(Bloomberg Business) — The insurance salesman must have noticed that Carl Streed Jr. was wearing his engagement ring, because he started referring to Streed’s wife. Streed didn’t say anything at first. But when the guy asked how to spell her name, Streed says, “I just took the pen and wrote: ‘CHAD.’”
More and more professionals who advise on personal matters—from lawyers to doctors, from financial advisors to the mattress store—are realizing they need to know whether, when, and how to talk about their clients’ sexual orientation. The alternative is awkwardness, or even a lost customer.
(Streed, a 29-year-old doctor who lives in Baltimore, gave the guy another chance.) Cluelessness about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues can also result in bad advice.
Here are some tips on how to adjust to the new etiquette, based on conversations with LGBT people and advisors who specialize in LGBT clients. It isn’t the G-word.
It isn’t the G-word
Mani Cavalieri doesn’t mind if you know he’s gay. Nor does the 27-year-old New Yorker, a database analyst at a research foundation, like it when people treat his sexual orientation as an impolite topic of conversation. “I do want it to be something I can represent, without feeling like I’m imposing an awkward subject on someone else,” he says.
He and other LGBT people get especially annoyed when bringing up sexual orientation is equated to “talking about your sex life.” Cavalieri wants to be as free as his straight co-workers are to chat about their significant others, their dating history, and even how hot that movie star is, when those sorts of conversations are appropriate.
His favorite way to come out is to “sneak it in as a joke,” he says. His review at work of Mad Max: Fury Road was a complaint that for most of the movie, “Tom Hardy’s pretty face is buried under a beard,” and not the sexy kind—a “full-on hobo mop.” Sometimes, it’s serious.
LGBT people can face tricky legal and financial situations that go way beyond what happens in the bedroom. Unmarried gay couples need the right wills and other legal documents.
Otherwise, if one passes away, the survivor risks losing his or her home or prized possessions to estate taxes or to estranged family members. Debra Neiman, a financial planner in Arlington, Mass., recalls working with an older gay couple, closeted at work, who were afraid to name their partners as retirement plan beneficiaries. Neiman needed to create special trusts to inherit the couple’s assets while maintaining their privacy.
A legal marriage eases some of these concerns, but not all. A UBS survey of affluent same-sex couples, conducted after June’s Supreme Court decision legalized gay marriage nationwide, found that 53 percent of respondents feel they still face unresolved financial issues as parts of same-sex couples.
Thirty percent don’t feel accepted by their parents. And a quarter say their inheritance was or — could be— affected by their sexual orientation.
There’s out and there’s out
No matter what the Supreme Court says, you can’t just go around asking people if they’re gay or straight. Some people’s identities are more complicated than fitting a simple category, or they’re still figuring it out.
Others feel that it’s none of your business. Still others are hiding the truth from families or communities that wouldn’t be supportive. In more than half of the 50 states, LGBT people have no protection from job discrimination.
So a lot of people are being careful. Alanna, a 45-year-old lesbian in Minnesota, invited some co-workers to her wedding, but she isn’t out to everyone at the office.
“Work is where you have less control,” she says. “I have to put up with a certain amount of whatever to be here.” But she’s not shy about being gay when she hires a real estate agent or walks into a store with her wife. “I’ve always been out in that situation because I have control,” she says.
Still, she is used to an awkward pause when someone realizes that she and her spouse are a couple. A furniture saleswoman recently surprised them by not skipping a beat. She saw the rings and asked about their wedding. “I kept her card,” Alanna says. “It makes a huge difference, not wondering if you’re being treated differently.”
Need to know
A number of investment firms want to be ready for potential LGBT clients, so they’re training advisors as to how to tackle the topic.