Microaggressions at work can be destabilizing and dispiriting. Seeking community afterward is important for healing.
Beyond the blatant workplace discrimination that LGBTQ+ professionals still face too often, there can also be everyday slights and insidious invalidations ― known as microaggressions ― that leave lasting harm.
Just because “micro” is in the name doesn’t mean the impact of these put-downs is small.
“It’s very hard to prove. And that’s what makes microaggressions, to me, a worse type of aggression than blatant aggression,” said Mychelle Williams, a Washington, D.C.-based therapist who founded Therapy to a Tea and works with gender-diverse and neurodiverse individuals. “It’s harder to get justice, it’s harder to address. It goes on for longer. Sometimes people can’t see what you see. They don’t connect it the way you connect it, and trying to explain it is a bunch of labor.”
We asked queer therapists to share the common workplace microaggressions they see LGBTQ+ clients encounter, as well as tips for how to heal after these kinds of situations.
There can often be an assumption that you are not LGBTQ+.
When colleagues assume that you are heterosexual or cisgender, it can cause them to make comments that invalidate your identity.
Therapist Madison McCullough shared the example of a woman identifying as bisexual and having a colleague say something implying that the woman is heterosexual.
“I think that one of the most effective ways to respond to that is with some gentle curiosity and also boundaries by saying: ‘Huh, yeah, actually, that’s not how I identify. I’m not hetero,’ and whatever words are most consistent with their experience,” McCullough said. She noted that in general, the way you choose to respond to microaggressions is dependent on how safe you feel being out at work or talking to a particular co-worker.
If you’re open to keeping that conversation going with the colleague, you could say, “I’m happy to answer questions you might have about that,” McCullough suggested. Or if you are not, you could say, “I don’t feel comfortable saying more about it than that, but it’s really important to me that you know that much.”
In general, assumptions can be made about your gender identity and sexual orientation that may be uncomfortable to correct in environments where heteronormative behavior is the norm.
Williams, who uses she/they pronouns, said there can be a lot of work environments where colleagues feel “super entitled to personal information about you outside of work.” This can can then lead to “people not knowing how to navigate those conversations for fear of being ostracized by not sharing or participating, and also ostracized by participating and then not participating with the right information,” she noted.
In the midst of these stressors, it can help to make your work area a space that protects your peace as much as possible. Jordan White, a licensed clinical social worker in Florida and Illinois, acknowledged that as an LGBTQ+ professional, you may be constantly coming out to people throughout your career. Because of that, it can help to put up pictures that make your workspace more comfortable to you, for example.
There can be pressure to tone down your behavior or appearance.
White said he can still recall being told by an employer that “you are too out there, and you need to tone it down and be less gay and swishy and flamboyant.”
In that case, White said he remembers debriefing with friends and diving into how he was feeling. “I also sought guidance through therapy,” he said. “In my reaction, I initially looked shocked, I think. But then I also said to this supervisor: ‘I’m sorry that this has bothered you. This is my personality, and in the future around you I can continue to work on my mannerisms.’”
If you want to set a boundary around hurtful language, White suggested saying something like: “That hurt my feelings when you said that. Next time could you please not use that term?”
There can also be comments that invalidate the importance of LGBTQ+ pride.
Invalidations can similarly come from a lack of care and consideration around LGBTQ+ events.
Therapist Sara Stanizai, who founded a queer- and trans-affirming practice in Long Beach, California, said clients have told her about colleagues not taking corporate events seriously during Pride month.
This can come with comments like, “Ugh, why does our company have to do this? And why are they making such a big deal about it?” Stanizai said. “[Clients] actually do come to session and are like, ‘It’s really hard for me because I can’t complain about this without outing myself, and I don’t really want to,’” she recalled.
In these cases, it can help for allies to call out these invalidations so that the burden is not on LGBTQ+ professionals. “You can object to jokes or off-color remarks or even certain policies without being queer yourself,” Stanizai said.
And for queer professionals who worry they are making a big deal out of nothing, Stanizai suggested that they affirm their own feelings. “I just help remind them: ‘Yeah, it’s OK to be bothered by this. Your feelings count.’ But I also remind them that there’s not one correct way to respond,’” she said.
If you are out, there may be an expectation that you’re an expert on all things LGBTQ+.
If you are openly out at work, you can face additional pressures to be the go-to consultant for LGBTQ+ events and projects, which can feel like another job on top of your actual role.
As an example, Stanizai said this may come up when Pride events are treated as an afterthought instead of coming from a genuine place, with comments like: “Hey, this is what we’re going to do. Can you just plan it?”
Often there is not an acknowledgment of the power dynamics at play in colleagues’ requests. “A lot of times, they’re not checking in with that person to say, ‘Hey, because you hold these identities, is this something that you would like to participate in?’” said Williams. “It’s almost like they’re roped in and they don’t feel like they have much of a choice.”
In these situations, “I would encourage people to ask for a partner within the department,” they said. Also, you can ask questions like “Is there someone else in this department that I can work with?” and “Is this something that is already expected of me, or is this something optional that I participate in?”
The goal is to get on the same page about this being work that you’re now asked to do.
If you want to push back against the request directly, you could say, “Hey, I know this is one of the identities that I hold, but I don’t feel comfortable being the spokesperson on this,” Williams suggested.
If you feel secure in speaking up, McCullough recommended pointing out the tokenization of your identity with language like: “My speaking on behalf of everybody perpetuates a marginalization that I’m really trying to break down. And so I don’t feel comfortable making that statement in such a broad way.”
It's on all employees to make the office a safe space.
Here’s how to handle and process microaggressions about your queer identity.
Microaggressions can be dispiriting to experience, which is why making time to debrief with yourself and find avenues to heal is so important. Here’s how:
Document what happened.
“I recommend putting down the date, what occurred and if you responded in any way,” White said.
These notes can be used for a future escalation to human resources or as a way to personally process what just happened. At one job, Williams recalled keeping a log that documented what was said and implied, as well as any response to these microaggressions.
“I just kept that one as a log for myself because if you are interacting with someone and if they deny your experience, you can start to question your own experience,” Williams said. “And that causes so much mental stress on your mind and your body.”
“Sometimes, walking away and taking some deep breaths is the easiest way for us to move past it,” White said.
Ask yourself what you need.
McCullough noted that microaggressions can be deeply destabilizing and challenging to your sense of identity.
After a microaggression happens, ask yourself, “One, how am I feeling right now, and two, what do I need in order for that feeling to be cared for?” McCullough said. “Maybe in a work environment that’s leaving the room, taking a walk around the block, getting a delicious snack or a cup of coffee.”
You can talk with a trusted confidante at work (or elsewhere) and share what happened to you.
“It helps people a lot when they have someone at work that can kind of witness or understand just to validate, like, ‘Yeah, I heard that too, and that wasn’t cool,’” Stanizai said. “And bonus points if that is someone who can say ... ‘If you ever decide you want to do something about it, this is where you would go, this is who you would talk to.’”
You can also search for relevant online communities for support and guidance, Williams suggested.
“There are so many places online to find people to communicate with and connect with. They can use a moniker, they can protect their identity, they can get it off their chest,” Williams said. “Sometimes it’s helpful to see, ‘Oh, it’s not just me.’”
Move your body.
“I would encourage people to get curious about how they can move ... to help their bodies detox from that experience,” Williams said, noting that this can include yoga, a dance class, a walk or other forms of exercise.
Have self-compassion for however you reacted.
Understand that there is not one correct way to react to a microaggression, Stanizai said. “You did what you needed to do. That is perfectly fine. You cannot fight every single battle,” she noted. “I think there’s some relief when people hear that.”
Don’t feel guilty for not having the right words in the moment.
If you were in a stressful situation, the part of your brain that might come up with clever comebacks to a microaggression takes a back seat to the part focused on survival, Williams said: “It’s not because you weren’t quick and witty. It was because your body had to prioritize physical safety in that moment.”
“Remind yourself that you are the way you are supposed to be,” White said, providing another affirmation you could tell yourself.
Seek professional counseling.
Therapists suggested therapy as another way to process a microaggression. Williams highlighted one body-centric approach in particular that might help: somatic therapy, which looks to heal physical and mental connections through grounding and mind-body exercises, among others.
“Somatic therapy really helps us find comfort and safety within our bodies,” Williams said. “It helps us find a way to regulate. And sometimes it helps empower us to build up our personal environments with things that support us.”
If you witness microaggressions, call them out — but ideally, you should check in with the affected person first.
“There’s always something really powerful about a person who has more privilege or social capital in a particular moment speaking out on behalf of a group,” McCullough noted, while cautioning that speaking up could accidentally out the person being harmed at work.
She gave the example of an cisgender ally witnessing a microaggression against a trans colleague by another co-worker.
“The risk that you might run in speaking up about that microaggression is outing that colleague,” McCullough said.
She recommended going to the affected person and saying: “Hey, I saw this happen. And if this happens again or this happens in another context, is there any way that I in particular ... can support you?”