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Understanding and Supporting the LGBTQ+ Community — 9 Questions Answered

The LGBTQ+ community is vast and diverse, so there’s a lot to learn about it, whether you’re exploring your sexuality or just want to know how you can show support. Here, Kathryn Macapagal, PhD, from the Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing (ISGMH) at Northwestern University provides answers to nine commonly asked questions about the LGBTQ+ community. 

What does LGBTQ+ mean?

Whenever you use the whole acronym, or the umbrella term, it typically means that you're referring to the whole community: people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and people whose identities don't fall under those acronyms are the “plus" — for example, people who are questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity, people who are intersex, asexual, etc. 

If you're referring to a specific community, you should use the specific label for that group and not the umbrella term. If, for example, you are describing a group of gay men, you would just refer to them as gay men — not LGBTQ+ men. 

What pronouns should you use when you’re addressing someone?

You should always use the name and pronoun that people use for themselves.

To find this out, straightforward questions are appropriate:

  • What name do you go by?
  • What do you prefer to be called?
  • What pronouns do you use?

I would use these questions with anyone, regardless of whether I think they identify as LGBTQ+ or not, out of respect. I would avoid assuming what someone’s sexual orientation and gender identity are or what label they use based on how they look, how they act, or who they are with. 

What does gay mean, and whom can we describe as gay?

Gay is a sexual identity label that most often means that you're attracted to people of the same sex or gender as you. Although it is most often used by men, women who are attracted to the same sex or gender might identify as lesbians, or they might choose to identify as gay, or both. It is always up to the person to decide what identity label they want to use to reflect their experiences, and we should use the language people choose for themselves when we’re addressing them.

Is it okay to say gay?

This really depends on the person, the culture, and the context that you're in. It's certainly not okay when it's used like a slur, an insult, or a joke. But if you're referring to somebody's identity and that's the identity label they prefer to use, then yes, it's okay to use it, as long as it's not going to get that person in trouble (such as getting arrested, outing them before they’re ready, or anything like that) because it is still a crime to identify as gay or identify with the LGBTQ+ community in some countries.

What does it mean to be a lesbian, or what is the difference between lesbian and gay?

The term "lesbian" is used for women who are exclusively or primarily attracted to women, and "gay" is often used for men who are exclusively or primarily attracted to men. But again, gay is also a term that can refer to people who are exclusively or primarily attracted to the same sex or gender, regardless of that person’s own gender.

How can we support trans and nonbinary peers in public restrooms?

In an ideal world, people could use whatever bathroom they want. But we don't live in an ideal world. That is why people should use the bathroom that they feel safer using. If a person doesn’t feel safe using a men’s or women’s bathroom, single-stall all-gender bathrooms or family restrooms are a good option, but they may not always be available. It's up to the person to decide what bathroom they feel safe using in that particular environment. 

And if you're a friend of that person or an ally, there are a few things you could do. You can offer to support them by standing by the bathroom door or by the sink (if in a multi-stall restroom). If someone questions whether they should be in that bathroom, you can help by responding to those questions (for example, by saying they’re in the right restroom or that you’re almost finished). 

They might have a specific type of support they’d like — ask them if there’s something you can do to help.

What are some issues LGBTQ+ people encounter in their lives and society?

The main issues an LGBTQ+ person deals with depend on the context of where they live and the culture and the climate toward LGBTQ+ folks in that specific location.

If you are open about your LGBTQ+ identity, or if people assume or think that you are a sexual or gender minority, you might encounter discrimination over the course of your life. 

People can experience overt, or obvious, discrimination including slurs or insults or denying people their rights or health care based on individuals’ moral or religious objection to LGBTQ+ people. 

LGBTQ+ people can also experience discrimination that is covert, or less obvious, but still harmful. Microaggressions are small things that add up over time and lead to worse mental and physical health. This is much more common than overt discrimination and can be behaviors like casual comments that people might make in everyday conversation and don’t realize are a big deal, or assumptions that people might make about somebody based on their appearance or identity that might be a little hurtful in the moment. But over time, these hurtful situations or experiences can add up and cause a lot of stress. 

Do LGBTQ+ people have any protected rights in the workplace?

In the US, whether LGBT people are protected from being discriminated against or fired on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity depends on the specific state where they live. 

Different states have different policies: some states have policies protecting people from being discriminated against in the workplace for their sexual orientation, but not their gender identity. Some places have protections for both sexual orientation and gender identity, and some places don't have any protection at all. 

LGBTQ+ folks can easily look up their local laws about what protections they have in the workplace regarding sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination.

How can we work to create a society that’s safe and supportive for LGBTQ+ people?

There are a lot of ways that people can support the LGBTQ+ people in their lives. It boils down to being welcoming, accepting, and respectful. 

  • On a day-to-day basis, this might include using their preferred name and pronouns.
  • Don’t make assumptions about anyone’s sexual orientation or gender identity on the basis of how they look or who they are partnered with.
  • If you have lots of questions about someone’s sexuality or gender, don’t ask them to educate you or do the work for you because you can likely learn about that on your own. 

In the workplace or in public spaces, there are signals that can show your support. A couple of obvious things like rainbow flags or signs that say “all are welcome here” might indicate to LGBTQ+ folks that they might feel safer there. In an office, the presence of more progressive magazines or publications could also be a signal. And you can also create a safe and supportive space if you see somebody being threatened or discriminated against just by saying something. 

At a larger level, you can also get involved in advocacy or activism supporting the LGBTQ+ community, which is more critical now than ever.

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