7 Habits of Highly Effective Allies

You started down the road of being an ally for LGBT people and now you find yourself realizing that this is hard work, that you don’t have it all figured out, and that sometimes people still get upset with you. Fear not! I put together seven habits of highly effective allies which will help get you started and keep you going in the right direction. Whether you are brand new in your support of LGBTQ people or years in the making, you’ll learn something from this.

1) Continue your education

There’s more to being an ally than saying “It’s not a sin to be queer.” Once you get there, keep going. Learn about the many needs of LGBTQ people: housing, employment, health care, immigration, education, safety. Meet with queer people that aren’t on billboards and in TV ads. Learn about the needs of homeless queer youth, of genderqueer people, of kids who are transitioning, of immigrant queers, of serodiscordant couples. This is a lifetime journey and you will be so much more effective when you embrace growth and learning all along the way, always refusing to stagnate.

2) Pass the mic

It’s great that you are willing to speak up for us. World changing in fact. Step one is to recognize that you, as a straight person, receive unearned benefits at the expense of LGBTQ people. It is easier for you to get into school, to be ordained, to get married, to immigrate, to seek medical attention, to be published, to be invited to speak at a conference. You need to know and recognize this. And then you need to do something about it. Refuse to speak on straight-only panels. Invite LGBT people along on your speaking gigs. Interview or guest post LGBT writers, theologians, businesspeople, actors, artists, and activists on your blog or website. Recommend or distribute resources created by queer people rather than answering the question yourself.

3) Remember that oppression is an onion

Even straight white males are not immune from marginalization. Perhaps you are an atheist (or Muslim). Maybe you are in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction. Or have spent time in jail. Or have a mental condition. Or a physical disability. Maybe your body size is not the one idealized by our culture.

There are a variety of ways that straight men and women suffer marginalization: gender, race, skin color, ethnicity, religion, body size, physical and mental capacities, disease/carrier status, incarceration record… the list goes on. You don’t need to be perfect. In fact, recognizing the ways in which we are both oppressor and oppressed is a key step in a path toward liberation for all. Allow us to work in solidarity with you too, you don’t need to be our savior (and we don’t need to be yours). We can be in this together, as partners!

4) Get in the way

We can speak for and defend ourselves and still there are times when we want your help. It can be tiring to explain over and over again why we think it’s OK to be gay or why we need to transition. Help us when we are exhausted by taking over those conversations. Stand in the way–literally–when people denigrate us with their words. My good friend Sam Crowell spoke up when a man entered our church and started spewing anti-gay rhetoric. As someone who works in solidarity with LGBTQ people, it’s important that when push comes to shove, you’ll have our back, you’ll get in the way, you’ll act up. It may be uncomfortable, it might get you in trouble, that’s part of the package: welcome to our lives.

5) Get messy

Let’s be honest right up front: straight people will give you flack for being difficult and pushy, for always talking about “the gay thing,” and for being hypersensitive. And queer people will give you flack for not doing enough, for being too patient, for not doing it right. At some point, you might loose friends, family, money, or jobs. Jay Bakker lost almost all funding for his church, Revolution NYC. This is messy stuff. Embrace the mess, get messy.

Be willing to be uncomfortable. Be gracious and thankful when corrected. Allow yourself to let go of the comfort and safety that comes privilege. It’s messy work and it is also gratifying, life-giving, sacred work. And with a heaping of grace, we can all get through this.

6) Engage in other solidarity work

A famous person once said that we are all “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” Make sure that as you pursue freedom for LGBT people, you don’t throw other people under the bus. Don’t demonize unmarried people, polyamorous people, pagans, or feminists to help us gain rights. Don’t forget about queer people living under US military occupation, or indigenous queer people whose stolen lands we live on. Don’t ever say “They’re just like you, not like those people.” There’s enough room for everyone. Foster alliances and collaborations, rather than divisions.

7) Listen to us

I saved the most important one for last so it will be fresh in your mind. This is absolutely crucial. Listen to us. Always. Without exception. If we tell you that what you said is hurtful or harmful, it is: apologize and stop it. If we tell you that your strategy is counterproductive, stop it. If we tell you that you’re doing a great job, believe us! If we tell you that your association with a person or organization undermines our trust in you, it does.

You might disagree, we might be at odds with your friends, it might be uncomfortable. If you want to work in solidarity with us, you need to trust us. This is about us, our needs, our safety, our liberation.

Bonus: Focus more on working in solidarity rather than self-identifying as an ally

Shannon Kearns over at Anarchist Reverend has been driving this home recently (detailed post by Gauge available here). Instead of self-identifying as an “ally” focus more on working in solidarity with LGBTQ people. Calling yourself an ally places the focus on yourself rather than on LGBTQ liberation. It also presumes that you are doing productive, useful work. Many straight people are (Jay Bakker and Onlielove Alston are excellent examples). If you are, we’ll tell you! Instead, focus on the work that needs to be done and on partnering with and following LGBTQ. We need to claim our lives, humanity, autonomy, and freedom. We absolutely want you along for the journey and at the same time we do not want you to (even accidentally) revictimize us by taking away our voices, agenda, and self-direction.

What about you?

What have you learned in your journey in solidarity work? If you could go back in time, what would you tell yourself 6 months ago? a year ago? ten years ago? What did you learn the hard way? What did you end up doing well right from the start? Use the thread below to share best practices.

Starting August 15, I will be running a series on “unlearning” in order to build better movements. You can subscribe below to receive updates.

Want to get those each week (plus some occasional, more private thoughts on sex & relationships)? I’d love to keep in touch. Drop your email address below and I’ll keep you in the loop!

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6 Comments

  1. Travis Mamone July 26, 2011 at 8:41 pm

    As a newbie at working in solidarity, I really needed to read this!  Thanks!

  2. Brian July 26, 2011 at 8:58 pm

    Thanks Brian.  If I was to go back in time 6 months, 12 months, 5 years ago, I’d say to myself: “Don’t worry what others will say or do or how other may respond or react.  Be true to yourself and your convictions.  Don’t wait any longer to tell others what you think about sexuality.”  I can hear God saying to me even now, “What took you so long Brian?”

  3. Brian Gerald July 29, 2011 at 8:17 pm

    You’re welcome. Glad to hear you’re digging into resources. Glad to have you on the journey!

  4. Brian Gerald July 29, 2011 at 8:18 pm

    Thanks Brian, I love your responses. “What took you so long?” if I had a dollar for every time I asked myself the same thing…

  5. Guest August 1, 2011 at 8:48 pm

    A very long time ago I made a casual gay joke at work, and someone I respected and liked called me on it, telling me his brother was gay. I was embarrassed and rightfully so. To this day, I still don’t know why I made that joke – I had gay friends I respected and loved, and yet I fell into the cultural trap of  casual, nonthinking homophobia. That moment turned my life around, and there is nothing I won’t do for the LGBTQ community, including small steps like calling my own son out on “That’s so gay” remarks, and his church-fueled view of gays and lesbians. I’ve had many a fight, but that’s stopped, and I consider that a small, but significant achievement. As crazy as this may sound to some, I’ve come to believe it’s my duty as a Christian to step up to the plate for my LGBTQ brothers and sisters; that this is what I’ve been called to do.

  6. Steve Knight August 13, 2011 at 4:53 am

    Thanks, Brian. I’m learning a lot.

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