Last month, I wrote an article on some of the basic aspects of what it means to be an “ally for your friends and comrades in different social movements. In particular, I talked about certain things allies should never do: never think of “ally” as an identity; never make it about you; and never feel entitled to anything. Rather than continue to focus on the negative things that allies should not do, I want to discuss the positive things that allies can do with the privileges they benefit from.
I will admit that I am not always an exemplary ally. I have made my fair share of mistakes, and I am still trying to better my own practices. I want to share my experiences because I feel that it is pertinent to show how allyship works or does not work in real-life settings.
1. Using your access to various spaces
As I noted in my previous article, being an ally means that you have access to certain spaces that your friends and comrades do not have access to. These spaces vary, of course, depending on your identity. For example, access to college is something that, in the United States, is largely reserved for white, middle-class, nondisabled, cisgender folks, especially at the graduate level. So, if you have access to a college campus, you can bring your activism to those who may not know about the issues you are fighting for. Moreover, LGBTQ folks are often either treated as second-class citizens or have their humanity disregarded altogether in religious institutions. If you are a straight or cisgender ally, you have an opportunity to engage folks who go to various places of worship without entirely overstepping their comfort levels and without outing your comrades without their permission.
As a graduate student, I have had the privilege of leading lectures and acting as a discussion leader in various classes in the university’s Sexuality Studies department. In this role, I was able to talk about topics with which I had a personal connection or that were important to the folks who consider me an ally. In a class called “Cross-Cultural Sex and Gender,” I was able to give a short lecture on fat sexuality in the United States, something I’ve struggled with personally and had started focusing on for my thesis.
In a different class, called “Sex, Power & Politics,” I had the opportunity to lead various lectures on topics with which I had indirect experience through my own activist efforts and friendships. For example, I led a lecture on trans* and intersex issues in healthcare. I would never consider myself an expert on these issues, but based on the readings that were assigned, my previous education related to trans* studies, and my various conversations on such issues with my trans*-identified friends, I gave the lecture with the added knowledge of how these issues affect those who are close to me.
As a graduate student, I had access to those classrooms, to those students, and to those lecture topics, and I did what I could to engage students in learning about sex and gender issues without acting as if certain experiences were my own. As an ally, if you have these opportunities, it is best in most cases to take them, while asking your activist comrades who are affected by the issues for advice and guidance on what and what not to discuss. There are, of course, other issues that come into play, which I will talk about later on.
2. Talking to family and friends
Beyond having conversations with church-goers or giving lectures to relative strangers, there are particular spaces in which allies often have the best chance of having meaningful and educational conversations about various issues: family relationships and friendships. Anyone with a politically vocal family knows that these conversations are not always easy, but they are a lot easier for you than for strangers to your family or circle of friends. You can take opportunities, such as mainstream media events, and turn them into conversations about anti-racism, or queer rights, or trans* awareness, or fat acceptance, or ableism.
Recently, I knew I had to initiate a tough conversation about trans* identity with my family. Two of the best friends I made while in my Master’s program identified as a trans boy and as gender non-conforming, and I was not sure how the family members who were coming up were going be around them — let alone around everyone in my program talking about such sensitive issues as sex, sexuality, and gender.
I decided the best way to start the conversation was through an email, where I wanted to make clear what my family could expect when they came to see me, to the graduation ceremony, to my thesis presentation, and to the parties that followed. I began the email with a detailed list of the thesis presentations my cohort would be making, sort of as a primary buffer to the more pressing issues. I then told them, with the consent of my friends, about my friends’ identities and preferred pronouns. I further discussed how important it is not to talk about any of my friends’ private information or ask any inappropriate questions. I was not so concerned about my sisters; they have plenty of queer and trans* friends and are much more knowledgeable about those issues. It was my father I was worried about — not because I thought he would be inappropriate, but because I know that he has certain old-school understandings of gender that my friends and my program in general contradicted. Luckily, the conversation with my family went well, and everyone was very respectful of everyone else’s space and identities.
You sometimes have to have uncomfortable conversations with your family and friends in order to protect and respect those whom you have grown close to.
3. Understanding the space you take up
You cannot be an effective ally to any community without paying attention to the space you personally take up. Hand in hand with avoiding any sense of entitlement is being aware of when you are taking up too much space, both physically and verbally. Coming from a place of privilege, you should always be willing to step back when someone who is affected by oppression is trying to have their voice heard.
I have learned to realize what space I am taking up in various contexts, and I try to step back as much as possible. I knew that I was not the most qualified person to be giving that lecture on trans* and intersex issues in health care; if I could have, I would have asked the professor to have a friend or colleague lead the lecture instead. I know that I am not the best advocate for queer rights, or disability rights, or feminism, and while I want to put in the effort of discussing these things, I know that there are always other people who are more knowledgeable and whose lives depend on having folks understand them.
This discussion of allyship is really about doing what you can to fight for the rights of your friends and comrades with the access you have to various spaces, the knowledge you possess, and the privileges you hold in various contexts. Equally important, if not more so, is to take a look at yourself and understand that you are not meant to act as the authority about a cause that affects others. You are meant to support their words, their feelings, and their authoritative voices.[Headline image: The photograph features a white hand holding computer keys that spell out the word, “SUPPORT.”]