Responding to LGBTQIA+ Microaggressions


**Note: This web-based version of the guide should be used for internal/company reference only; clients in BCx programs should be assigned this guide directly through the Lyra platform.**


LGBTQIA+ microaggressions are insults or slights that communicate negative messages to individuals with diverse sexual orientations and/or gender identities. They often occur due to heteronormative and cis-normative assumptions, which assume that everyone must be heterosexual and conform to the male/female binary. Regardless of the intent behind them, microaggressions are harmful and take a toll on mental well-being. Because these microaggressions can bring up strong emotions and catch people off guard, it can be difficult to know how to respond in the moment.

This handout provides examples of how to respond to microaggressions when you:

  1. personally experience a microaggression
  2. hear a microaggression (even if it may not be directed at you), or
  3. have committed a microaggression yourself.

When making a decision about how to respond to a microaggression, there are a few things to think about.  Consider your needs and well-being when deciding whether or not to respond.

  • How much mental energy do you have at the moment?
    • Are you feeling too stressed or vulnerable to respond?
    • Do you have enough emotional energy to respond?
    • Are you in the right headspace to respond?
  • If you respond…
    • Will your safety be at risk?
    • Will the person become defensive and want to argue?
    • Will this affect your relationship with that person?
    • Will your career be at risk? 
  • If you don’t respond…
    • Will you regret not saying anything?


When experiencing a microaggression yourself

“What are your preferred pronouns?”

  • What it communicates: Your pronouns are a “choice” that you make; they are not part of who you are.
  • Option(s) for responding:
    • Clarification: “Did you mean to ask what pronouns I use, rather than prefer to use?”
    • Acknowledge: “I appreciate that you asked about my pronouns. The pronouns I use are ______.”
    • Advocate: “My pronouns and gender are not a preference, just like your name and gender aren’t a preference. The pronouns I use are _______.”

“You’re just confused, being [nonbinary, bisexual, asexual, etc.] is just a phase. It’s not a real thing.”

  • What it communicates: Your gender identity and/or sexual orientation is not valid. You are making this up, as there are only male/female and heterosexual relationships.
  • Option(s) for responding:
    • Express: “When you say that my gender identity/sexual orientation isn’t “real,” I feel really hurt. This is part of who I am—just like being [heterosexual, male/female] is part of who you are—not simply a choice or a phase.”
    • Curiosity: “I’m just wondering, what makes you think that [being nonbinary, pansexual, etc.] is not a real thing?”
    • Empathy: “I’m curious if you think of being heterosexual in the same way. For example, when did you realize that you were heterosexual? Or, when did you become sure that being heterosexual was “not just a phase” you were going through?”

[upon learning that you are transitioning/transgender] “Oh, when are you having the surgery?”

  • What it communicates: All transgender individuals must have surgeries to have a “successful transition.” There is also assumed to be one universal surgery that transgender individuals must go through.
  • Option(s) for responding:
    • Clarification: “Just to clarify, are you asking if I will have gender-affirming surgery(ies)?”
    • Advocate: “Just so you know, not all transgender individuals feel the need or have the resources to undergo gender affirming surgery(ies).”
    • Curiosity: “I’m curious, do you think that all transgender individuals need to have gender affirming surgery(ies) in order to be ‘valid’?”

“Whoa, your outfit is so feminine/masculine today – you look so much better!”

  • What it communicates: You need to stick to the traditional norms of the gender binary in order to be considered attractive or valuable.
  • Option(s) for responding:
    • Clarification: “Are you saying that you like my outfit today, or that I only look good when I dress more feminine/masuline?”
    • Challenge: “I don’t think I need to dress in a certain way to look ‘good.’”
    • Humor: “I actually thought I looked pretty good the other day…and all the other days I dressed myself.  Thanks!”

Witnessing an LGBTQIA+ microaggression (bystander)

[Upon learning that someone is intersex] “So, does that make them a man or a woman?”

  • What it communicates: That physical/biological characteristics define someone’s gender identity.  People must also stick to the male/female binary. 
  • Option(s) for responding:
    • Clarification: “Are you asking how they identify their gender identity?”
    • Educate: “Individuals who are intersex can identify with different gender identities. They also do not need to stick to the binary of ‘male’ or ‘female.’”
    • Advocate: “Bodily diversity is normal and natural. It’s important to be mindful of our words, so we do not make hurtful assumptions about someone’s gender identity.”

“Wow, I can’t believe he thought that was a cool thing to do. That’s so gay!”

  • What it communicates: Being “gay” is a negative thing.
  • Option(s) for responding:
    • Curiosity: “Why would you use the word “gay” in this way? What did you mean when you said it?”
    • Advocate: “It is not okay to use “gay” to mean something that is bad or negative.”
    • Acknowledge: “I know it can be hard to unlearn slurs that we hear a lot, but it’s important to pay attention to the words we use because they can be really hurtful. When you use “gay” in that way, it implies something negative, which is not okay.”

[Referring to a lesbian couple] “Who do you think is the man in that relationship?”

  • What it communicates: There must be a male role in every relationship; relationships can’t work or be real if they’re not heteronormative.
  • Option(s) for responding:
    • Curiosity: “Why do you think that there has to be a man in every relationship?”
    • Educate: “It’s harmful to assume that all relationships need to follow a male-and-female standard.”
    • Advocate: “All relationships are valid and real, even if there isn’t a man in the relationship.”

“There’s no way he’s gay—Black [insert ethnicity/race/religion] people can’t be gay, and he doesn’t look or sound like it either!”

  • What it communicates: That all gay people and all people of a certain race/ethnicity/religion act in stereotypical ways, with no room for diversity or individuality.  This highlights how stereotypes intersect across multiple groups (race, sexual orientation, etc.).
  • Option(s) for responding:
    • Clarify: “To clarify, do you you think all gay people sound or look the same way?”
    • Advocate: “It’s hurtful to stereotype people— it discounts the diversity and individuality in each community. Not every Black [insert ethnicity/race/religion] or gay person acts the same way.”
    • Humor: “I’m curious, what does a straight person sound or look like?”

“It’s too hard to use ‘they/them’ pronouns. Can’t she just use “normal” pronouns like everyone else?”

  • What it communicates: Pronouns should stick to the binary “male or female,” even if that means invalidating someone’s gender identity.
  • Option(s) for responding:
    • Share your own growth: “I also used to struggle with using “they/them” and other pronouns. But it was really important for me to make sure everyone felt welcome and validated, so I worked hard to correct myself and use the correct pronouns.”
    • Empathy: “I wonder: how would you feel if someone repeatedly used the wrong pronoun when referring to you?”
    • Assert: “Correct pronoun use is not meant to be a choice/optional— it is a matter of affirming someone’s gender identity.”

“Can we not talk about LGBTQIA+-related issues? It makes me uncomfortable.”

  • What it communicates: We should just dismiss issues related to LGBTQIA+ because it’s too uncomfortable to talk about. It’s not important enough to bring up.
  • Option(s) for responding:
    • Acknowledge: “I can understand how uncomfortable it can feel to talk about LGBTQIA+-related issues. At the same time, it’s important to have these conversations to bring these issues to light.”
    • Appeal to values: “I know you really care about treating people fairly. One way to work towards that is to talk about and shine light on the injustices that are happening, so we can help change to happen.”
    • Share own growth: “I used to stay away from these conversations too because they were really uncomfortable. But I’ve learned that it’s important to talk about LGBTQIA+-related issues, or else we’ll end up invalidating people and the difficulties they face.”

“I can’t be offensive to LGBTQIA+ folks—my best friend is nonbinary!”

  • What it communicates: Having a good friend who is part of the LGBTQIA+ community means I cannot possibly offend these persons/group. 
  • Option(s) for responding:
    • Educate: “You have been great friends, and you care a lot about them! At the same time, it’s still possible to make mistakes and be offensive to people in the LGBTQIA+ community.”
    • Curiosity: “It’s great that you and your best friend have a close relationship! Why do you think that having a best friend who is nonbinary prevents you from being offensive to LGBTQIA+ folks?”

[after being called out for committing a microaggression] “Geez, it’s not like I meant to be hurtful. They don’t have to be so sensitive about it.”

  • What it communicates: Because I did not intend to be hurtful, it shouldn’t be considered hurtful. The impact on the person doesn’t matter because I didn’t mean it.
  • Option(s) for responding:
    • Separate intent from impact: “I know you didn’t mean to be hurtful. But when you made that statement, it was harmful because it made it seem like you thought they didn’t belong or were abnormal in some way.”
    • Suggest: “Even when we don’t mean it, it is hurtful to make assumptions about who people are or what they’ve been through, simply because they are part of the LGBTQIA+ community.”
    • Educate: “The intentions behind our actions and their actual impact on others can be quite different. If you meant to throw a ball to a person but ended up knocking over a vase, does the vase not break just because you didn’t mean to break it?”

Committing an LGBTQIA+ microaggression

“Do you have a husband [opposite-sex spouse] and kids?”

  • What it communicates: Everyone adheres to heteronormativity: a female must be attracted to males (and versa), and everyone must be able to and want to have kids.
  • Option(s) for responding (after realizing a microaggression occurred):
    • Apologize: “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t assume that everyone is heterosexual and can/wants to have children.”
    • Share own growth: “I appreciate you correcting me – I’m working on being more sensitive to the diversity of sexual orientation, thank you.”
    • Separate intent from impact: “I was trying to get to know you better, but that doesn’t excuse my oversight. I’ll be more thoughtful about what I say next time.”


Given the toll that microaggressions can have on mental well-being, it is important to take a moment for self-care. Activities such as validating your feelings, taking care of your body, or reaching out to a trusted friend can help recharge you and connect with others during these challenging times. How do you think you could recharge or connect with others? Write down a list of ways to recharge or connect on a piece of paper, or enter it into your phone.

Do you have other ways you would prefer to respond to microaggressions? Feel free to write them down or enter them into your phone for easy access.


  • Singh, A. (2018). The queer and transgender resilience workbook: Skills for navigating sexual orientation and gender expression. New Harbinger Publications.
  • Goodman, D. (2011). Promoting diversity and social justice: Educating people from privileged groups. New York: Routledge
  • Nadal, K. L. (2014). A guide to responding to microaggressions. CUNY Forum, 2, 71-76.