they’re doing, and then there’s reality. Many organizations have adopted the aesthetic of serving the LGBTQ+ community—what is commonly known as “rainbow capitalism.” It includes the pattern of progressive rebranding and cosmetic activism, but does little to support the LGBTQ+ community in practical ways.

Discrimination against LGB and especially TQ+ individuals surpasses these headlines and impacts day-to-day lives and wellbeing. The National Center for Transgender Equality reports that 25% of transgender people have lost a job due to bias, while 75% have experienced workplace discrimination. Historically the most vulnerable, transgender people earn less, are unemployed more, and are frequently passed over for promotion. Even today in the United States, studies show one in three transgender people will experience homelessness.

I am a transgender nonbinary person, but I have many privileges in Japan as a white-passing foreigner from a developed country. As a native English speaker, I am guaranteed a comfortable (if tedious) job teaching English, should my other ventures fail.

But I have also experienced discrimination, including transphobic bullying, passive-aggressive comments, and sexual harassment in the workplace. I’ve been scolded by coworkers and classmates for using masculine-sounding Japanese. Day-to-day microaggressions, cringe humor, misgendering from coworkers, and apathy make health and happiness a fragile thing.

And again, I am one of the lucky ones.

On a positive note, we now seem to be entering an era where more people at different levels of influence have the common goal of making their workplaces more welcoming. But where to start? Both for well-intentioned allies and for queer people looking to introduce change, here are seven actions for how we can question, improve, and reframe company policy making to better support the LGBTQ+ community in the workplace.

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Redefining DEI as Diversity, Equity, and Innovation

As the global understanding of diversity as a business strategy continues to evolve, perhaps it’s time to redefine DEI as diversity, equity, and innovation.

How to Keep “Common Sense” from Ruining Diversity of Thought

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Many-colored strips of paper overlaid and all reading "common sense" to show diversity of thought in unexpected places

7 Actions to Support the LGBTQ+ Community in Your Workplace

1) Set a goal.

It’s easy to feel paralyzed in the face of huge, lifelong social endeavors such as fighting structural oppression. Don’t try to take on these behemoths all at once. Instead, break them down into attainable, measurable goals. This will facilitate progress and help you recognize milestones.

For example, if your overarching goal is to make your company more trans-inclusive, begin by requiring employees to include their pronouns in their email signatures, Slack handles, or site profiles. This will have the dual benefit of helping the majority normalize recognition of trans or nonbinary team coworkers and giving your trans employees an easy avenue to express their identity.

Whatever goals you set, collect and measure the data: employee turnover rates, retention, and responses to employee wellness surveys. Goals such as “higher trust between employees and employers” or “greater respect among teammates” can be applied to any company.

2) Don’t react—plan.

The time to reform policies for LGBTQ+ hires is now—or rather, yesterday.

Smart business leaders structure their companies to accommodate the safety and needs of employees, current and future. A workplace that has yet, for example, to arrange gender-neutral bathroom options and a fluid dress code will be less appealing to potential trans/nonbinary hires. As for those already on staff, many queer people will conceal their identities precisely because their company has yet to cultivate an LGBTQ+-friendly environment.

As a trans/nonbinary person, I can attest that the situation is rarely a matter of “when the trans hires arrive.” The trans folk are already here—they just haven’t come out.

While in recent years I have become very open, I was closeted for most of my professional life. I was also far from alone: at my former job at an international company, I socialized with a number of gay and transgender coworkers who had either opted to stay in the closet or been subtly pressured by management to do so.

Really, the onus should be on the manager, HR team, or business leader to be proactive about making a workplace more inclusive—not pressuring the minority to fight for change.

One tool used by noted D&I consultant Lily Zheng is a fictional employee profile—someone who is marginalized both socially and physically. For example, this employee could be transgender, a single mother, a person of color, a non-native speaker of English, and disabled in ways that make navigating an office difficult. She has myriad intersections to her identity and experience that would hinder her in most traditional workplaces.

To plan (rather than react) to such an employee, frame your policy reform around the question, “How could this employee thrive?” This will make it easier to craft a workplace that is supportive and accessible to all.

3) Think “universal inclusion,” not exceptions.

The curb-cut effect dictates that changes made to provide equity for one group end up benefitting the many. With that in mind, remember that any and all accommodations you make for LGBTQ+ employees can—and should—be applied universally.

Making overarching policy changes with nonconforming employees in mind, as Zheng suggests, sets clearer and fairer expectations for everyone. They benefit trans and gender-nonconforming employees who are not out at work, empower cisgender employees who simply enjoy nontraditional gender expression (i.e., men with long hair), and build solidarity among employees. Moreover, transgender employees will not feel beholden to management for allowing exceptions, but instead maintain their dignity and sense of equality in the office.

One of my former jobs had traditional gendered dress codes which managers would enforce at their own discretion. This included a manager who infamously made the women/assigned-female-at-birth employees wear high heels. (This does not refer to former Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Takumi Nemoto, though well it might.) Another manager scolded me for having a shaved head, and then told me he would permit my androgynous hair on the condition I bought nicer shoes.
Gender-free dress codes surpass merely aesthetic progressivism to impact queer employee’s mental health and safety. Similarly, providing universal spousal benefits, family plans, and housing subsidies for LGBTQ+ employees must be a priority for companies looking to provide equal rights.

Next Article

Kan: An Authentic Role Model Taking on Psychological Safety

Psychological safety in Japan has a long road ahead. But public figures like Kan aim to change that by becoming relatable role models for the LGBTQ+ community.
Smiling image of Kan, a Japanese gay man striving to become a role model for psychological safety in Japan

5 Ways to Be an Ally in the Workplace

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A woman stands in front of two men. All three face the camera, smile, and are wearing business attire.

4) Involve everyone—even the uninterested.

One of the challenges with promoting diversity and inclusion in a workplace is that audiences tend to self-select. That is, people who already have an interest in social justice issues will participate enthusiastically, while others who are ignorant of or apathetic towards these initiatives will usually skip or even become polarized against them.

In the delicate balancing act of introducing diversity programs to an office, it is wise to take stock of which camp each employee falls into and to develop different programs accordingly. Not all employees who are uninterested in diversity and LGBTQ+ rights are opposed to these principles. Rather, they would benefit from communication and training to make these issues relatable and to promote common ground.

5) Establish a clear action plan for conflict.

There are inevitably going to be employees who do not accept diversity training and consistently disrespect their queer coworkers. There are words for that: harassment and workplace discrimination.

While proper training can bring conservative coworkers onboard, statistics and personal experience attest that some coworkers will openly resist.  Their actions must be seen not only as harmful to minority coworkers around them, but also as perpetuating the discrimination of wider society. Your HR department must have a contingency plan that prioritizes the marginalized party in these conflicts. Japanese law is particularly slow to institute suitable protections for the LGBTQ+ community, but an ethical company will implement policies that go above and beyond in protecting its workers.

No one should have to debate their human rights at work. No one should have to fend off attacks on their humanity while they earn their living.

6) Set high expectations for yourself.

Ultimately, whether you are an ally, a member of a particular marginalized group, or a newcomer to considering these structural power imbalances, you’re bound to make mistakes.

I have misgendered friends and family—I sometimes even misgender myself! In such situations, there is an easy course of action: accept accountability, apologize, and move forward. Mistakes made in good faith are not the end of the world, but they are an opportunity to grow and develop empathy.

Listen if corrected and read the room. If necessary, check with a coworker to see that you are treating them respectfully.

7) Hire a DEI consultant, and do more reading!

Investing in a professional DEI consultant to develop training and workshops is a worthy use of funds. Indeed, funds should be allocated to your diversity efforts, not merely for PR or to head off conflicts, but to proactively cultivate a healthier work environment for marginalized groups like the LGBTQ+ community.

Ultimately, these seven points are a launch pad for further reading and research. A business leader and proactive ally will demonstrate commitment to these issues by building their insight and investing in books and other resources. The goal isn’t just to understand, but to improve company policy and implement intersectional theory.

These issues do not stop at the office lobby. They are carried through our daily lives and relationships. So do better than a rainbow logo for Pride Month. Read further, listen more closely, and learn more about the stories of the people around you.

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