I was called gay for the first time when I was 11, before I even knew what the word meant. It was then that my journey to find belonging began. When I finally found refuge in New York City after college, I naively thought everything would change for me overnight. By the end of my first week, I had already encountered homophobic slurs on the street. I still felt bothered everywhere I went, and, as I began my job search, I desperately looked for a place where I would fit in.
I landed my first job at a company run by a gay CEO. The company held regular pride events, had LGBTQ-focused products, and had more LGBTQ+ employees than heterosexual ones. I have to admit, it was a huge culture shock. It was terrifying to be asked and expected to be myself at work. I didn’t know who I was.
In my next job, I took my learnings from the previous company and was unapologetically myself from day one. It was a culture shift to say the least — I was the token gay employee. I ran the HR department and I quickly realized that the founders were rejecting many of the queer candidates I was moving forward. When our first trans candidate moved through the process, one founder told me to reject her. I knew it wasn’t because of her qualifications, but I stayed quiet in order to keep my job. I felt like a sellout.
A few months later, I was asked to be a part of a meeting that would just be me and a founder representing the brand. It seemed like a great opportunity, so I naturally said yes. When the meeting began, however, it soon became clear why I had been asked to join this particular meeting: the representative was gay. After the meeting went south, my boss flew into me. Why didn’t I speak up and try to identify with him?
I felt like an idiot. Here I was, thinking I had come so far — a queer kid from Mississippi living this big, authentic life in New York. By 23, I had already experienced both belonging and tokenism. As I grew in my career, I aimed to take my own experiences with me as I created and fostered inclusive work environments in the tech startup space.
Here are some ways that startups can create these environments for themselves:
Establish Inclusive Policies From the Start
Nuance matters, not just visibility. It’s not enough to just hire LGBTQ+ individuals, have LGBTQ+ employee resource groups, or orchestrate a Pride campaign.
Inclusivity should be at the core of your company. Take some time to review your company’s policies, benefits and perks and ensure that they’re applicable to LGBTQ+ employees and their families. This includes domestic partnership healthcare coverage, healthcare coverage for LGBTQ+ medications and medical surgeries, and fertility benefits for LGBTQ+ employees. Additionally, expand parental leave to include LGBTQ+ individuals who aim to adopt or use surrogacy or other fertility means.
Internal documents and corporate communications should also use “they/them” pronouns, instead of “he/him” or “she/her.” Using inclusive language in corporate communications lets queer employees know they are valued and seen at your organization.
Remember: Prerequisites are not required to establish inclusive policies and expectations. For example, a company shouldn’t have to wait to have an openly trans employee to provide gender-neutral bathrooms, ask employees their pronouns, or establish more inclusive benefits policies for transitioning individuals.
Create a Safe Work Environment
While startups can often blur the line between work and play, many employees still aim to have some level of separation between their personal and professional life. While you should create an environment that allows for more authentic connection, you can’t require it.
Safety is still a major concern for many in the community. Not only physical safety, but emotional and psychological safety as well. As early as possible, create an employee resource group for LGBTQ+ individuals and give them a small budget to use at their discretion. This will create a micro community and space for LGBTQ+ employees to find and share thoughts with one another.
Creating a safe work environment includes respecting an employee’s right to privacy while working to ensure they feel comfortable bringing their authentic selves to work. One way to do this is by creating a mentorship program that allows individuals to seek advice and counsel from leaders within the organization. HR can also play a role, by creating channels for LGBTQ+ employees to approach them regarding personal safety and security. While HR might be a known resource for employees, some LGBTQ+ employees might not know how HR representatives can support them specifically. Ways to show that you are an ally and open to conversation are to post LGBTQ+ signage on your office or desk, send memos and messages out to the company about LGBTQ+ issues, and create methods for anonymous questions and feedback that respect privacy but allow for discrimination, harassment, or other issues to come to light.
Belonging doesn’t happen overnight. Many queer individuals have trauma they are still working through when they enter the workforce. It takes time for individuals to work through that and get to a place where they feel safe enough to belong. That might not happen during their tenure at your organization, and that is OK. You still can help by creating the opportunity for them to do so during their time with your company. The more you provide them with security, safety and inclusion, the more they will start to feel that they belong.
Celebrate the Community
Many startups celebrate and advertise their unique approach to company culture. As you strive to create your own, make sure yours embraces the queer community through your culture initiatives and corporate giving. In addition to using inclusive language, avoid gendered events, like gender reveals or events of that nature, and attempt to honor all employees through everything that you do as an organization.
Not sure where to start? Create strategies around LGBTQ+ holidays to shape your efforts. This could include honoring the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots or the Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality through programming and education of LGBTQ+ history. Communicating resources and educational tools through email or planning roundtables or fireside chats with leaders in the LGBTQ+ community to discuss the movement is a great way to honor the history.
This strategy should not just be limited to cultural offerings or employee events but company wide. It should factor into your product offerings, by considering your potential LGBTQ+ consumers; your services, by thinking about your LGBTQ+ users; your external campaigns, by including LGBTQ+ representation in your corporate communications and marketing collateral.
Offer your LGBTQ+ voices an opportunity to share their perspectives and to be active participants in these strategies. One way to do this is by reaching out to the employee resource group to see if anyone has thoughts or wants to be involved. Remember, this option should be presented — not required — to avoid employees feeling exploited, tokenized, or pressured to participate if they wish to opt out.
My journey is not unique, and I’ve chosen to embrace my queerness every day at work. I had to first learn how to be my authentic self before I could be asked to bring that self to the workplace, and I’m grateful to where my journey has led me today.
As you work to provide the opportunities, resources and spaces necessary for LGBTQ+ individuals to truly thrive in the workplace, don’t be afraid to reach out and gain their perspectives on how you’re doing and ways to improve. Acknowledge where you need to grow, speak to that publicly, and hold yourself accountable to that growth by tracking your progress openly and sharing the results often with the company. And, most importantly, be earnest and human.