How to be an ally: A guide for well-meaning straight people

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As gays, it seems we have spent much of our history presuming your sincerity. You have included us in your important life events, welcomed us into your home, and embraced our partners. Knowing how rare and special a relationship between a gay person and a straight person is, we accepted your affection without condition and failed to consider that you might not fully grasp the responsibility that comes with allyship. We, as LGBTs, do not have the luxury of being low-maintenance friends. For us, there is too much at stake–our equality. 

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So before you choose to begin a friendship with us, consider this.

Do your homework.

Many of you probably assume that now that we have nationwide marriage equality our work is done with regard to LGBT rights. The mainstream media has focused heavily on this particular issue within the last few years when it comes to our community, so we really don’t blame you if you’ve had a similar sentiment. 

But being an ally requires digging a little deeper to learn about the real issues facing our community. Did you know that, in many states, unless we work for a progressive employer which has adopted its own standards, we can legally be fired simply for being gay? Did you know that laws that allow businesses the right to discriminate against us are being implemented in order to protect the prejudices of those who identify with a religion? Did you know that many corporations that you have probably been patronizing your whole life are spending large amounts of money to hinder LGBT equality? If you were unaware of one or more of these issues, we’re not exiling you to a life of friendships with heterosexuals only; that would just be cruel.

We’re just asking that you try a little harder to educate yourself on what matters in our world. Read a blog or two, check AfterEllen.com once a week. You’d be amazed at how much you can learn by simply connecting with a few lesbian sources. And if you’d rather gain info by engaging in an actual conversation, ask us about what matters to us. As long as you come to us from a place of love and a genuine desire to know more, we’re happy to educate you on what it means to be queer in this world.

To share a bit of my personal connection with this point in particular, I had a similar conversation with my mother earlier this year. When I came out to her several years ago, she was supportive and has never made me feel less loved than my heterosexual brothers. However, I began noticing more and more that, although I knew she loved me deeply, there were many issues she hadn’t yet been enlightened to. Please don’t mistake my mom for uninformed; she is a well-educated, intelligent, and successful person. But she remained somewhat in the dark on LGBT issues. Realizing this was most likely not purposeful from her perspective, I shared with her that it would mean a lot to me if she could take a little more interest in matters that concern gay people. Being the loving and compassionate person she is, rather than getting defensive at my suggestion, she took action. Since then, I have seen firsthand a dramatic change in her depth of understanding. 

My mom has always been supportive of me as an individual and as her daughter, but I’ve seen her evolve into a broader level of loyalty to LGBTs as a whole. And it has allowed our relationship to deepen and be more open and honest. I am so thankful that she listened when I expressed concern. We don’t expect perfection; we’d just like to see you make a place for yourself in our movement–even in a small way.

Before starting a friendship with us, ensure you are prepared.

For us, being an ally means you are willing stand up for us. When an insensitive comment regarding gay people is made and you stay quiet, we notice. When you express that, although you support us, you believe our opposition has a right to their prejudiced beliefs, we notice. We may not say anything, but we notice. 

I recently heard a lesbian refer to a friend who is a straight ally as “straight messy.” Being gay is a messy business. For as far as we’ve come in the way of equality, we still have a long way to go before it is fully accomplished. The opposition is out there and they’re not being quiet. When we trust you enough to bring you into our world, we’re hoping you’re willing to get messy, too. If you’d prefer to float through life without conflict or controversy, we wouldn’t blame you. But, for us, that’s not an option. We have no choice but to get our hands dirty; our safety, our livelihood, our rights, our future are all dependent on our willingness to continue to fight.

So, if you think you’re ready to be an ally, please know that it will not be easy, it will not be convenient, it will be messy.

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Understand that you will never understand.

Being gay is something only other gay people can fully understand. I do not say this to be exclusive or pious, but to be truthful. However, asserting that you as a heterosexual person cannot understand what it means to be LGBT does not imply there is no place for you at the table. It simply means your place setting may look a bit different from ours. 

But your place is a vital one. Please hear me when I say this: We cannot further equality without you. Civil rights for the black community were not achieved solely from black people demanding to be heard. White people had to participate in order to make a real change in a climate that had accepted the principles of white supremacy. In the same way, we need you as heterosexual individuals to be involved in the gay community. There are members of the opposition that will never listen to us, but that will listen to you because you’re straight. Your heterosexual privilege can be used to inspire revolutionary change. Keep in mind, though, that no matter how involved you become with our movement, you will never fully understand our struggle. 

As a femme identified woman, I’d like to think of myself as a trans ally. At least, I hope I am. I am not as involved as I’d like to be or as I should be (I’m working on it), but the trans community is one that is close to my heart and I do my best to educate myself on trans issues, build relationships with trans people, and stand up for the trans community. 

Regardless of how much time I spend learning about the issues facing transgender people, I will never know what it means to be trans because I am not. I was born female and I cannot imagine being anything else, which means I don’t know what it feels like to struggle with gender or biological sex. This is not an affront to me; it is not a means to exclude me; it is a fact. And the same principle applies to our heterosexual friends and family. We love you and we want you to join the fight, but please understand that you will never understand. And that’s okay.

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Acknowledge your privilege.

Privilege–the big, scary “p” word. We’ve all got it, but we’d rather not discuss it. Somewhere along the way having privilege became something to be ashamed of and, therefore, deny. We associate having it with being a part of the problem, which is a dangerous notion. White privilege implies I am to blame for racism. Cis privilege implies I am to blame for transphobia. Middle class privilege implies I am to blame for poverty. 

Heterosexual privilege implies you have to accept responsibility for homophobia. If you recognize any of the four aforementioned statements as truth, you have misinterpreted what it means to have privilege. It is nothing to feel guilty about as, in general, it is something out of your control. As a straight person, you have heterosexual privilege and this is not something to hang your head over–far from it. It simply indicates that, as a person of privilege, you have the option of doing one of two things–you can deny your privilege thereby wasting an opportunity to use it for good or you can embrace it and use it as a tool to advance the equality movement. When you deny that being heterosexual grants you a certain amount of privilege, you erase all of the strife we face on a daily basis. 

Have you ever had to really consider whether it was a good idea to bring your partner/spouse to your company holiday party? Probably not. We do. As a rule, you have the ability to have a date accompany you without fear of experiencing mistreatment from co-workers or even being fired based on who you’re sleeping with. Many of us begin worrying about whether to take a date to the holiday party as soon as summer ends. Do you ever walk down the street holding hands with your boyfriend/girlfriend and look over your shoulder to see if the person behind you might assault you because of who you love? Probably not. We do. Depending on the progressiveness of our neighborhoods, we may worry about it constantly or it could be something we only consider occasionally. 

But we all fear it at one time or another. This is not to be accepted as a comprehensive explanation of heterosexual privilege, but to give you a bit of insight on our differences. Your privilege allows you access into a world in which we, as out queer people, can never be accepted in. We’re not asking you to avoid it; we’re asking you to enter in and use your voice as an ally to help us out. People are listening to you that will never listen to us. Use your powers for good.

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Stop making it about you. It’s not about you.

When I observe the straight ally community, I see so many wonderful, smart, compassionate people. I see my mother, stepfather, my father, and a few of my dear friends–Susan, Zeeba & Eric, Lauren and Cody. I see Kerry Washington and Brad Pitt. I see Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton. I also see a growing group of straight people who claim allyship seemingly for their own gain. My wife calls them “gay for pay.” They lend their names to LGBT charities and speak at galas on our behalf, but they are standing on the shoulders of the queer movement to further their own notoriety and celebrity. 

Don’t be that guy. Don’t become so wrapped up in our movement that you forget that, at the end of the day, it belongs to us. You always have a place with us, but on the condition that you don’t use your place to bogart the spotlight. If you dedicate enough of your time to our cause, we will probably reward you with a fair amount of recognition. We’ll invite you to our events and sing your praises; we may even present you with a nice plaque to hang in your office as a thank you for the good work you do. 

But don’t let it go to your head. Accept our gratitude with grace and humility keeping in mind that the queer movement is not about you. We believe that LGBT equality is in the best interest of everyone regardless of sexual orientation, so you will reap the benefits of every single advancement that is made and we want you to enjoy and embrace that. Be proud of yourself for your contributions, but don’t become so preoccupied with patting yourself on the back that you forget about those of us living the cause every single day. It’s not about you.

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Whether you’re a straight person who’s been involved in the queer movement for as long as you can remember or a newbie who recently learned that your lifelong best friend is gay, we want you on our side. We need your voice. As an individual, you have a unique perspective and experience that is one of a kind. No one can replace you. We just ask that you listen to our concerns, trust our words, and walk closely behind us as we continue this journey. We still have a long way to go and we want you there every step of the way.

Follow Emily on Twitter: @EmilyAMcGaughy