Updated: Aug 4, 2020
As National Coming Out Day (October 11th) approaches, I wanted to address a sticky topic that lots of people have big feelings about: allyship and what it means to be an ally.
I am of the mind that you can't actually BE an ally. To consider yourself an ally means being an ally is an identity or state of being. It's not. Allyship is a verb. It is the choices you makes moment to moment to use your privilege to give voice, advocate for, support, protect and uplift oppressed individuals around you. Doing the work of allyship is NOT a stable state of being or a title you get to keep. You do the work of an ally in the moment.
When individuals feel they are an ally, they are 'woke," or 'don't see color/gender/difference/disability, etc.", or feel they've somehow 'take care of' or 'gotten over all bias', they aren't being honest with themself. All humans have bias because our brains are set up to categorize. It's what helps humans be able to get through the day. A couch and a tiger are relatively the same size, our skills at categorizing allow us to identify a couch and move on instead of fight/flight/freeze every time we see something tiger sized.
Bias is a form of categorizing, and we ALL have biases. The point isn't to 'leave our bias at the door,' but to be able to step back and be aware of the bias we actually have. Our brains automatically look to affirm our beliefs about categories/biases. When we have awareness that we are wrong in our bias, we need to seek out counter examples that combat the bias we've accumulated.
So what does this have to do with being an ally? The first step in allyship is admitting you have a bias, then starting the work to look at where your blind spots are. Ask friends/colleagues/
mentors/family members about what biases you display. Listen openly, and if you're really seeking to do allyship, change your behavior.
Common blind spots for "allies":
1. Feeling you aren't at all racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic or transphobic. WE ALL ARE. People who are trans or gender expansive have lots of internalized transphobia, people who are queer have internalized homophobia. If you think you're not, notice how you label people as you drive. What stereotypes come to mind? No one gets a free pass from cisgender heteronormative white colonial patriarchy, we all believe myths about ourselves and neighbors, and we all have things to work on.
2. The A in LGBTQIA+ stands for ally. If you are about to argue with me, stop it. If you consider yourself an ally, you, by definition, support the community, and are not apart of it. Allies are a part of the dominant culture and use their privilege given by that culture to support, uplift, give voice and protect oppressed people. A is for Agender, Asexual, and Aromantic.
3. It is the responsibility of queer/trans folks to teach me. No it's not. If you want to do the work of allyship, do your own research. If you have questions, search out answers yourself first before asking a queer/trans person. Learn what makes a good source of information. There is a lot of bad information out there, and the alt-right and trans exclusionary feminism has become masters at propaganda about the queer and trans community. After hearing that, you may want to run and ask the closest queer or trans person so you don't get wrong info. But that again puts the emotional load back on a person who carries a tremendous amount already.
So what's a person to do? Look for reputable sources for information: The Trevor Project, PFLAG, Human Right's Campaign, Equality California, Facebook groups for friends and families of queer/trans folks, etc. If you've done research and still have questions, ask if your queer or trans friend or family member has the emotional capacity to answer your questions. Here's the kicker: if they say no, a huge act of allyship is to thank them for their honesty, drop it, and seek answers elsewhere.
4. You attract more bees with honey. Telling a queer or trans person they're too angry or too much and will alienate people is like telling a woman she should smile (yes, it's that gross). Sometimes we don't have time or the emotional capacity to be nice. Sometimes we've spent the entire day meeting basic needs: finding a safe bathroom, having to fight for someone to just use our name, we've been barred from medical care, shelter, been turned down for a job we're perfect for. The deck stacked against us is astounding and even more so if we're people of color.
Here's an example. I am a trans elder at 36 years old because our life expectancy is incredibly short due to suicide and homicide. If I was nice to every person who wanted to 'debate' about being trans or working with trans and gender expansive kids, I'd be wasting precious time that I could be doing the work with youth and young adults who need swift intervention so they don't become a statistic. I no longer suffer debates, there is not debate to be had. Often, I try to soften the blow of truth as I offer it, but it is completely unnecessary. If you are doing the work of allyship, you will hear things you don't want to, but need to. The act of allyship that follows is how you deal with it.
5. But what about my feelings? When doing the work of allyship, your own feelings come into play. What if you're working with queer or trans individuals and they ask you to be silent, but you feel you have things to say? What if you feelings have been hurt by an exchange, or someone's perspective on you or your beliefs? What if you friend or family member remembers something completely different than you do and you're heartsick about it? What if your child is trans or gender expansive and you are destroyed because they want to change their name/hair/clothes/
You have every right to your feelings, but you need to deal with your feelings with someone else. Therapy is a great place for that, so are spouses, best friends, support group like PFLAG or the myriad of Facebook groups for friends and family of queer or trans individuals. You DO need to take care of your needs and feelings, but you don't need to put that burden on your queer or trans friend or family member.
Ask yourself if you've ever been turned away from a doctor or therapist because of who you are? I have. In one day I was turned down by FIVE therapists because they "didn't see transpeople."
Ask yourself if you've been denied entry to places like bathrooms at a family member's funeral, if you've been followed around a public place by someone making not so quiet slurs, if you've had your tires slashed, office/classroom defaced, your likeness drawn in caricature, or had different individuals say wildly inappropriate things multiple times a day for a decade. All of these things have happened to me personally. These may seem extreme but they happen all day everyday. Rarely is there a day that goes by that I don't interact with some form of harassment. And I'm just one person.
If you have big feelings and want to hash it out, imagine that what may seem huge to you, is one of a hundred huge things that have happened to a queer or trans person that day. And even more so if they are a person of color. Slow your roll. Ask yourself if this is a need you can have met elsewhere with someone who has more emotional bandwidth. You'e privilege probably affords you the ability to take your thoughts and needs elsewhere, where a trans person may not have that luxury. A good rule is to consider how much energy you take vs. give, especially when your give and take is from a person in an oppressed group. Err on the side of give, but remember in giving there is always the opportunity for the receiver to decline. Consent is a thing (and a whole other post series)!
If any of this made you uncomfortable, that's a good thing, and work to see your discomfort as the gift that it is. It means you can step back and ask, why? Why am I uncomfortable? You can now practice doing researching, seeking out a group or therapist with which to sort out your feelings. You can use your discomfort to explore why you're uncomfortable. You can use this as an opportunity to begin or continue to build those muscles for the work of allyship.