I have seen a lot of conversations recently about what the term “ally” means to social justice and radical movements. Is “ally” an identity? What role should allies play in larger discussions of oppression and resistance? Should allies have access to spaces created specifically for those who experience oppression? The goal of many of these discussions is to determine what an ally actually means to any movement or effort toward individual and collective radical self-love.
My questioning aside, I identify as a straight able-bodied mixed-race fat cis man. I consider myself an ally to different movements—feminism, queer rights, trans rights, disability rights, to name a few—understanding my place as outside of the scope of oppression in relation to such movements. While I know I can do various things to help my friends and comrades who are affected by the oppression that sparked the creation of these movements, I also know that it is not and will never be my place to attempt to be their representative.
When you are an ally, it is of utmost importance to realize that there are certain things you should and should not do when you have taken on that responsibility. I have compiled some of the most pertinent points that I have learned as an ally from my friends through various, often necessary, conversations. Although all movements and intersections thereof have allies, most of my examples here will focus on the LGBTQ community.
1. Ally should not be an identity.
Except for anyone who refuses to play the identity politics game, we all have certain identities that we hold. Race, gender, size, sexuality, ability, class – some we choose to accept and be proud of, and some we are less proud of or open about. For the most part, these identities are given to or even forced upon us.
Such is not the case when talking about allies. The term “ally” is not an identity and it does not grant you access into the communities you dedicate your allyship to. When you call yourself an ally, it denotes a responsibility to help those who ask you to help them. This means not only being open to the thoughts and experiences of your comrades, but also not getting offended when you get called out for being problematic—and not getting frustrated with that responsibility because it is difficult. An ally has to realize that their access to spaces that are otherwise off limits or dangerous for oppressed people is the reason they are not inherently a part of the community they are in alliance with.
A big source of disagreement regarding the issue of “ally as identity” comes from the question of whether or not the “A” in the extended LGBTQ acronym means “ally.” For example, if the acronym is LGBTQIA, many people automatically assume the “A” means “ally.” The problem is that the acronym is meant to encompass all sexual and gender identities that are not straight or cisgender (as imperfect and impossible as that may seem). By definition, an ally to the LGBTQ community would be a straight cisgender person, meaning they do not experience the same forms of oppression as those within the community. What needs to become more commonly understood, especially by allies, is that the “A” typically refers to asexual, agender, aromantic, and other oppressed sexual and gender identities.
More Radical Reads: When Helping Turns Into Hovering: 6 Times Being an ‘Ally’ Can Make Things Worse
2. Don’t make it about you.
Imagine that feeling you get when you are telling someone about a bad experience with your parents or your partner—something extremely emotional and hurtful—and the person simply responds with “I know exactly how that is” and launches into their own story. That person took your experience and your pain, and they completely removed you from it in order to tell their own story. There are few things worse than when us allies make a specific issue or experience about us. It is a microaggression, and it can often be borderline body terrorism. Conversations about oppressed people and their experiences should be centered on and driven by those who are oppressed.
One all-too-common example pertaining to the LGBTQ community is the concept of “same love,” at least in the way that folks like Macklemore use it. This concept assumes that everyone who identifies as lesbian, or gay, or queer, or otherwise, wants the same things that straight couples want. “Same love,” from an ally’s perspective, just means equality, but it’s erasing anything other than what queer theorists call “heteronormativity”—the perpetuation of norms and ideals typically held by straight people and the simultaneous rejection of other norms and ideals as being “weird” or “abnormal.” So is the love that cis straight partners have for each other really the “same love” that partners in the LGBTQ community have for one another? And does their love have to be the “same” as yours to gain your support? If it does, then it is time you reassess yourself as an “ally.”
3. Never feel entitled to anything.
It is great that you want to give up some of your comfort and general safety to be an ally. What is not great is when allies believe they are owed something for basically not being a bad person. An ally should never feel that they deserve a reward, a thanks, or any recognition for the assistance they believe they provide. Simply put: It is not about you. It is about the people who feel they can trust you enough to not treat them horribly. You do not automatically gain access to spaces created by and for oppressed people because you are an ally. You should definitely not be upset when you are asked to stay away or to leave.
Recently, a monthly radical queer dance event and organization in Oakland, CA called “Ships in the Night” received a great deal of backlash when they made a post about who they wanted and did not want to see at the event. The letter explicitly stated that they were asking straight cisgender folks to not attend the event. They cited reserving the space for queer and trans people of color first and foremost—people who cannot attend when the space is being taken up by straight cisgender attendees. Many folks, a majority of whom were straight cisgender people, did not agree with the restrictions. However, it is important to understand that the space was initially created specifically for queer and trans people of color who do not have the same opportunities to be out and open and feel safe. If you call yourself an ally to LGBTQ folks, especially LGBTQ folks of color, then you should not feel that you deserve to enter that space simply because you “have queer friends.”
More Radical Reads: Over the Word Ally: 9 Ways Solidarity Is An Act of Radical Self Love
These points and many others concerning the role of an ally extend beyond the LGBTQ community, of course, and apply to movements related to race, gender, ability, size, and so on. If you do not belong to those communities but consider yourself an ally, it is necessary that you look at your own practices and the things you do that might actually be harmful to the people you want to be helping. As we continue to strive for safety and justice for everyone, and as we continue to spread the message of radical self-love, we have to be willing to accept that, while we have the best of intentions, we have to be able to step back in order for those who are being oppressed to speak up.
In order to continue producing high quality content and expanding the message of radical, unapologetic self-love, we need to build a sustainable organization. To meet these efforts, we’re thrilled to share the launch of our #NoBodiesInvisible subscription service. This service will provide our community with access to additional content and rewards for your monthly investment in furthering our radical self-love work.
[Headline image: The photograph shows three young women. The woman on the left is black with curly black hair and a light blue shirt. She is smiling. The woman in the middle is white with brown hair pulled back and is wearing a beige sweater and pendant. She is laughing with her head raised, and she has an arm around the woman on each side of her. The woman on the right is white with long brown hair and a gray shirt. She is smiling. Behind them is a window and a bulletin board full of papers, flyers, cards, and pictures.]