What does an ally look like?

As the world marks IDAHOBIT Karen Pollock explores what being an ally actually means, in a world where so often its used as a term of abuse or derision.


I got into conversation with someone about IDAHOBIT (International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia) yesterday, and they did a visible eyeroll as they dismissed it as a day for allies to feel good about themselves. Trying to redefine the A in LGBTQAI as ally – erasing agender, aromantic and asexual people in the process – is more than an urban legend, and must be resisted. I think we all collectively rolled our eyes when “Celebrity straight ally” was trotted out at the British LGBT awards, an event so far from the lives of ordinary LGBTQ+ people that it might as well have taken place on the moon.

However, it is the case that LGBTQ+ folk are outnumbered by cis het folk. This might not always be the case, as more and more younger people approach gender and sexuality with a far more fluid attitude, we might one day get that “gay agenda” on the front pages. For now though we have to accept that we are outnumbered. This being the case it’s allies who can tip the balance, as the campaign for same sex marriage has shown.

It’s a delicate balance, accepting that without the people who make up the majority change may never come, whilst at the same time not trying to dilute demands so much that change doesn’t happen anyway. For many the hyperbole around same-sex marriage left them with a bitter taste in their mouths. Yes, it was a relatively simple thing to argue on equity that queer people deserved equal treatment under the law, but there was an element of “this will solve everything”, erasing the fact that hate crimes still exist, that LGBTQ+ people still face worse health outcomes on most measures.

In the same way many trans people cringe when allies, trying to show support against the bathroom bills share “would you like this man in your bathroom?” photos. Ostensibly supportive, they ignore that many trans people do not “pass” as cis, and this is why they are afraid to use public bathrooms. Non binary people are, as usual, not even considered in the desire of allies to be seen to be doing the right thing.

It’s a delicate balance, accepting that without the people who make up the majority change may never come, whilst at the same time not trying to dilute demands so much that change doesn’t happen anyway

How can a balance be found between needing wider support, and not having to frame everything in the terms of “how will this play with the cis hets?”. Opinions vary, as with anything concerned with activism. There are those who believe there should be no compromise, whilst at the other extreme, there are those for whom not scaring away allies is the number one priority. I believe we might do better if we reframe the question: “How can we all be better allies?”

Simply because you belong to one of the rainbow shades of LGBTQ+ does not mean you always understand the issues faced by others. There is a false divide of us and them in some people’s minds, ignoring that there will always be a group to whom you are “them”. Disability, race, income, experience of things such as homelessness, abuse, substance use, are all issues where each one of us at times can erase or speak over others.

We are all in the position of being “them”: the ally, the outsider, trying to do good to someone. The fundamental rule when you are in that position is to ask, what can I do, what do you need? Instead of trying to do good, step back and ask what people actually want you to do. It can be hard to put ourselves in a position of vulnerability, to admit we may not know what is best. For some people it may feel like a criticism, after all they are just trying to be a good person, a good ally. but it’s not about you, or should not be. It’s actually about how best to raise up those whose oppressions we do not share.

Follow Karen on twitter (@counsellingkaz)

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