It’s Not Where You Start: The Day After That

Originally posted on It’s Not Where You Start.

I’ve been thinking about what it means to be an ally. With the recent surge in online awareness-raising around GLBT teen suicides, I’ve noticed many of my straight friends are hearing the word ally used in this sense for the first time. But I’m going to reflect on myself as an ally, specifically with regards to transgender inclusion and rights.

Some of us in the queer world say “GLBT” out of habit all the time, when the truth is, we often only mean “gay,” or “gay & lesbian,” or somewhat less often, “gay, lesbian, and bisexual.” Gender-variant people — whether they identify as a gender other than the one that usually goes with their biological makeup, or they experience gender in a way that doesn’t fit neatly into the two boxes our society provides — have a lot in common with GLB people in terms of being second-class citizens. But the ways in which transgender, genderqueer, and other gender-variant people are threatened in our society are unique — and often exist within gay/lesbian/bisexual spaces as well.

Although we have a lot in common, those who are on the margins, even within a marginalized group, are often pushed further towards those margins as those closer to “typical” gain power. In other words, when gays realized that there was some political capital in convincing straight people that we are “just like them,” they tried to silence, hide, or distance themselves from the people who weren’t “just like everybody else.” I’ve written about my issues with the “just like everybody else” line of reasoning before, and I can’t overstate how pernicious an effect it can have on GLBT unity. Remember, it was the drag queens who rioted at Stonewall, kicking our movement into high gear. If we sacrifice their right to put on heels and spangles in order to gain the right for some other gay boy to go die for his country, we haven’t really won anything.

My journey towards becoming an ally to the trans community started, I suppose, in college. My freshman year, I met the first openly trans people I would come to know. One was in my class and made national headlines as an advocate for trans issues on campuses. Although biologically female, he was housed in a male dorm room and seemed to have no push-back from either his roommates or the university. I didn’t know him well, but I guess because he (and his circumstances) projected an air of normalcy, and everyone around him projected normalcy, I just accepted the model that we treat transgender people as the gender they tell us to treat them as, and there wasn’t much more to it.

(See, this is why “normalcy” is such a powerful political tool… but there is a dark side. Had he not been so pleasant, and had the roommates or the university pushed back, would I have had a harder time accepting him? It’s not like a cheery disposition should be a prerequisite for human rights.)

Later on that year, I got to know another trans person more intimately, as she shared some of her inner struggles around the transitioning process with me and other friends through an online community. This was really the transformational relationship for me, because not only did I begin to understand her experience — we had a relationship where I felt safe to ask questions.

There’s no denying that understanding and supporting people unlike us is hard. It’s harder if we try to figure out right and wrong for ourselves. So here’s rule number one for being a good ally:

1. You don’t have to be the expert. In fact, you need to understand that you’re not the expert. So ask questions in good faith, and remember that we’re always learning.

Rule number two follows quickly on the heels of number one, because once you start asking questions, you may find that different people give you different answers.

2. There are diverse opinions in any group. What is acceptable to one member of a minority group may be abhorrent to another member of the same group. (Think, for example, of language. I have gay friends who bristle at the word queer and queer friends who feel excluded by the terms gay, lesbian, and bisexual.)

The thing that’s tricky about being an ally here is that, while you are certainly welcome to your opinion on debated and divisive topics, members of the oppressed group in question may not want to hear yours. I have very strong feelings about why the word “queer” is helpful. I understand why some of my gay and lesbian friends don’t want me to use it. They’ve been victimized by that word’s history, and they have a stake in the matter. I am not interested in hearing straight friends weigh in on the matter because, well, they are unlikely to say something we haven’t already considered, and frankly, their opinion doesn’t hold so much weight here. And it will just annoy me.

I’m sure that reads as harsh to some of my straight readers. And it’s not to say that I think you should be seen an not heard, far from it. But there are such things as internal conversations that you may be privy to hear but not welcome to contribute. To give a religious analogy, I understand that there are ongoing debates among adherents to the Catholic faith about the priesthood — should it remain celibate, should it remain exclusively male, etc. But I acknowledge not only that I have neither the experience nor the expertise to weigh in on these debates, I also don’t have the right.

I know this is a controversial opinion, and I am sure there are others who disagree with me. So to balance it out, here’s rule number three:

3. The most important part of being an ally (other than listening and learning) is making your support vocal and visible.

In some ways, this all goes back to the politics of normal. Research shows that people, by and large, are dumb. We follow herd mentality, and our opinions are easily influenced by our sense of what others think. So the more that everyone makes their support of marginalized people known, the less marginalized those people will be.

The important side effect (and the motivating idea behind the It Gets Better Project) is that the members of the marginalized community will begin to see how supported they are, which has important psychological benefits.

It’s getting late, so I’ll leave you with one more rule for being a good ally before heading off to bed:

4. Let your words lead to actions.

Being vocal and visible in your support is a great first step. But most marginalized communities need concrete kinds of support as well. Take a look at the website of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition to get a sense of how vulnerable transgender folks are to healthcare discrimination, workplace discrimination, housing discrimination, and plain, old-fashioned violence. It’s sickening, and it’s wrong. So what actions can we take?

  • Write your legislators.
  • Donate to organizations working on righting these wrongs — both politically, through lobbying, and materially, such as those organizations providing free or low-cost leagl, health, and other services to transgender people who are denied equal protection under the law.
  • Stand up in the face of assholes. This is hard. We all fail at it, all the time. But as important as it is to make our support known in safe ways, such as writing Facebook messages or wearing the right shirt on the right day, it’s even more important to call out people when they fuck up. this is also true when good people miss the mark; we should feel okay correcting them as well. It just doesn’t make for quite as snappy copy.

There’s a whole lot more I could add here, both to that small bulleted list and to the list of rules as a whole. Here’s a sample of someone else’s list of rules for allies that takes a different approach but is right on the money.

One final rule:

5. Try really hard not to be a hypocrite. Sincerity goes a long way, and for example, it’s hard to believe President Obama’s message to GLBT kids that all of us are equal when it comes on the heels of his instructing the Justice Department to vigorously ensure otherwise.

So feel free to add your own rules, suggestions, or questions in the comment section below. I have a feeling this isn’t the last post you’ll see on this subject anyway.

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