Why do LGBTQ groups, events, and spaces often explicitly welcome allies–heterosexual, cisgender people who support LGBTQ people and their rights?
If you ask most allies (and probably even some LGBTQ people), it’s probably some version of this: “We need allies and their support. Including them in these spaces helps them learn about LGBTQ issues and how they can help. Without allies, this group would just be a segregated bubble and we shouldn’t separate people like that.”
Fair. But actually, the more compelling reason to welcome allies has nothing to do with allies themselves, and everything to do with people who are closeted, questioning, or otherwise not able to be out as LGBTQ.
If your high school’s Gay-Straight Alliance welcomes allies, that means that you can attend even if you’re not sure what your orientation is or aren’t ready to share it.
If the local LGBTQ community band welcomes allies, you can join and make some queer and trans friends even if you’ve only just started questioning your gender and aren’t sure which–if any–steps you want to take towards transition.
If the Pride parade welcomes allies and your parents see photos of you at it on Facebook, you can tell them that you were there supporting your best friend who’s gay–and maybe they’re way more okay with that than they would be with finding out that you’re a lesbian.
And if LGBTQ community center welcomes allies, you can attend with your partner, knowing that the two of you may present as a straight couple, without worrying (as much) about proving to anyone that you’re actually bi. It doesn’t take away the pain of not being recognized for who you are, but at least you don’t have to worry that anyone will ask you what you’re doing there.
So here comes the difficult thing. The uncomfortable piece of this that’s so hard to talk about.
If the main purpose of including allies in certain LGBTQ spaces is actually to provide “cover” of sorts for closeted, questioning, or “passing” individuals, what about actual allies–people who know with relative certainty that they are straight and cis? What’s their role here?
It depends on the space. In groups focused on activism, having actual allies involved can be very important, since they can use their privilege to advocate for marginalized folks. Allies should keep themselves informed on what needs to be done–does your city lack anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ workers? Are city officials being held accountable for police violence against trans people of color? Do local healthcare providers offer competent care for LGBTQ patients? Allies absolutely have a place in all of these battles–although the agenda should be determined by LGBTQ folks, and marginalized groups within that spectrum should especially be included in that. (Yo, LGBTQ groups: you need people of color and trans people in leadership roles.)
But what about spaces focused more on community building or support? Again, it depends. I like the fact that my LGBTQ band welcomes allies because that means that I can encourage straight cis friends to join and play music with us. Although the space is very much queer, having allies present doesn’t detract from that at all.
The reason that works is because the band is primarily a place to make music and have fun, not to meet potential partners (though I’m sure that happens), have deep discussions about gender and sexuality (though that almost certainly also happens), or kvetch about straight allies (I don’t think that really happens).
But when allies show up in places that are more explicitly for emotional support and creating a safe space, it doesn’t sit right with me. It can keep us from having painful conversations that need to be had, because in my experience, most allies eventually fail to restrain themselves from making well-intentioned but cloying comments about “but I accept you for who you are!” and “you just have to be yourself and you’ll find your special person someday.” In fact, even having the conversation I’m having with you right now would be impossible, because allies feel personally attacked by it and jump in with “so I guess we should just avoid all spaces where LGBTQ people hang out, then?”
When allies are present, I’m much more likely to end up explaining exactly why I feel the way I do about a given situation rather than receiving support around it, or having others chime in with their own (relevant) experiences. For instance, when I’ve tried to discuss the issues I raised in this article with allies, they typically say stuff like, “But surely there are other queer women out there who want to date women” or “But if you’re attracted to all genders, what does it matter which gender your partner is?” Fellow queer women and nonbinary folks tend to say, “Wow, that’s exactly how I feel and it’s so painful.” Guess which response is more helpful to me, and which leads to a more healing conversation.
But what bothers me even more about allies in queer support spaces is the reasons they give when asked why they’re there. The ally who says, “My queer friend asked me to join when I asked how I can better support them” is few and far between. Usually they say things like, “I just really care about supporting LGBTQ people” (despite the fact that we establish these spaces in order to seek support from people who share our experiences) or, worse, “I want to learn about issues facing LGBTQ people.”
So here we are, talking about our most painful and personal feelings, while “allies” gawk on silently so that they can “learn” about us. That doesn’t sound like a support group; it sounds like a zoo.
There is, in fact, an abundance of ways for people to learn about issues facing LGBTQ people. There are now hundreds, thousands of books and blogs like this one. There are LGBT centers in most cities that sponsor educational events open for everyone. There are public lectures, readings, open mics, museum exhibits, and other resources in most cities. Just in Columbus, just this past week, there have been so many things to do:
- On Tuesday, a weekly group for parents and families of LGBTQ youth met at the Kaleidoscope Youth Center.
- On Wednesday, Black Queer & Intersectional Columbus (BQIC), a group seeking to center the lives and experiences of queer/trans people of color, held a public meeting at a library, open to everyone of all identities.
- On Sunday, BQIC had performers and information at the Independents’ Day Festival, which celebrates creativity in Columbus.
- Also on Sunday, the Columbus chapter of PFLAG, which supports parents, family members, and allies of LGBTQ people, had its monthly meeting.
- The Ohio Lesbian Festival took place half an hour outside of Columbus this weekend.
- The CATCO theater company’s production of Fun Home is currently playing at the Riffe Center downtown.
Looking forward, there’s even more stuff:
- Thursday, September 21 is the monthly Columbus Queer Open Mic at Wild Goose Creative.
- On September 23, the Ohio History Center and the Gay Ohio History Initiative (GOHI) will be hosting an LGBTQ Community Day, which will feature the museum’s collection of LGBTQ-related historical items. There will also be a screening of Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens, a documentary film about Columbus’ drag scene, followed by a panel discussion with some of the performers.
- Also on September 23, Bi Local, a group supporting bi/pan/queer folks in Columbus, presents its annual Bi Visibility Celebration, featuring burlesque, comedy, and more.
- On September 26, BQIC hosts an open mic night.
- On October 1, the King Avenue United Methodist Church hosts Darren Calhoun, a Black Chicago-based activist, photographer, and worship leader who will discuss the intersections of racial and LGBTQ identity.
- On October 4, the Buckeye Region Anti-Violence Organization (BRAVO), an organization that works to eliminate violence against LGBTQ people, will host a training on that subject.
- On October 19 and 20, the Equitas Health Institute hosts its annual conference, Transforming Care, which focuses on health disparities in the LGBTQ and HIV+ communities. Julia Serano will be speaking!
- On November 4, the Capital Pride Concert Band, which I play in, performs at the Lincoln Theater.
So there you go. In about a month and a half in Columbus, which isn’t a particularly large or bustling city, you can learn about stopping homophobic/transphobic violence, health disparities affecting people with HIV, Ohio’s queer history, supporting your queer/trans child, how religious spaces can become more inclusive to queer folks, why drag is a haven for some LGBTQ people, how mainstream LGBTQ communities alienate and perpetuate racism against queer and trans people of color, and why Alison Bechdel is a fantastic human being. No need to insert yourself into queer support spaces.
But most of the time, this conversation gets shut down before it even really gets going. It happens in four stages:
- A queer person brings up the question of allies’ place in a given space/community and says that they’re not entirely comfortable with allies sticking around just to…ally themselves or whatever it is they’re doing.
An ally points out that they’ve learned so much from being in this space, and that if everyone REALLY wants them to leave of course they’ll leave, but that would make them very sad because they’ve been very supportive and have learned a lot and the LGBTQ community can’t make progress if it shuts itself off from allies, and besides, they would NEVER demand excess emotional labor from queer people and expect them to explain everything and so on.
Another queer person points out that we can’t just avoid everyone who isn’t like us forever, and also makes the (in my opinion) much more relevant point that you can’t “ban” allies from a space without also banning anyone who joins as an ally while actually being closeted/questioning/passing/etc.
The conversation is over, nothing is clarified, and nothing changes.
The thing is, everything all of these hypothetical people just stated is true:
- Many queer people are uncomfortable with the presence/participation of allies in certain spaces.
- Many allies learn a lot from being in queer spaces.
- Many allies do participate in queer spaces without demanding excess emotional labor (but of course, sometimes it’s just the fear of those demands that makes some queer people uncomfortable when allies are around, and/or you just don’t want people who can’t possibly GET IT listening to what you’re saying)
- Many allies would indeed be sad if they were to be kicked out of queer spaces.
- Many queer people are NOT uncomfortable with the presence/participation of allies in any of their spaces.
- The LGBTQ community would not make much progress if it shut itself off from all allies (but that’s not what anyone suggested)
- We really can’t just avoid everyone who isn’t like us forever (but that is also not what anyone suggested)
- You cannot (enforceably) ban allies from a space without requiring everyone to out themselves, even if they aren’t ready to.
So what’s to be done with this set of conflicting truths?
For starters, these conversations always seem to leave out the obvious fact that there are many different LGBTQ spaces out there. Nobody ever advocated banning allies from all of them. It is okay for some spaces to be for LGBTQ folks only, and others to be open to everyone. It’s understandable that we disagree about exactly which spaces should be which, but that doesn’t mean that anyone is advocating banning allies from everything ever or cutting ourselves off from everyone ever.
Furthermore, while it’s true that enforcing an ally ban would mean making people out themselves, that’s not the only way to achieve an ally-free space. The other way is for allies to choose to stay out of that space.
And when I say “allies,” I don’t mean “people who might be perceived by others as allies.” I mean exactly what I described earlier: people who know with relative certainty that they are straight and cis. They’re not here because they’re questioning their identity. They’re not here because they’re thinking about starting hormones. They’re not here because they really want to have a same-sex partner someday but haven’t yet. They’re here because they are very aware that they are straight and cis and care about LGBTQ people.
Maybe I’m overly optimistic, but I do believe that there are allies who are capable of reflecting on this critically, of thinking to themselves, “You know what? My support isn’t the support these folks want in this particular space, my voice isn’t the one that’s needed here, and these folks don’t necessarily want to be ‘learned from’ right now, right here.”
And I do believe it’s possible to create a space that rests gently in what seems to be a contradiction: we know that this space is not a space for allies, and yet we won’t make assumptions about anyone’s identities in this space, and a person who “appears” to be straight and cisgender isn’t necessarily an ally–but nor are we assigning them a queer or trans identity before they claim it for themselves.
In closing, I’m going to address something I hear from allies very frequently, which is that they’ve made the LGBTQ community their main social outlet because other cishet people are likely to be less progressive and respectful of left-wing politics and personal expression (i.e., the straight cis man who likes to wear nail polish or flowers in his hair sometimes).
Leaving aside the fact that the LGBTQ community has many of its own issues with inclusivity and that plenty of progressive people exist outside of that community, I get it. This does tend to be a relatively accepting space compared to the rest of society.
But the reason it got that way isn’t because queer people are somehow inherently, biologically better than anyone else. (Well, the jury’s still out on that.) It’s because we made it that way, and we had to make it that way because we didn’t have any other choice. Queer people are not intrinsically less judgmental or bigoted than anyone else, but we needed a space where we wouldn’t be automatically hated because of how we look or who we’re attracted to. Sometimes, like curb cuts on sidewalks, this benefits people who weren’t necessarily the target audience.
So, my gentle challenge to allies is this: rather than (only) benefitting from the safer spaces painstakingly carved out by others, build your own. Find men who are open to emotional vulnerability and who challenge toxic masculinity. Find women who are committed to platonic intimacy with other women rather than centering their entire lives around the men they date. Find people who shrug at gender roles. Shut down your friends’ transphobic jokes.
“But, Miri, it’s not that easy,” you’ll protest. Believe me, I know. It wasn’t easy for us either.
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