Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Dear Allies

On this blog I write about queer stuff, as well as non-queer stuff.  So some of my readers are queer, and others are not.  But you might consider yourself an "ally" or supporter of some sort.  I have a question for you all, which you can answer in the comments.  How appreciated to you feel as an ally to LGBTQ people?

There's no wrong answer.  But I'll have you know that in the LGBT community, there is a lot of debate as to how much allies should be appreciated.

There's a comic that I've seen circulating around (origin unknown), which I like a lot because it expresses some of the problems people have with allies.

In short, allies are often overbearing, and not as helpful as they think they are.

You may think this is just a problem with people being "bad" allies, but that's not the entirety of it.  Last weekend I was at a conference, and we had an asexuality caucus.  One thing people complained about was the LGBTQIA acronym, because the conference materials said the A stood for Ally rather than Asexual.  More than annoyed that allies were taking precedence over us, people were annoyed that "ally" is ever part of the acronym.  Another example, sometimes people on Tumblr complain that the asexuality flag contains the color white to symbolize non-asexual people.  (And if you really want to piss people off, tell them that there is a flag for allies.)

Some people just don't like that allies are ever included symbolically.

I was thinking about this, because I recently read a (very long) essay by Julia Serano about the concept of appropriation.  Whenever allies enter queer spaces or imitate queer culture, they are seen as "appropriating" queer struggles for their personal gain.

Julia makes the apt observation that early in a minority social movement, allies are often welcomed, because the movement wants all the help it can get.  Later on in the movement, it becomes more socially acceptable to be an "ally", so allies are less valued.  Additionally, you can imagine that when it's socially preferable to be an ally, you get people who pose as allies but don't actually help much.

And it's not just a difference across time, it's a difference across space as well.  On the internet, allies are regarded with suspicion (supportive words are cheap), but of course allies are still valued by national LGBT organizations (allies are potential donors).  And I've never heard people complain about allies in high school queer straight alliance groups, because that's one place allies are needed.

So far I've taken a neutral stance on how much allies should be appreciated, and that's because I don't think there's any one-size-fits-all approach.  It makes sense to hold allies to a higher standard as time passes, as the social cost of being an ally decreases.  But if you insist that nobody ever give an inch to allies, then we cripple the most desperate groups, the ones who need allies.

Julia Serano points out that we don't just need allies for allies.  Some minimum level of acceptance of outsiders is also important for people who are queer.
The first time we enter a particular LGBTQIA+ space (whether it be a gay bar, a trans support group, or an asexual online discussion group) we often feel like outsiders, and we experience a steep learning curve in trying to understand the language and customs associated with the group.

In other words, we discover LGBTQIA+ identities and cultures. And one could say that all gender and sexual minorities are appropriators, as virtually all of us have adopted identities and participate in cultures that others created before us, and which we were not initially socialized into.
So to any allies out there, I hope this explains why queer people are so ambivalent towards you.


miller said...

Yes, I'm your ally. Yes, it would be nice to have a cookie. No, I don't want to move in with you.

I'm the ally of LGBTQIA-etc. (and feminists, and PoC, etc.) because it's the decent thing to do. I don't need for anyone to praise me at all for being a decent human being; indeed, I'm not being decent for *you*, but for myself.

I'm an ally in the sense that I will vote and speak out on others' behalf, but I am *not* a member in good standing of their groups/communities/identities etc. I'm not queer, I'm not a woman, I'm not a PoC. An ally is an outsider. That means I have no standing to comment on the suitability of others' agendas, strategies, or tactics. I'm not interested in being "included" in any deep sense. An ally is someone who *helps*, and help, I think, is best offered when asked for. If you don't ask for my help, I will assume you don't need it or want it.

I tend to personally stay away from venues where it happens, but I do want the "cookie" of people not being *surprised* that a straight, white, middle-class (in spirit at least) man can be a decent human being. I want the cookie of people not assuming that I am ineluctably racist, sexist, classist, or homophobic just because I am a SWMCM (which has actually happened to me). And I want the cooke of being treated like an ally, not a servant; if I disagree with you, it is assumed (until proven otherwise) because at worst of ignorance, not malice or disloyalty (which has also happened to me).

miller said...

This seems like a sensible position to me. A lot of the contentious issues surrounding allies are solved when we think of them as outsiders.

miller said...

Not sure why there's an issue. Why would somebody call themselves an ally? For example, when I go to a rally in support of gay rights, I don't point out I'm "a straight ally" or anything. i suppose many people will assume I'm gay since I'm at a rally for gay rights, but I don't really care if they assume that or not. Also, it gets on my nerves a little when somebody says, "I'm not gay, but I support yadda yadda." Just say, "I support yadda yadda."

miller said...

That makes sense, although I should mention that there is at least one advantage of publicly identifying as a straight allies. It conveys the message LGBT people aren't only ones who can or should care about LGBT causes. This message could have been especially important in decades past.

miller said...

This is more about having allies in various groups rather than attitudes towards them in general, but personally, I'm of the opinion that (at least under certain circumstances) the need for having spaces that are welcoming, and friendly, and open to allies isn't even just about allies - it's for queer people.

Because the truth is that not everyone who is or might be queer is ready, willing, or capable of being out, loud and proud. And for these people, the position of "Ally" is one way to access queer and LGBT safe spaces without necessarily being outed before they're ready.

Like, the reason that groups like GSA have "Straight Allies" isn't about "making the allies part of the queer spectrum", nor is it just about coalition building and increasing acceptance and education (though including allies in groups does have that effect, and it is an important one) - one of the other most important factors is that especially in high school, many many queer people will not be in a safe or comfortable place to come out - even to other classmates or even other queer-identified friends. Many people may also not be sure whether or not they are queer, and being welcoming to both queer and non-queer allies gives them room to figure that out without worrying that they'll be immediately booted from their support communities if they start to think that maybe they aren't so queer after all. Thus, including "allies" in various orgs is often a vary strategic move to make those spaces more accessible to all queer people, not just the comfortably out ones.

(Also, as a practical matter I as an asexual person find that groups that include allies tend to be more accepting of the lesser-known queer identities too, at least in my experience: groups that are open to everyone seem much less likely to play the "well, you're not a REAL queer so you don't belong here" card.)

miller said...

I'm a straight (although my son says my identity is genderqueer; I'm still confused) mom of a gay trans son. He is the light of my life and I'm a staunch ally. But yes, my feelings get hurt when people who have no idea of what *I've* been through (and yes, straight allies go through shit too!) in being his supporter in my family and my little redneck town and in leaving my lifelong church. I won't ramble on about what's happened but, hell, I'd like a little hug now and then instead of being told by LGBT folks who are strangers to me (the ones who know me call me Mom and Grandma) that I 'don't belong', that 'you're not one of us', (well, I'm not LGBT but, I've pretty much cut off all my other ties in order to *be* an ally and I NEED to belong somewhere! I'm hurting, too!) I've never met an LGBT person in real life who treated me badly but, I've read many unkind things on the internet like "STFU you straight ally because you're nothing special; you're just doing what you're supposed to do!" I don't think black people said that about the white kids that got murdered trying to help blacks get civil rights in the 60's. (And I'm partially African American). I think they were appreciated even if they were 'only doing what they were supposed to do.' Because think of how *hard* it can be in this society and this culture to 'do what you're supposed to do'! Sometimes it can be gut wrenching when everyone you know hates you and humiliates you because you're an ally. Worse then, to have the people you fight for hating you, too, and treating you like dirt beneath their feet. It's like a knife to the heart. I thank God that the LGBT folks I know don't treat me like that. They are so kind to me! Many of them have taken care of me and supported me through my horrible illness and still do. They are *my* allies! Thank you for listening!