Three Perspectives on How to be an Effective LGBTQ Ally in the Energy Sector


By G.G. Merkel, Spring 2018 Fellow

Two foundational traits of effective leaders are empathy for, and respect of differences. With over 3 million (3,384,834) people employed by the renewable energy sector as of 2016, it is likely that your teammates have different experiences or identities than your own. Empathy and respect are important skills to have when seeking to develop meaningful relationships and lead effective teams

The Clean Energy Leadership Institute has made the decision to prioritize diversity and inclusion training as part of our programming moving forward. To support these efforts, we partnered with LGBTQ identifying people in the cleantech community to host a panel titled, Ways to be an Effective LGBTQ Ally in Energy. With their permission, we have documented parts of the discussion. The intention of this dialogue is to bring attention to the unique experiences of LGBTQ people in the workplace and share strategies that leaders or individuals can employ to effectively work alongside and support the people in their community. 


How do you think people see you in the workplace?

GG | I’m misgendered often. My gender expression, or the way I present, is more masculine than what is considered traditionally feminine. People assume I’m transitioning to be a man or that I want to be referenced with he/him/his pronouns.

Rosa | Because I present myself in a feminine way, I think most people assume I am a straight, cisgender female.

Hannah | If someone were to wonder about my relationship status in the workplace, I imagine they might assume that I am straight because of the feminine way I present myself. I have the privilege of not being misgendered at work.

How do you identify?

GG | I identify as a queer, cis, woman. My clothes and mannerisms are considered masculine, but I like to think that I am expanding the definitions of what women look like or what it means to be a woman.

Rosa | I identify as a cisgender lesbian.

Hannah | I am a femme woman who loves women and is attracted to people across the spectrum but is "mostly gay.". My favorite animals are the orcas of the Pacific Northwest and I enjoy hiking on the weekends.

How can someone ask if you’re gay in a non-invasive way? Do you have good examples of experiences where coworkers helped you come out or asked you?

GG | I think asking is inappropriate. Instead, it’s best to communicate and demonstrate that you are an ally. Coming out is a personal decision and a matter of trust. I’m more likely to come out or build relationships with people who don’t assume the gender of my partners or my own gender identity. If someone tells you directly, it probably means they are comfortable with you, and that is the time to ask questions.

Rosa | I often find that this doesn’t come up by someone directly asking about my sexuality, but more so someone asking about if I have a partner. I love the word partner because it is very inclusive and allows whoever is answering the question to really drive what they would like to share with others.

Hannah | I don’t think there is a non-invasive way to ask about a co-worker’s sexuality. Especially in the workplace. Asking preferred pronouns can be an effective act of allyship but only if it doesn’t single out the non-gender conforming person. Generally, I don’t see a person’s sexuality having a place in conversions at work.

What indicators do you use to identify a workplace as queer-friendly and how can allies support their existence?

GG | Creating an inclusive atmosphere in the workplace, where every employee feels respected and safe, goes beyond formal policy. I look for allies who understand how to Talk About Pronouns in the Workplace, keep up to date on advocacy issues that affect the LGBTQ community, and defends against slurs or casual homophobia that occurs when someone makes an off-color joke or comment.

Rosa | The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Foundation, is the educational arm of the nation’s largest LGBTQ civil rights organization and ranks U.S. businesses to measure equality in the workplace. I would look to see if the company has achieved a perfect score with the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Corporate Equality Index, which is a foundational measure of the policies at a particular company. I would also see if they have an LGBT affinity group and if so, how active that group may be.

Hannah | While I agree that policies can be a good indicator of a workplace’s solidarity with LGBTQ people or minority groups, it really comes down to the actions of coworkers and the behavior that the company culture perpetuates. Outside from asking probing questions about a person’s attitude towards queerness during an initial interview, I think it’s difficult to tell how supportive a company really is until you’re in it.

Allies looking to create a safe space can start by not outing people they know to be LGBTQ identifying. Though the intention may be harmless, it’s important to remember that the impact of outing someone can be harmful. An ally will also have the courage to call out homophobic or sexist beliefs if they do surface and will support their colleague if the issue needs to be escalated to HR, etc.

What resources do you recommend to folks interested in learning more about being an effective ally?

GG | PFLAG is the nation's largest family and ally organization and created an Ally Spectrum as part of their Straight for Equality campaign. The campaign started in 2007 as a way for allies to learn what to do when it comes to supporting queer communities. The website offers tailored answers and resources for their entire spectrum since new allies will have different concerns than someone that’s been helping out for years. For more in-depth reading, I recommend their guide to being a straight ally or guide to being a trans ally.

Rosa | Education is the primary starting point I would recommend. Someone wanting to be an ally can begin by educating themselves on how the LGBT rights movement started, the current state of LGBT rights in the US and abroad, as well as through personal interactions with folks who identify as LGBT.

In graduate school, we celebrated National Coming Out Day by sharing our coming out stories. Hearing those stories was a pivotal moment in educating our allies about the personal struggles faced in coming out. While I wouldn’t recommend asking a random co-worker about theirs, I think it can lead to a powerful dialogue in the company of a close, trusted friend.

Hannah | In my opinion, the most effective allies are the ones who are comfortable with knowing that they will never truly understand another person’s experiences but are confident enough to never stop trying to. Being an effective ally requires having the emotional intelligence to know when is and when is not an appropriate time to engage in conversations that can be potentially triggering or upsetting for the other person. Like any situation where you are trying to understand a perspective different from your own, it requires setting aside ego to be vulnerable enough to ask questions, actively listen, and create space that prioritizes learning over knowing.

These are, without question, difficult things to do regardless of who you are trying to be an ally for. I do, however, think they are necessary if we are going to develop as leaders that can effectively collaborate with and inspire people from all walks of life to make a positive change in the world.


G.G. Merkel is a Spring 2018 CELI Alumnus. She previously worked at Tesla on the finance and operations team and is currently looking for new opportunities. You can contact her on Linkedin.