Research: How to Be a Better Ally to the LGBTQ+ Community

  • June 26, 2023


by Jacqueline M. Chen and Samantha Joel | April 12, 2023

Workplace discrimination and exclusion remain significant challenges for many workers who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer and for other gender/sexual orientation minorities (LGBTQ+). A 2018 survey by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation found that 46% of LGBTQ+ workers reported being closeted at work and 20% reported searching for a different job because their workplace was unwelcoming to LGBTQ+ individuals. These findings show that there’s still a long way to go before the standard American workplace is fully inclusive for LGBTQ+ employees. Until then, organizations risk losing talented people.

Some straight, cisgender people think of themselves as allies to the LGBTQ+ community, maybe even going so far as to self-designate as such through signage in their workspace or on their personal effects. But do LGBTQ+ individuals actually perceive them to be allies?

To answer this question, we completed a four-year project to investigate how LGBTQ+ individuals determine whether someone is an ally. We conducted six studies, including thousands of LGBTQ+-identified participants across the U.S., to understand the causes and effects of allyship.

Our first step was to find out how LGBTQ+ individuals defined allyship — without biasing their responses with our own definitions. We asked 109 LGBTQ+-identified participants to tell us what it meant to them to be a good ally. Having over 100 written descriptions of allyship, we carefully coded the common themes that emerged in the responses. We found that, according to LGBTQ+-identified people, being a good ally has three components: being accepting (e.g., “They make people feel safe and supported”), taking action (e.g., “They advocate for the group, raise awareness, and defend the group”), and having humility (e.g., “They are a good listener; they are open to correction; they are willing to learn”).

Once we identified these three components, we created a scale to measure how LGBTQ+ people perceived others’ allyship. We then used the scale in studies examining the implications of allyship on LGBTQ+ individuals’ well-being and on the quality of their relationship with the ally. Based on our findings, here’s how you can be a good ally to your LGBTQ+ colleagues — and not just perform allyship.

Be accepting.

As an ally, your behaviors need to demonstrate that you accept and validate LGBTQ+ individuals’ gender and/or sexual identities. Using our allyship scale, people who are rated as “wanting equal rights for everyone” and “caring that people are treated fairly” would score highly on this component of allyship.

Acceptance is foundational to good allyship. However, although participants rated it as the most critical component of the three we discovered, the results of one study indicate that it’s not sufficient on its own.

Specifically, we presented a sample of LGBTQ+ participants with a hypothetical news article describing restrictions on same-sex couples’ adoption rights. The article included descriptions of four individuals, each described in terms of their favorability toward adoption by same-sex couples (i.e., low vs. high acceptance of same-sex couples’ right to adopt) and whether they had signed a petition supporting same-sex couples’ right to adopt (i.e., low vs. high action).

The four hypothetical individuals’ behavior fell into four categories: low acceptance/low action, low acceptance/high action, high acceptance/low action, and high acceptance/high action. Not surprisingly, the person low in both acceptance and action was judged to be the worst ally, and the one high in both acceptance and action was judged to be the best ally. In addition, the high-acceptance/low-action person was judged to be a better ally than the person who was low in acceptance but high in action.

The experiment’s results reveal two important lessons about how the components of allyship operate. First, the fact that taking action had a muted impact on allyship unless acceptance was high tells us that being accepting is the essential first step to becoming an ally. Taking action when your beliefs are still biased against LGBTQ+ people will have limited impact on your allyship level. Second, the fact that the person high in both acceptance and action was rated as the best ally indicates that solely being accepting is not enough to maximize your level of allyship.

Take action.

That experiment showed that the most unbiased, accepting person still has room to grow. Specifically, allies are people who take action to improve the climate around them and to improve themselves. Based on our scale of allyship, someone would be considered as scoring high on action if they “speak out against anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination” and “seek out opportunities to learn about LGBTQ+ issues.”

Taking action starts with the self. Do you educate yourself to learn about the issues impacting LGBTQ+ individuals, whether in your workplace or in your broader community? Doing this requires time, energy, and listening, and it may even be upsetting at times — but the process is important for self-improvement.

Good allies also confront both interpersonal biases (e.g., a coworker making an offensive comment) and systemic biases (e.g., a workplace dress code that discriminates against gender-queer individuals).

Taking action can be difficult because it can be costly to speak up, and you may worry about the negative consequences of doing so. The challenges of taking action were reflected in our findings; our sample of LGBTQ+ participants rated their family, friends, and coworkers as lowest on this component of allyship relative to the other two components.

Despite the challenges of taking action, it also has the biggest rewards. Our research found that taking action is the most important component of allyship for enhancing LGBTQ+ individuals’ well-being. We conducted a six-week-long study in which we collected data from roommate pairs where one person was LGBTQ+-identified and the other (the roommate) was not. These participants were mostly young adults living with friends. We found that the roommates’ allyship levels measured in one week predicted improvements in LGBTQ+ individuals’ well-being (higher self-esteem, greater life satisfaction, and lower stress) the following week. These gains were driven by LGBTQ+ individuals’ perceptions of their roommates’ taking action. In other words, the roommate taking action predicted future increases in LGBTQ+ individuals’ well-being.

Have humility.

The final component of allyship we discovered is humility. Someone would score highly on having humility if they “listen more than they speak in discussions of LGBTQ+ issues” and “keep the focus off of themselves in discussions of LGBTQ+ issues.”

Being humble involves trying to truly learn about LGBTQ+ issues from members of the community rather than performing allyship in order to make a good impression. To develop humility, ask yourself: When issues of diversity and inclusion come up in the workplace, are you truly listening, or are you more interested in managing others’ impressions of you?

Humility is a “cherry on top” of being a good ally in the sense that it was mentioned about 5 to 10% less frequently than being accepting and taking action. It was also rated as somewhat lower in importance compared to acceptance and action. Nevertheless, in the roommate study described earlier, all three components of the roommate’s allyship — including humility — had a unique association with the LGBTQ+ participants’ subjective well-being (i.e., their life satisfaction).

Humility is an interesting trait, because it’s more difficult to self-diagnose compared to acceptance and action. From the roommate study data, we were able to determine how well the participants and roommates agreed on the roommates’ levels of acceptance, action, and humility. Although the participants and roommates had high agreement on the roommates’ acceptance and action, they had less agreement on the roommates’ humility. These findings suggest that you’re better at gauging your own levels of acceptance and action than your own level of humility, so you should be cautious in judging whether you’re truly humble in your allyship. If you feel comfortable doing so, ask someone you trust whether you’ve achieved humility as an ally.

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LGBTQ+ individuals felt closer to and had higher appreciation for their colleagues who they perceived to be good allies. And being a good ally may even be associated with future increases in your LGBTQ+ colleagues’ self-esteem and life satisfaction and decreases in their stress levels. All in all, being a good ally is beneficial to both the ally and those with marginalized gender and/or sexual identities.


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