In 2019, there are plenty of reasons the LBGTQ+ community could use more allies. Across the U.S., there’s been an overall 17% spike in hate crimes (including the murders of seven black trans women this year alone), a move to roll back Obama-era regulations that protect transgender medical patients and homeless LGBTQ youth, a new military policy that forces troops to use pronouns, bathrooms, and uniforms tied to their biological sex, and a potential plan to allow adoption agencies to reject same-sex parents.
And while being a good ally may seem pretty straightforward—just don’t be racist or sexist or homophobic or transphobic—the truth is, real allyship requires flexibility, openness, and the ability to admit when you’re wrong. Here’s how to do it.
BUT FIRST: A QUICK NOTE ON “PRIVILEGE”
This article will mention the word “privilege”–which can be used in variations like “white privilege,” “cis privilege,” “male privilege,” or some combination–and is a term that is sometimes met with defensiveness. To clarify, this is what it actually means to have privilege:
A post shared by ＭＵＮＲＯＥ 🌹🌹 (@munroebergdorf) on
In other words, it’s definitely not a competition to compare your problems to someone else’s nor does having it easier in certain ways prevent you from having valid hardships of your own. Statistically, all “privilege” means is that you’re less likely to die younger, receive a misdiagnosis, grow up in poverty, or be the victim of a hate crime based on who you are or how you look. Okay, moving on now!
1. Believe people’s pain.
The first thing you should do as an ally is simply listen, without projecting your own opinions or experiences onto the person who is opening up. “Be willing to hear uncomfortable truths,” says leading LGBT expert Kryss Shane, MS, MSW, LSW, LMSW. “Short of becoming an LGBTQ+ scholar and dedicating your life to the population, it is an ally’s role to hear and to support change.”
2. Make spaces as inclusive as possible.
One quick and obvious way to make people feel included? Use wording that could apply to anyone within a group. “Don’t make assumptions about the individual based on your understanding of the group,” explains Shane.
For instance, if you’re hosting an event for women and want trans women to feel just as welcome as cis women, you can advertise it as “female identifying/non-binary identifying people welcome,” and just be mindful that the location will feel safe for all attendees.
3. Know that intersectionality is about more than race or gender.
There are often experiences or perspectives you haven’t considered before, which is why it’s so important to be curious and open-minded as an ally. For example, “Dating with a visible disability or when using mobility aids is as difficult in the LGBTQ+ community as it is in the straight community,” says author and psychologist Liz Powell, PsyD.
Economic class, wealth, and able-bodied status are also factors that should be considered if you’re trying to think intersectionally. And of course, belonging to a marginalized group does not give anyone license to exclude other groups.
4. Pay attention to body language.
Shane warns against assuming that every person who feels hurt or attacked will speak up: “No person should have to out themselves to shut down jerk behavior.”
Francisco Pallares Santiago, who co-leads Hearst’s LGBTQ+ Affinity Group, advises that you pay close attention to people’s body language. [Editor’s note: Hearst publishes Cosmopolitan.] If you’re a group of straight women loudly taking shots at a gay bar for someone’s bachelorette party, not everyone else at the bar is going to be thrilled. Watch for some clues: Are people looking tense? Are they keeping their distance or joining your party? “Some people are bothered, but then other people really play into it—and that’s when you end up with the really drunk pictures,” says Pallares Santiago.
Similarly, when you make a joke or a comment and someone gets quiet, politely explore why. Not everyone feels comfortable defending themselves, and they shouldn’t have to: Basic empathy just means noticing when you’ve overstepped and working to fix it.
5. Own up when you’ve hurt someone, even if you didn’t mean to.
“We have to acknowledge that we can still do harm when we’re trying to do good [or] when our intentions are somewhat neutral,” says Hannah Pechter, who runs Hearst’s internal Allied group.
No need to monologue about it or beg for unending forgiveness.
“Caring and acknowledging is what matters most!” says Shane. “Say, ‘I’m so sorry, remind me your pronouns?’ or ‘I apologize, I didn’t realize how that sounded, what I meant was…’ Acknowledge your mistake, move on, and don’t replicate the same mistake. No need to monologue about it or beg for unending forgiveness and force the other person to make a sweeping statement in response.”
6. Think about how you specifically can help.
When you’re unsure of how to help, Powell suggests looking at yourself first. “The more privilege you have, the more that the burden of undoing these systems needs to fall on your shoulders. If you’re white, you bear more responsibility for taking on the challenging work of talking to other white people about their racism,” says Powell. That means educating yourself and speaking up for those who cannot.
7. Notice whose voices you’re listening to the most.
Even the best-intentioned allies can fall short if they live in a bubble, surrounded by only one type of person.”Most of us will find that we’ve drifted into groups of people who look and identify like we do—and that’s not necessarily bad!” says Powell. “It makes sense that people would be drawn to the groups [who] understand your personal experience. However, this does mean you need to put conscious work into seeking out viewpoints that are more diverse.”
Wanna know a quick way to expand your perspective? The internet. Simply following new Instagram or Twitter accounts can diversify your feed, thereby exposing you to new points of view.
I was today years old when I learned that the EIC of @afterellen is a transphobe who apparently uses her platform to punch down at GNC/trans folks. Screen shots for posterity! pic.twitter.com/nwXI4NiTQy
8. Be prepared to have some tough conversations.
Listen, criticism is tough to take. Sometimes you might be on the receiving end of hard-to-hear information or you might need to be the one to give it.
“When challenging someone, your approach needs to consider how likely they are to be flexible and how much you can leverage your relationship with them,” suggests Powell. “If someone is more likely to want to maintain your relationship, asking them questions about what they said or did and talking about its impact on you and others might be helpful.”
9. Examine your closest relationships as a whole.
If you find yourself constantly cringing or correcting your friends, it might be time to broaden your crew as a whole. “Educate your friends, never tolerate bigotry, and hang with inclusive people,” suggests Shane. “When you do, you’ll never have to worry about what they’ll say!”
Explaining why certain beliefs or behaviors hurt other people is exhausting, especially if you’re having to constantly repeat yourself. “You might lose friends through doing work like this, because you’ll really see people’s true colors and if they want to change or not,” says Pechter.
10. Check yourself whenever you’re “performing” as an ally.
Being an ally is not about making yourself feel better—we should *all* be allies. One way to make sure you’re in this for the right reasons is to examine how you approach conflict. Sandy Pierre, who runs Hearst Black Culture and is part of Allied, says that if you witness one of your colleagues insulting a fellow coworker who happens to be marginalized, privately ask your coworker how they’re feeling and if they’d like you to intervene—don’t call out the aggressor’s behavior in front of everyone. Then, separately, address the issue with the person who did the verbal attacking or report the incident to HR.
11. Never stop educating yourself.
While it can seem like the right move to ask people directly about the ways in which they feel oppressed, doing so can trigger traumatic memories and become emotionally burdensome. “We can’t task the people that we wish to learn about with educating us,” says Pechter.
Before you don rainbows, learn about the Stonewall riots and Gilbert Baker.
And, importantly, “just because someone is of a group doesn’t mean they are the expert in all things related to that group or that their opinions and experiences are the same for all in the group,” says Shane.
As an alternative, Shane strongly encourages continuing self-education. “Read and learn about LGBTQ+ leaders. Know the stories and contributions of Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Bayard Rustin, Ivory Aquino, Andrea Shorter, Jazz Jennings, Sara Ramirez, Rosie O’Donnell, Cleve Jones. Know the stories of the callers to the Trevor Project hotline, the cause for the existence of the True Colors United residence, and why SAGE is so necessary. And before you don rainbows, know about the Stonewall riots and Gilbert Baker.”
12. Find larger-scale ways to help too.
“Ask questions about why things aren’t more inclusive and offer to help change things, whether in rewriting the staff manual at work, requesting more inclusive bathroom signs at your gym or fave restaurant, or emailing your political officials,” Shane suggests.
She also recommends donating your money, time, talents, voice, energy, and kindness: “Whatever you have, share it. There are LGBTQ+ organizations that cover everything from politics to homelessness, youth to elders, rural to city. Show up wherever you can, however you can, as much as you can.”
13. Know that there’s no such thing as a “perfect” ally.
Allyship is never “done,” and you have to be cool with that. You singlehandedly cannot change the world or undo the past. All you can do is your best, and that’s good enough.
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