Allying 101Posted: March 27, 2011
I’m one of those kids that falls at the very end of the LGBTQIA spectrum–an ally. If you’re not using the alphabet soup acronym, this basically means that I’m a straight kid who hangs out at GSA/Pride events because it bums me out that my friends from the first chunk of the acronym don’t get treated the same way I do. In college, this has worked out pretty well–the Pride kids support the feminist programming that I try to get pushed on campus, and I’ve made some entertaining, progressive friends through the club (plus I met my roommate for next year there, so that’s a plus).
But it wasn’t like this at my high school’s GSA. There, the club managed to be almost nothing but allies, and the LGBTQI kids split from the club because the allies , though well-intentioned, weren’t exactly providing the support they needed to. So, with that in mind, here’s a list of what I’ve learned about the etiquette of being an ally:
- Don’t freak out if someone assumes that you’re not straight: As an ally, you’re actually not the primary intended audience for the club. When people come into a GSA/Pride group, they’re typically assumed to be LGBTQI until they identify as something else–just like they’re probably assumed to be straight until proven otherwise in every other situation. Don’t freak out if other people make the pretty reasonable assumption that that’s why you’re in the club. If someone brings it up, the right way to correct them is something along the lines of, “I’m actually here as an ally,” not, “Ohmygod, why would you think that? I’m cool with gay people, but I’m straight.” Freaking out implies that you’re intolerant.
- Don’t try to control the agenda: Again, as much as you may be excited about joining a progressive organization whose goals you care about, you don’t get to control what the group wants. If the club on your campus is more focused on acting as a support group rather than an advocacy organization, that’s their prerogative. If they want to deal with getting gender neutral housing on campus rather than working towards gay marriage, there’s a reason. Feel free to ask why the priorities are what they are, but be aware that if something seems like a big deal to the non-ally club members but not to you, you’re probably rocking some straight privilege.
- Listen to what the community wants and help them with it: The positive version of the last point. Once you know what priorities are, you are more than able to lend your expertise to moving the club’s goals forward. If movie nights are popular, help set one up. If your club wants to phone bank about a piece of legislation, you can help man the tables. Particularly on a lot of campuses where the LGBTQIA community is at all large, GSA/Pride organizations will become more concerned with advocacy. Actually taking part in that advocacy to the extent that you are comfortable, rather than just showing up to meetings, shows your commitment as an ally.
- Educate yourself: It is not the responsibility of other club members to educate you about straight or cis privilege or about current issues in the LGBTQIA community. If someone brings up something you don’t know a whole lot about, don’t try to pretend that you do. Instead, look it up on your own time. Some things are going to be a part of the lived experiences of your club mates that you will not know about. If you inform yourself about them, you will be a much, much more valuable ally than you would otherwise.
- Avoid boxes: Many clubs have a policy which discourages people from asking other club members how they identify. If someone brings it up themselves, that’s one thing, but don’t go around asking people, “So… are you gay?” This goes double for people whose gender identity you are unsure of–if it’s really an issue, ask them what pronouns they prefer or wait to see what others use. Bringing it up more abruptly puts people on the defensive and is just kinda rude.
- Make friends: The sorts of folks–LGBTQI or A–who join GSA/Pride groups are typically super-friendly. Make friends who you wouldn’t otherwise have. It’s part of the fun of any extracurricular!
Being an ally can be an absolutely fabulous experience, but it requires some effort. For those who are interested in issues related to sexuality, sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender inequality, GSA/Pride clubs can be amazing safe spaces–they’re well worth the time it takes to learn the ropes.