Understanding and supporting the LGBTQ community starts with language

Rainbow Center

On a recent evening at Tacoma’s Rainbow Center, three panelists shared stories of growing up in Mexico, Russia and Venezuela as gay men who eventually immigrated to the United States.

All three were grateful that attitudes toward the LGBTQ community are more progressive here than in their home countries.

“It just feels magical to be here,” remarked one panelist.

Despite that sentiment, the panelists agreed there’s still work to be done. And that’s why the Rainbow Center exists.

“People think marriage equality was the biggest focus and now that we have that, the fight’s over, but there’s a lot more work to be done,” says Vaan Wolfe, Education & Outreach Coordinator for the Rainbow Center.

Rainbow Center is a safe haven for the LGBTQ community, offering a gathering space, education, advocacy and resources for a population that still faces discrimination, harassment and high rates of unemployment.

“The Rainbow Center is a hub for the queer community,” says Meg Quinlivan, Director of Development for Rainbow Center. “This is where you come for support, education, resources. It’s for all of the queer community, and allies.”

Rainbow Center, now in its 20th year, provides LGBTQ community members an opportunity to become mentors to other LGBTQ people on their journey to wholeness, she says. It’s a place to work together to build collective power they wouldn’t have as individuals.

The nonprofit aims to create long-lasting change through cultural competency education and training for local organizations such as schools, nonprofits and health care providers (including MultiCare). The training is centered on working with and serving the LGBTQ community with understanding, dignity and respect.

“Queer people deserve spaces to be their full selves outside of the Rainbow Center, too,” Quinlivan says. “They deserve safety, protection and respect everywhere.”

The introductory training course, dubbed “LGBTQ core competency,” is a two-hour session that covers a number of topics: the culture of LGBTQ people; the barriers they face when accessing services such as health care and housing; the differences between sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression; the importance of personal pronouns; and what language and terminology is appropriate.

“There is a lot of learning. A lot of people go in thinking they have a decent amount of knowledge and always come out surprised,” says Wolfe, who teaches the course. “Acceptance isn’t a substitute for education.”

The training also touches on intersectionality — a reminder that the initials “LGBTQ” encompasses more than the five words it stands for.

“When we talk about the LGBTQ population, I always remind people we’re also talking about people of color, we’re talking about people with disabilities,” Wolfe says. “These are all people who are part of this community, and they experience the world very differently from straight cis people and LGBTQ people who are white.”

If you stumbled over “cis” in the last sentence, you’re not alone — it’s a word that’s unfamiliar to many, and it’s one of several terms covered in the training.

“Cis” or “cisgender” is a term used to describe people who identify with the gender or sex they were assigned at birth, compared to “trans” and “transgender,” terms for someone who does not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth.

“Using the term ‘cisgender’ is a way we level the playing field,” Wolfe explains. “Using that language can be very affirming for trans people because then you’re not ‘othering’ them.”

Ultimately, we’re all human beings who deserve respect, and that’s what the training is all about, he says.

“The most important message is that we’re talking about people,” Wolfe says. “And at the end of the day, these are people that can’t change who they are, and they experience the world far differently than most other people do.

“When you use the right language, people who are part of the community will recognize that very quickly and you can be seen as an ally and, in turn, educate others,” he adds.

Rainbow Center

One way of using this language in everyday life is by adding your own personal pronouns — that is, the pronouns you want others to use when referring to you — to your email signature line, or introducing yourself with your pronouns.

“It’s a great conversation starter,” Wolfe says. “It opens up a dialogue. It can be uncomfortable, but we need to push through that to incorporate it into everyday language so it becomes the norm.”

Plus, he adds, being uncomfortable is a good way to gain some perspective.

“Being uncomfortable for a moment is okay, especially when you consider that trans and gender non-conforming people end up being uncomfortable most of the time,” he says.

One of the everyday struggles for transgender and gender non-conforming people is being mis-gendered, which can happen when calling a business to make an appointment — before even walking in the door. It can be discouraging, to say the least.

“It can really stop people from accessing services,” Wolfe says.

Learning about the roadblocks faced by the LGBTQ community was an inspiration to Mel Shrieves, a loan officer for Movement Mortgage in Tacoma. She attended a competency training in June and has started a series of financial education workshops at Rainbow Center as a result.

The training was a major “a-ha” moment for Shrieves, who had had a difficult relationship with her gay brother for years.

Despite her liberal upbringing and support of the LGBTQ community, the training helped Shrieves realize she hadn’t been as supportive of her brother as she could have been.

When her brother came out as gay several years ago, Shrieves was surprised — and confused when her reaction wasn’t well received.

“How could you know for sure you’re gay if you haven’t had a healthy relationship with the opposite sex?” she asked her brother at the time.

Shrieves viewed being gay as a choice. For years she thought it had been a logical reaction and a reasonable question to ask.

“I didn’t realize then that I didn’t get it,” she says. “Our relationship became very strained because of my reaction.”

But the LGBTQ training flipped a switch. She broke down and cried during the class, she says.

“It just hit me like a brick in the face,” she recalls. “And I felt horrible. I was devastated that I had made someone feel not supported.”

Shrieves, finally understanding how much hurt she’d caused, called her brother immediately after the training.

“I said, ‘I’m sorry. My name is Melissa and my pronouns are she/her/hers.”

In turn, her brother shared pronouns as well.

Melissa and her brother at Gayla

Hearing her story, Wolfe says it’s wonderful the training has impacted someone so deeply.

“I’m glad that it is making an impact,” he says. “The intent of the training was to help people realize that as cisgender straight allies, they have the ability to do work in our community, to make space for our community.”

Shrieves now volunteers for the Rainbow Center teaching and facilitating her financial workshops.

Tasks that most of us take for granted, such as applying for a loan or updating names on government documents, are not necessarily straightforward for members of the LGBTQ community, especially when it comes to those identifying as transgender or gender non-conforming.

It’s her way of being an ally for the LGBTQ community and, at the same time, repairing her relationship with her brother.

“My goal is to help in any way I can, so the LGBTQ community feels there is somebody who gets it (which I finally feel I do) and someone who cares,” Shrieves says. “Love is love. This is my way of demonstrating my love and making amends with my brother.”

Volunteer for the Rainbow Center
Volunteer for Oasis Youth Center


Story by Roxanne Cooke
Photos by Ingrid Barrentine