Being An Ally Is About More Than Your Own Identity
In the wake of the Orlando mass shooting and throughout this month of LGBTQPIA+ pride, I have seen an immense presence of online support and love for the LGBTQPIA+ community — support for which I am incredibly grateful. But I have also seen a number of perhaps well-intended, yet ultimately offensive, comments from self-identified "allies" — the majority of whom are apparently white, cisgender, or heterosexual/heteromantic. In this time of both tragedy and pride, it seems useful to discuss what it really means to be an ally.
Allyship is not just an identity — it requires action. An ally to the the LGBTQPIA+ community is someone who uses their cishet privilege to lift up the silenced voices in that community. Allies are allies because they do what they can to understand, support, and protect LGBTQPIA+ community members without invalidating our struggles or seeking martyr status. Allies use their privilege to lift up the voices of those without that same privilege.
The response of many to the mass shooting in Orlando particularly demonstrated the confusion that surrounds how to effectively be an ally to this community. Especially as a privileged, white individual, I cannot tell anyone else the appropriate way to grieve this tragic event, which still hangs heavily in the air of LGBTQPIA+ conversation. But I think it’s important that allies especially make sure they’re educated about the LGBTQPIA+ community and the issues they face in order to understand what lives were lost and the complex intersection of homophobia and racism that was at the root of this attack.
First, an effective ally should center the experiences of the community they claim to support. Instead, I’ve seen far too many allies try to make Orlando about themselves. This was a hate crime specifically against LGBTQPIA+ Latinxs. Non-Latinx LGBTQPIA+ people may grieve the loss of our community members, but we must also remember that this wasn’t a direct attack on us, either. Though this was a hate crime against our people, we must remember that we are allies here, too. Sadness is valid, but the group targeted was a smaller portion of our community and our hearts must be with them. Similarly, cishet Latinx people’s sadness and vulnerability is warranted, but they must also remember that this hate crime occurred in a safe haven specifically for the LGBQTPIA+ members of their community.
This, in turn, means that allies certainly should not try to make these events about themselves. Perhaps non-Latinx cishet supporters on Facebook mean well when they tell their Latinx and/or LGBTQPIA+ friends that they feel our pain. It’s appropriate to grieve with us, but I don’t think it’s appropriate to tell us that they, too, feel as though they have lost brothers, sisters, and siblings to horrific acts of homophobia or that this particular hate crime feels personal to them, too. Allies should not ask the people to whom they claim to be an ally to praise them for attending pride, despite the dangers that it posed.
No matter how good their intentions, the bottom line is that these events and the responses to them simply can’t and won’t be personal in the same way to allies — and claiming that they are is insulting. Pride is one of the few places many members of the LGBTQPIA+ community feel safe, even if it may be a larger target. Pride will never hold this same significance for allies: Straight allies will never know what it feels like to be sheltered because they’re not targeted for their identity to begin with. For many of us, places like Pulse Nightclub were similarly more permanent safe havens. The pain we feel when we see them destroyed time and time again in acts of violence because of our very identities is a type of pain our allies simply can’t experience.
To be clear, I still believe that it’s important for straight people exhibit their support after a horrific hate crime. We appreciate your support. But to be a true ally, support us after all hate crimes — not just the most highly publicized ones. I wonder where many of these allies were after each of the 21 trans women were killed in 2015. I wonder how much they cared then, why even just one life lost wasn’t enough to bring them out to support the LGBTQPIA+ community on Facebook.
Selectively defending and supporting the LGBTQPIA+ community feels fake. It seems like far too many allies claim the ‘A’ in LGBTQPIA+ just to project a certain identity of their own — to tell themselves and their fellow cishet friends that they are members of our community. But making allyship a personal identity rather than a political act completely erases the struggles of the most marginalized members of society — and especially those who are in turn the most marginalized within that marginalized group.
I experienced a version of this dynamic firsthand when around a year ago, with the help of insight I received from numerous LGBTQPIA+ oriented blogs, I came out as panromantic gray-asexual to most of my friends as well as my immediate family. My decision to come out was met with support, but also confusion: I was asked why it took me so long to decide on labels and why I felt the need to come out when I was still straight-passing and in a hetero relationship. Though they supported my identity itself, I don’t consider the friends who questioned my decision to come out and who interrogated my label choices allies. Those friends and family members were incredibly supportive, but that support could not be equated with allyship. Had those friends genuinely been allies, they would have taken the time to research the various labels and spectrums of sexuality. Those friends would have made sure they could stick up for me should my sexuality ever come into question in a different setting. Allies must not only exhibit their support in conversation with a member of the targeted group, but also be willing to use their voice of privilege when the targeted group is silenced.
The same principle applies to the response to the Orlando shooting. Posting a status that says #PrayForOrlando does not amend the numerous times you have misgendered someone, invalidated they/them pronouns, or assumed that someone in a relationship with someone of the same sex or gender could only be homosexual. Again, an ally isn’t an ally because some of their friends are gay, or because they go to Pride, but because they use their privilege to actively help those who are most marginalized.
I cannot and will not speak for the whole LGBTPIA+ community, as I am more privileged than many. But I can say that I know it is difficult to find your place as an ally without validation from the community. I do appreciate all of the support shown for the LGBTQPIA+ community. Being a supporter is an important first step, and I know that each well-intended, selectively grieving Facebook post is a step towards true allyship. I just also hope that everyone can continue to educate themselves on how to be a better ally.
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