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Speak With Us, Not For Us: Privilege, Oppression and Allyship

GLSEN Student Ambassadors

Nick WilkinsThis week is Ally Week, and our school’s Gay-Straight Alliance is going all out to create #BetterAllies! We’re celebrating Ally Month in place of Ally Week, and we’re running workshops on allyship, privilege and oppression, and the history of slurs at our meetings. While it’s going to be a lot of fun, it requires a lot of not-so-fun preparation for the officers.

This preparation began one day after school when my fellow officers and I met in the library to plan our first meeting. We sat around a table while another student took a seat nearby to study. This student, who we’ll refer to as John, is notorious for demonstrating anti-queer attitudes; I had previously argued about marriage equality with both him and his brother, and they are both extremely vocal about the “immorality” of homosexuality. Rather than moving, which would have made me more comfortable, I decided it would be best to stay put. If he could listen in, there was a chance of him gaining something from our discussion.

After the bulk of the meeting was over, we had a brief conversation about systems of privilege and oppression. As I had suspected, John had been listening the entire time, and he raised a question about oppression:

“You all know that I’m against marriage equality and that I don’t think it’s morally right, but I would never actively oppress someone. I try to be accepting and kind, but I’m not going to go out and protest for gay rights. Where would I stand as an ally?”

We had a short conversation with him, and I made the point that some circles view neutrality and inaction as oppression because it allows the direct oppression to continue. I also brought up that voicing negative views regarding queer people can be detrimental to their self-confidence and wellbeing.

Before anyone could comment, the sole straight officer, whom we will call Ben, responded:

“But that’s not how we view it.”

This single sentence is a picture-perfect demonstration of an issue all allies will eventually face, and will have to overcome; speaking for a group, not with it.

When Ben told John, “That’s not how we view it,” he was obviously trying to be helpful and prevent an argument, but while doing so, he spoke over our four queer officers. Ben spoke for me, and voiced the opposite of what I, a queer person, believe. What Ben said allowed John to continue believing he was not hurting our movement, and ended an important discussion we could have had.

Of course, in a perfect world, I would have voiced my opinion and told both Ben and John what I believed. However, in that moment, I felt utterly silenced by Ben. Despite knowing that Ben had the best intentions, I automatically felt as if there were now two people in the room against me rather than one.

It is never an ally’s place to speak for an oppressed group, but rather to amplify the voices of the oppressed. Ideally, Ben would have asked us what we thought, or let us speak first. As a cisgender heterosexual he has never experienced oppression based on his sexuality or gender identity/expression, and therefore can not define what oppression is. His role as an ally is to use his privilege to raise our voices, as well as to call out others with privilege who oppress us.

Outside of this specific instance, there are a lot of ways allies can use their voices to speak with the queer community! On social media, sharing the stories and thoughts of queer people and bringing attention to the issues we face is a powerful form of action. In real life, calling someone out for using a slur and explaining why it’s hurtful, or engaging in a conversation with someone about queer issues, using knowledge they’ve obtained from their queer friends, can make all the difference.

Let’s think about what Ben did in the library one last time though. Did his actions make him a horrible person? No. Was he the Tumblr definition of “cishet scum?" No. Is he a horrible ally? No. Ben is a great person, and we appreciate his support! He is one of most kind and passionate people I know. However, all allies, like Ben, must take a step back and realize that in discussions about queer issues, they must speak with us and not for us.

When an ally steps up and stands alongside an oppressed group, they’re a force for good. When my straight friends stick up for me and discuss issues that pertain to my life, I feel loved, included, and safe. Knowing that someone stands with me, not opposite me, can make a world of difference.  

Nick Wilkins is a GLSEN Student Ambassador.