How to be an Ally: Notes on Lending a Hand to a Movement which Isn’t Yours
Posted by Sarah
December 11, 2012
Back in October, my university’s Gay-Straight Alliance hosted a National Coming Out Day panel. Instead of the usual format–which generally entails queer folks sharing their coming out stories– this panel included an equal amount of queer and straight “ally” participants, all from varied backgrounds. After having our interests piqued, several of my Choice USA chapter’s members and I attended the panel. For us, allyship comes with the reproductive justice territory. We understand that there is overlap between LGBT discrimination and reproductive inequality. That said, we only stand to benefit from exposing ourselves to these conversations about the queer experience, right?
So the four of us Choice USAers journeyed to the student union theater. We took our seats, shut off our phones; my co-president offered me her usual reminders to stop slouching and keep my feet off the row of seats in front of mine.
I looked around. Many of the chairs were filled with fellow students. Considering that our college is one of the more conservative ones in Georgia, this was a great turnout! The more people who show up to the panel, the more minds there are within that space. The more minds within a space, the more innovative questions will be asked. The more innovative questions asked, the more we stand to learn from others. In a matter of minutes, a dull university theater can begin to resemble a lightning lamp.
Man, I was looking forward to this dialogue.
But what followed left me feeling a bit confused. While all of the panelists had poignant stories worth sharing, I couldn’t shake the fact that the queer panelists were often glossed or trampled over during these dialogues. Several hardly spoke outside of their brief introductions. Shouldn’t these direct, first person accounts from LGBT people be receiving equal–if not more–attention than those secondary stories about gay family members and friends from allies?
I met my tipping point when the conversation turned to media representation. One of the panelists, a professor and self-described ally, bemoaned, “I am so sick of seeing lesbians! We see lesbians everywhere on television, kissing and canoodling! Gay men are the ones with representation issues.”
My jaw went slack. Did she not understand the problems with what she’d said? Meanwhile, my mind immediately became a whirlwind of personal experiences and cold statistics, from the poor media representations of queer women in The OC that I’d clung to in adolescence to the fact that the number of queer men on television far outnumber those of queer women. And after the fact, we’ve even seen queer men directly insult women for pushing for equal media representation.
When I mentioned earlier that I understand “the overlap between in LGBT discrimination and reproductive inequality,” this is not merely because I am a woman or that I’ve researched this overlap in an intro to gender studies course; it’s also because–as someone who is gay–I have lived it and have all too many freebie gay pride t-shirts to show for it. When my personal experiences are misrepresented by someone who proclaims that he or she is speaking for me in the name of allyship, it feels as if I am being repeatedly slapped in the face by someone who is also yelling, “I know your life better than you do!” Knowing that this had just transpired in a room full of people hanging on to this individual’s every word only made matters worse. This is the case for anyone who’s been misrepresented by an ally.
I seethed quietly in my theater seat, realizing that I nerve had been hit, one which I would be unable to soothe without tearfully yelling at the professor in question. We all have those; little aspects of our personal identities that, when intruded upon, send us into full-on rage blackout mode like Summer Roberts on the aforementioned The OC.
I said nothing.
I gritted my teeth.
And I walked out.
I was standing getting some much-needed fresh air when other gay students began trickling out of the union.
“What the heck was that?” Someone asked.
We talked about it, and realized something: We all felt a similar mix of annoyance. We were ticked off at the people on the panel who subscribed to the ally label yet were somehow perpetuating more harm than good. But we were also wondering about ourselves. Given that we’re living smack-dab in the middle of a red state, shouldn’t we be fortunate to find ourselves in the company of queer-friendly straight people? The more advocates we have for same-sex legal equality, the better our chances of achieving it, right? Why did I let one ally’s off-color comment get to me? Were we being too sensitive or idealistic? Were we asking for too much?
In the months which have followed that panel, I’ve had plenty of time to think about what it means to be an ally, whether you’re advocating for queer equality, reproductive justice, racial diversity, or juggling all three. Allyship is not something you do for acclaim or out of obligation, but because your heart inexplicably calls you to do it. At the same time, being an ally requires more than gut instinct. Proclaiming yourself an advocate of a disenfranchised minority group is not enough; you must also be willing to do your homework, and–even more importantly–listen.
Maybe you’re a boyfriend, son, or brother with good intentions; one who wants his partner, parents, or siblings to have the same equal access to birth control and reproductive healthcare. Maybe your best friend is intensely involved with immigrant rights, and you’d like to lend your hand in the movement. Maybe your roommate is slowly coming to terms with her sexuality, and you want to be there for her.
If you’re reading this and have interest in becoming an ally, here are five things to remember:
1. Learn from previous generations of allies.
As a Southerner, some of my biggest inspirations are the unsung heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. Like you and me, they were allies–but they didn’t need a label to stand up against anti-racist legislation–and they did just that, no matter the consequences. From the “salt and pepper” groups of European and African-American college who students staged sit-ins at lunch counters to the Freedom Riders, these youth had no problem standing up for what they believed in, no matter the verbal and physical harassment thrown their way.
2. Listen to the movement.
One of the integral parts of being an ally is paying attention to the minority’s goals. Listen to personal stories, but also do your own research. Know your facts before speaking out. What’s more, if the group for which you’re advocating calls you out, accept that these narratives are not yours and listen.
3. Don’t speak for a group unless you’re asked to.
Allies are not leaders, but supporting figures. Your main job is not to stand on a soapbox, but to bridge gaps between the opposition and a minority group.
4. Don’t expect to be perfect.
All activists, myself included, make mistakes from time-to-time. No matter how politically correct one tries to be, it happens. Slip-ups, accidents, and errors are facts of life. What matters is what you learn from those mishaps.
5. Do it because you love it.
Shouldn’t this be the case with everything? “Ally” isn’t a label that you can wear like a fashion accessory and then discard it for next season’s big item. If you’re doing allyism for the attention, then you’re doing it wrong. Supporting others is something that you should simply want to do.