As a member of my University’s Ally network, supporting LGBT+ students, I think a lot about who becomes an ‘ally’, and why. Despite the name, the majority of us are committed LGBT activists, doing our usual bit for the community, rather than allies per se. Sometimes it can see like regular allies are thin on the ground, as if cisgender or heterosexual people cannot see this as something they could or should be doing. Our work, as a support and lobby group within our institution, relies on being seen to represent a significant constituency within the university, so allies are necessary if we are to be effective in what we do.
I recently read this interesting paper, by Colleen McGloin, about what it means as a feminist educator to be an ally to Indigenous people in the Australian context, and thought some of the points made could just as well be applied to becoming a critical ally in any context, including around sexuality. If you think I am not explaining myself well here, then please look at her paper, which looks at them in more detail.
Dealing with our own dis-ease
In any situation with entrenched power relations – as sociologists well know – we need to be able to recognise the nature of our own privilege, and the ways this often manifests in avoidance, in pretending we do not experience unearned benefits through our identity positions, or how we are ‘read’ in the world. For those who identify as cisgender and/or heterosexual, the totalising nature of heteronormativity will often make it easy to avoid thinking about your own privilege – that is the part of the purpose of a dominant discourse. Even for those of us who do not have this luxury, most of us still move in privileged university circles, where our identities are respected, and sometimes even actively valued.
Knowing where and when we are privileged is important. Being able to look at this squarely, and acknowledging the benefits we receive from this is necessary to become a good ally, because then we can acknowledge the wealth of things we do not know, and get better at listening to the experiences of others.
Do the hard work of forming ethical alliances
Being an ally, in any situation, means being prepared to do some work, and often that work will need to be alongside less-privileged others. This is where those listening skills are most going to be needed. You will need to ask questions about what you do not know, and not assume that you know the answers. You should feel ready to suggest ideas about your role in the alliance, and what you can offer based on your own skills and knowledge, but also be willing to check in that this will actually be useful to the LGBT+ folk you are wanting to be an ally to.
An example of doing this well, for me, is a colleague of mine who asked how I would feel if she corrected people who misgendered me in my absence. As non-binary people, we will have frequent experiences of being misgendered. Sometimes we have the frustrating experience of getting misgendered as a gender we were not assigned at birth, and then the person concerned apologies elaborately when later they decide they’d rather put us in another gender box. Where do you start with that particular explanation, and do you have the emotional energy for it at the time? To have colleagues who are willing to volunteer to do some of this ongoing educational work around gender is a gift, and makes it feel much more like a genuine alliance. Similarly a person who is comfortable in their trans identity may be able to access some heterosexual privilege, if the assumptions of those they encounter about their partners/love interests aligns with their own desires. How then can we reach out to those still experiencing stress, as a result of families or organisations not accepting or understanding their sexuality, and support them, in practical or symbolic ways.
Be willing to cross borders, and shift your thinking
This last suggestion, from McGloin’s article, is an interesting one, I think. What does it mean to be a border-crosser in today’s world, and what are the consequences of doing so? This might involve setting out to learn more about some areas of LGBT life that are unfamiliar, or that may have troubled you in some way in the past. Perhaps poly relationships feel threatening to you? Perhaps you do not agree with marriage at all, and so the idea of fighting for same-sex marriage feels frustrating? Perhaps you have unacknowledged, un-acted on desires, which prevent you from thinking more deeply about some areas of gender and sexual diversity? Crossing borders might be as simple as going to an LGBT+ event you would not usually attend, or putting yourself out there to take a more activist stance on something that does not benefit you directly. To shift our thinking is to ask ourselves, ‘What can I learn in this situation?’ rather than, how can I stay comfortable with what I have always known. Consider that you may be mistaken about some aspect of this – an uncomfortable acknowledgement for an academic at the best of times! The TV show ‘You can’t ask that’ has offered great opportunities for exploring these sorts of questions in open-hearted ways, and ways that seem to be empowering for those who usually experience marginalisation.
What are your thoughts?
I am really interesting in knowing what your experience of this is, whoever you are, and why ever you are reading this. I do not think we think enough about what it mean to make strategic alliances in our political lives, and how to do this with grace and humility, which is why McGloin’s article got me thinking. What aspects of this have I missed? Can you perhaps direct me to other good writing in this area? What experiences have you had of trying, or failing, to be an effective ally?