I have seen a lot of conversations about what the term “ally” means for 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 for any movement on behalf of individual and collective radical self-love.
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, and disability rights, to name a few. I understand my place as being outside of the scope of lived experience with oppression in relation to these 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 I’ve learned as an ally from my friends through dozens of much-needed conversations. Although all movements have allies, most of my examples here will focus on the LGBTQ community.
1. “Ally” should not be an identity.
We all have multiple identities: race, gender, size, sexuality, ability, class, and so on. Some of our identities we choose to accept and be proud of, while others 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 to 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 which are otherwise off-limits or dangerous for oppressed people is the reason they’re not inherently a part of the community they’re in alliance with.
More Radical Reads: When Helping Turns Into Hovering: 6 Times Being an “Ally” Can Make Things Worse
A big source of disagreement regarding the issue of “ally as identity” comes from the question of whether or not the “A” in LGBTQIA acronym 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. The “A” typically refers to asexual, agender, and aromantic people.
2. Don’t make it about you.
Imagine that feeling you get when you’re telling someone about a bad experience with your parents or your partner — something extremely emotional and hurtful — and the person simply responds, “I know exactly how that is,” and launches into their own story. That person took your experience and your pain and 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 center and be 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 have used 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’s great you want to give up some of your comfort and general safety to be an ally. What is not so great is when allies believe they’re owed something for basically not being a bad person.
An ally should never feel they deserve a reward, thanks, or other forms of recognition for the assistance they believe they provide. Simply put: It’s 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’re an ally. You should definitely not be upset when you are asked to stay away or leave.
A monthly radical queer dance event and organization in Oakland, CA called “Ships in the Night” received a great deal of backlash a few years ago when they made a post about who they wanted and did not want to see at their 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 often don’t feel safe attending when the space is being dominated by white, 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 shouldn’t feel you deserve to enter a 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 extend beyond the LGBTQ+ community, of course. They apply to movements related to race, gender, ability, size, and so on. If you don’t belong to those communities but consider yourself an ally, it’s necessary to 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, we have to be willing to accept that despite our best intentions, we must step back and listen when those who are being oppressed speak up.
[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 women on both sides 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.]