Editor’s Note: The American Kennel Club has had a long history of inclusion across our sport for exhibitors and spectators from all walks of life. This month, we are sharing the stories and voices of LGBTQ community members. Here, Sassafras Lowrey shares tips on how to be more inclusive as dog owners and handlers. You can read more about Sassafras’ full story.
Making sure that our dog clubs, shows, and classes are welcoming to LGBTQ people should matter to all of us regardless of if we are competitors, spectators, judges, or volunteers. Regardless of what sport you and your dog participate in, being culturally sensitive to the LGBTQ community is just one more way that we can bring more people into the world of dogs and show good sportsmanship.
In the dog world, we are already keeping track of a lot of insider language and acronyms so it’s understandable that it can feel overwhelming to think of learning terms and identities. But using respectful language is an important part of making the sport welcoming to the LGBTQ community.
LGBTQ 101 Defining Terms
Not sure what all these terms mean, that’s OK! Here’s a breakdown of some of the common terms you might hear in reference to the sexuality and gender.
LGBTQ – This is an acronym you have probably heard used online or in the media. It is an umbrella term or acronym that refers to the entire spectrum of sexual and gender minorities. It stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer.
Lesbian – Women who are attracted to/in relationships with other women.
Gay – Sometimes used as an umbrella term for the whole LGBTQ community but generally used to refer to men who are attracted to/in relationship with other men.
Bisexual – Someone who is attracted to or could be in a relationship with someone of any gender.
Transgender – Someone whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. Transgender people may or may not physically transition with hormones and/or surgery.
Queer – A term that historically was used as a slur but has since been reclaimed by many people in the LGBTQ community. People who identify as queer may have a more fluid understanding of their gender or sexuality or may feel that other terms don’t accurately define them. Queer is also sometimes used as an umbrella term to represent all people who are not heterosexual and/or cisgender.
Non-binary – People who identify as outside of a gender binary of male and female. Nonbinary people may or may not choose to physically transition utilizing hormones and/or surgery.
Cisgender – A term to describe people who were assigned a gender at birth and continue to identify as that gender throughout their life. This covers most heterosexual men and women (basically, if you don’t identify as transgender or non-binary you are probably cisgender.)
There are a variety of other terms utilized by LGBTQ people. If you meet someone in a training class, at a show, or in an online group who uses a term you aren’t familiar with it’s always OK to ask in a respectful way.
Ways to Be More Inclusive to LGBTQ People
There are a few simple ways that you can cue to LGBTQ people that you are an ally and that your trial, event, seminar, or training class is a safe and welcoming space. This doesn’t matter if you are a breeder, a trainer, or a club member.
Many LGBTQ people don’t use the name listed on their government or even on their AKC documents. One easy way everyone can help make people feel more welcome at dog events is if someone tells you their name, use it whenever talking to and about them even if it’s different from the name on their dog’s AKC registration. If someone tells you they are changing their name, work hard to use the new name that person is using.
Names are very personal, and the simple act of respecting a fellow competitor’s name can go a long way toward making everyone feel more welcome and safer at dog events. If you teach classes or handle records for a local club, consider adding a “preferred name” or “name you go by” section on your registration forms—a call name for owners/handlers if you will.
Everyone has pronouns! Pronouns are gendered words that replace nouns. For example, she/her, he/him, they/them, etc. Instead of assuming you know someone’s pronouns, normalize asking them what their pronouns are. You can’t tell what pronouns someone uses just by looking at them.
When making introductions to a group or introducing yourself to someone new, consider introducing yourself by name and include your pronouns along with your breed, dog sport affiliation, and any other relevant dog information you want to share. That opens the door for others to share their own pronouns.
If someone tells you their pronouns, or corrects the pronouns you have used for them, use their preferred pronouns and gently correct your friends if you hear them misgendering someone. If you use the wrong pronouns, apologize, correct yourself, and try to do better next time. Some nonbinary and transgender people utilize they/them or other pronouns you might not be familiar with. If you aren’t sure what pronouns someone uses or how to use someone’s pronouns, just ask!
Here is an example using they/them pronouns in a sentence: “Casey and their new dog are signed up for training classes. They are planning to enter the club’s show next month.”
How Breeders Can Be More Inclusive
If you are a breeder there are simple things, you can do to signify to LGBTQ prospective puppy buyers that you are an ally and won’t discriminate against them when selecting homes for your puppies. If you have a form on your website for prospective puppy buyers as part of an application process, consider making it as gender-neutral as possible using language like “spouse” or “partner” or even just “adults in the home” to not assume relationship status. This is helpful for people of all sorts of family structures, not just LGBTQ people.
If you have an information form on your website for prospective puppy buyers to fill out, consider adding “pronouns” in your basic information fields when asking for name, phone number, email address, etc. Everyone wants to get a puppy from a breeder they trust and who they feel safe and comfortable approaching with questions about the life of their dog.
Although most of your cisgender puppy buyers will barely notice these changes, for any trans or nonbinary prospective puppy buyers, this will send a very clear message that you are an LGBTQ ally and someone they can feel safe purchasing a puppy from.
How Dog Trainers Can Be More Inclusive
If you are a trainer teaching group classes one easy way to be inclusive is to allow dog owners to introduce themselves by name at the beginning of class. This is likely something you typically do, but you should always use the name they give, regardless of what government name might have been on the check or credit card they used to pay for the class. As mentioned above, you can model offering your pronouns when you introduce yourself, which can show LGBTQ dog owners in your class that you are an ally.
An easy way to use the right pronoun for any dog owner in class off the bat is to include questions about pronouns in your class registration information. This can be where you collect other demographic information, like the client’s address, email, phone number, and their dog’s information like breed, age, training history, and vaccination records.
These are small steps that don’t take much effort but signal to LGBTQ people that your class is a welcoming and safe place to be. This can make dog owners more likely to come to class with their dogs, sign up for future classes, and recommend you and your training facility to others.
How Dog Clubs Can Be More Inclusive
For breed clubs, kennel clubs, and training clubs it’s important to be inclusive and welcoming to all people. Interrupt oppressive language if you hear it at club events or meetings and don’t allow club members to post homophobic or transphobic off-topic posts in your club online groups, email lists, or message boards. Be sure to call it out as being not only inappropriate but also unsportsmanlike and not welcome in your club.
Other ways to be inclusive include looking at your club membership paperwork. For family memberships, applications avoid pre-populating the categories with gendered terms like “wife” and “husband” and instead use gender-neutral language, and instead use “spouse” or having a blank space where prospective club members can write the names of any family members who are joining. You should also consider adding a place in your membership paperwork for someone to list their pronouns.
How Dog Shows Can Be More Inclusive
If you’re involved with planning an upcoming show there are simple things you can do to make all new people competing, including LGBTQ identified dog owners, feel welcome and included at your show. Introduce yourself, consider offering your pronouns, and ask what pronouns other people use. Also, avoid making assumptions about someone’s relationship status or the gender(s) of who they might be in a relationship with and how they identify.
In conformation, particularly, there are norms of the dress code, some of which are often gendered. When at a show or training class avoid making comments or assumptions about what kinds of clothes fellow competitors choose to wear, even if their selected outfit doesn’t align with your assumptions about their gender identity. Trust that what someone is wearing is most comfortable for them.
One issue that often comes up relates to bathroom access and safety for nonbinary and transgender people. It is widely accepted (including by the nation’s leading sexual assault and domestic violence prevention organizations) that despite discriminatory legislation in some areas of the country, transgender people pose no safety risk to anyone in public bathrooms. In fact, transgender people are significantly more likely to be victims of violence or discrimination within public bathrooms.
If your club is putting on a dog show, make sure that all your facilities are as inclusive and welcoming as possible. Most dog shows (unless it’s an outdoor show with port-a-potties) are going to have gender-segregated “men’s” and “women’s” bathrooms. Always assume that people are capable of knowing what bathroom to use and assume that people are in the “right” bathroom. Never confront anyone for being in a “wrong” bathroom just because they don’t look the way you think a man or a woman should look.
Simple shifts in language to avoid gendered language don’t take much effort but can make a tremendous difference for LGBTQ competitors and how welcome they feel. For example, if someone asks you where the check-in for Obedience is, instead of saying: “Over there next to the woman with the Newfoundland,” you can say: “Next to the person wearing green with the Newfoundland.”
Many competitors won’t notice the subtle language shift, but for LGBTQ competitors this simple change can make a huge difference to cue that you are an ally to the LGBTQ community. Changing your language isn’t always easy but making our trials and training classes more inclusive to LGBTQ people is ultimately good for the dog community. By being more inclusive not only will LGBTQ people who are already involved feel safer and more engaged with their local dog community, but it can also support bringing in new people who may be inspired to get their next puppy from a responsible breeder or begin training and even competing in sports with their dogs.
Some dog people may feel uncomfortable talking about LGBTQ people and wonder why we can’t just stick to talking about dogs. At the end of the day, dogs live with, are bred by, groomed by, and trained by people (including people who might be LGBTQ.)
Learning about the LGBTQ community means discovering small ways to make your training classes and dog events more inclusive and welcoming. All of us want to see more people involved in the dog world, and one way to encourage more involvement is by making sure that our events and spaces are as welcoming as possible to the greatest number of people. Regardless of if you are a trainer, a club member, or a breeder, there are small things all of us can do to make our classes, seminars, clubs, and events more inclusive which ultimately makes our sports better.
Sassafras Lowrey is an award-winning author and Certified Trick Dog Instructor. Sassafras’ books have been honored by organizations ranging from the American Library Association to the Lambda Literary Foundation. New dog books from Sassafras in 2019 include: Healing/Heeling, Bedtime Stories for Rescue Dogs: William To The Rescue (with Lili Chin), and TRICKS IN THE CITY: For Daring Dogs and the Humans That Love Them (forthcoming in August from Mango Press). Learn more at www.SassafrasLowrey.com.