What it means to be an ally
Who are allies, anyway? All definitions describe them as people who claim to be supporting LGBTQ people. Rather than a rigid set of actions, what defines someone’s allyship is their attitude. First of all, they want to learn: they know their limitations when it comes to understanding the experiences of people with a different gender identity or sexual orientation and they want to educate themselves. They are also willing to address their bias — not everybody is actively and openly supportive from day one, but the most important thing is to challenge yourself to broaden your comfort zone bit by bit. Last but not least, allies are diverse in their approach and know that support can come in many ways: from very public displays, like going to Pride Parades covered in glitter and with a big sign, to more subtle and personal, but equally important ways, like the language they use and the conversations they have.
The dos and don’ts of supporting the LGBTQ community
Here’s a non-exhaustive list of practical actions you can take, as well as some to avoid, to be a better ally for people with a different gender identity and sexual orientation than your own.
Mind your language
This should go without saying, but an essential part of being an ally is steering far, far away from slurs. Members of a particular community can decide to reclaim a word that traditionally had offensive connotations and refer to themselves using it in an act of empowerment, but these cases are so individual, you’d do best to just avoid such sensitive vocabulary.
Minding your language as an ally can also mean using inclusive phrases in your day to day life. That includes, for example, not assuming heterosexuality is the default, so instead of asking someone about their boyfriend or girlfriend you could use gender-neutral pronouns. This helps people feel like they can be their true selves around you, because you’re not imposing any heteronormative expectations on them.
Speak up; don’t be a bystander
Your privilege offers you opportunities to stand up for what is right. It doesn’t have to mean you need to insert yourself into physical altercations to defend someone’s honour, but your position as a straight or cisgender person can be helpful when it comes to intervening in difficult situations. If you hear someone in your environment say something problematic, you don’t have to grin and bear it — you can choose to address that and, even if you won’t change the person’s mind then and there, you will let them know it is not okay to use that slur/spread that stereotype/et cetera. It might also influence the people standing nearby who’ll hear a snippet of your conversation. Something you say might make them reflect and reevaluate their behavior. You won’t change everyone, but you can inspire someone. Little ripples make big waves!
Though it may seem exotic and sexy to you, fetishising queer people — whether lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender — is never a good idea. It might seem like an allyship at first glance (after all, the fact that someone would pay so much attention to LGBTQ people must mean they are finally accepted in society, right?), but it’s quite hurtful in reality. So if you’re a straight girl, maybe refrain from making out with your lesbian friend at a party if there’s a chance you’re doing it mainly for the viewing pleasure of the guys watching. The other person might feel like you’re just using them for the spectacle — not fun, to put it mildly! And if you are a part of a straight couple and meet a bisexual person, perhaps you could hold your tongue before blurting out a half-joking invitation to a threesome. These things, amongst many others, are trivialising to non-heteronormative sexual orientations, and cements the idea of them being first and foremost physicality-oriented.
Put your money where your mouth is
Consider where you’re spending your money. What are the policies of your favourite brands? Are they LGBT friendly? Are there any local businesses run by LGBT people that you could support? Perhaps you could do your groceries at the corner shop run by that friendly lesbian couple, or sign up for a dance class at a queer-friendly dance studio. The opposite is true as well: if you are aware of some brand’s CEO spouting homophobic nonsense, perhaps it’s better to leave your money somewhere else. Additionally, you can always donate — your local LGBT organisations would definitely appreciate your support.
Get ready to feel uncomfortable
Feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the complexities that surround the LGBT community’s issues? It’s understandable that you won’t be an expert on all things queer instantly. Remember that it’s okay to be imperfect; what counts are your good intentions and willingness to grow. If you happen to slip up and say something inappropriate on accident, just apologise and move on — don’t make a big scene and blow your apology out of proportion, it will only make your LGBT friends feel more on the spot.
You may also feel challenged by new information on LGBT issues. Perhaps you can’t wrap your head around the fact that sexual orientation and gender identities don’t go hand in hand. Challenging your world view, much like confronting your bias and prejudices, poses its own set of challenges. Please remember that, while we are all products of our environment and as such there’s a lot of harmful preconceptions we’ve been absorbing our whole lives, it is up to you (and me, and everyone!) to unlearn on your own. Well, not entirely on your own — there is a multitude of resources available, e.g. books, YouTube videos, and blogs. If you want to find out what gender expression means exactly or why sexual orientation is separate from gender identity, the answers are only a few clicks away. It’s just that it is your responsibility to get educated. Things that will follow? Some discomfort, probably! Opening your eyes to all the injustices a minority group is experiencing is a rude awakening and a long process of learning. But the relief you’ll experience later, knowing you’re doing your part to make this world a better place, will be more than worth it.
Don’t be performative
Being vocal and public about your support for the LGBT community is wonderful and usually helpful for spreading the gospel of equality and tolerance. However, with the rise of social media activism there has also been a rise of performative “wokeness”. Allyship is not a shortcut to Internet clout — it’s not about lifting the ego, it’s about lifting up the oppressed and marginalised people. Make sure that your support goes beyond sharing posts on your Instagram stories and that you also offer tangible actions to help dismantle intolerance and prejudice. By all means, keep being vocal on the Internet — you never know which one of your Facebook friends might get inspired by your post, or learn valuable information that will help them become better allies for marginalised communities. Just remember to walk the walk after talking the talk.
Don’t expect a cookie
Good job on trying to become a better person, ally, and friend! However, keep in mind that the LGBTQ community does not owe you their gratitude. Striving for social justice and fighting discrimination are somehing everybody should include on their goals list. Your efforts are appreciated, but nobody is handing out medals for simply being a decent person. Keep on doing the good work, friend, but find your reward in contributing to the well-being of others, not getting praise on your charitable qualities.
Don’t ask people about their sex lives
This should go without saying, but it’s really not your business what other people do in their bedrooms. If you’re curious about the specifics of lesbian sex, you can always look it up on the internet. (As long as it’s not adult movies — you probably won’t find accurate depictions of non-straight sex there.) Naturally, if you’re close friends with a person from the LGBT community and the circumstances are right (like going to brunch and being three mimosas deep into a conversation about your dating lives) you can ask them (respectfully) about what’s on your mind. Talking about sex with your friends is great: that’s the whole story line of all of the six seasons of Sex and the City, and look what a cult classic the show has become. Just use your common sense and gut feeling to avoid being rude or invasive with your questions.
The same goes with asking trans people about their genitalia. They’re called private parts for a reason, and unless you are about to hook up with them, it’s not really any of your business. Trans people don’t owe you an explanation or justification on whether they have or haven’t gone through surgery or hormone therapy. Remember that, more than just nosy and awkward, asking people such invasive questions could also be hurtful, as there are a myriad of reasons why someone wouldn’t undergo a gender reassignment surgery, finances being one of them.
Acknowledge your privilege, then use it for good
If you’re straight and cisgender, your privilege may be so obvious to you that you don’t even notice it. You can get married to whoever you fall in love with, adopt children, or take a romantic walk while holding hands with your date without feeling anxious that somebody will ruin the mood yelling slurs at you. There is no process of coming out to friends and loved ones; your gender identity or sexual orientation won’t lead to workplace discrimination; you can introduce your partner to your parents without hesitation. The list goes on: it’s easy to feel like this way of living is the default. And yet, members of the LGBTQ community have to encounter microaggressions every single day. There’s no need for straight allies to beat themselves up over it; after all, just like queer people had no say in picking their sexual orientation or gender identity, neither had you. That’s what privilege is: winning life’s lottery and reaping the rewards of a position you found yourself in at random. Some of the ways you can use it for good is to consciously make an effort to give platform to marginalised LGBTQ people, for example by sharing their op-eds, art, and other works on your social media, using your influence to bring attention to LGBTQ issues, and publicly supporting any relevant protests and events dedicated to promoting tolerance, equality and social justice.
Sharing is caring
Feel free to pass this handy little guide along to your friends, family, or co-workers — anybody who could use a bit of help navigating the complexities of being a good ally to the LGBT community. For further reading, look up the Gay Straight Alliance, Straight for Equality and PFLAG. Discuss your findings and share the parts that gave you the most food for thought. Keep in mind that being a good ally is a constant work in progress; nobody is born woke and there is a lot we need to unlearn as a society. Sharing resources (like this article) to help educate others is an excellent start!
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