In my school’s GSA, one of the most frequent conversations we have revolves around the idea of what it means to be an ally. In my school, it is not uncommon to hear the frustrated musings of a queer student about a self-proclaimed ally using a gay slur, or else staying silent and unshaken when someone else does.
“He says he’s an ally,” one of my friends starts, “He says, ‘I go to Pride every year!’ But he still uses gay slurs, like, all the time!”
The shared sentiment among our GSA is that, all too often, the conversation about allyship is left at a straight, cisgender student saying, “I support you!” and then leaving their advocacy at that. But the simple fact of the matter, as many queer youth have recognized, is that this is not enough.
Allyship is a lifelong endeavor towards battling oppression, and it is a growing process that takes a lifetime to cultivate. Many allies have a hard time understanding this notion, as taking on the responsibility of allyship is a difficult task to accomplish. As a transgender teen, I have found that it is very easy to find friends who are tolerant of my identity, but it is much harder to find someone who abides by this definition of allyship.
For example, when I came out as transgender, I had a number of friends quickly reassure me of their support. Most of them went through the typical motions of adjusting to a friend’s transition: Stumble and catch yourself on using the wrong pronouns, try to use your friend’s preferred name, correct other people when they use the wrong one, etc., etc. Yet at the same time, these are the same friends who continue to use female pronouns to refer to me pre-transition, justifying it by saying “But you were a girl back then,” despite the fact that I have never considered myself female. These are the same friends who ask me invasive questions about my body, justifying them by saying they’re “curious,” and believing these justifications to be rational excuses to trump my sense of comfort and privacy.
And this is an exertion of privilege: To be able to dismiss my uncomfortable feelings as secondary to your own, and easily be able to shirk your responsibility as an ally.
Ideally, these friends would have asked me what pronouns I would prefer they use to refer to me pre-transition, as my gender expression is mine to decide. Instead, and without realization, my friends silenced me by assuming which pronouns to use. They did this based off of their views of my gender at the time, overstepping their reach into my identity. Likewise, after asking me questions about my body that clearly made me uncomfortable, my friends could have listened to my frustrations with the intent to understand my feelings rather than to defend their actions. However, if you asked my friends today, I am fairly certain they would still consider themselves “allies”; never mind the ways they have oppressed me and the ways they oppress their other LGBTQ friends.
It is not enough to simply proclaim oneself an ally. It takes establishing oneself as an ally through action. Oppression is not so neatly cut into allies, oppressors, and the oppressed. In the words of J.K. Rowling, “We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on.” In essence, we are all both the oppressor and the oppressed, and it takes a lot more than a single statement of support to combat the oppression that lives in all of us. We are all guilty of imposing this oppression on others, even when we’d like to think we are not prejudiced people.
If you are an ally reading this, chances are you have discovered that the process of becoming a better ally is a lot more complicated than first anticipated. This is not a manual for how to be the absolute best ally to the queer people in your life: The truth is, there is not a template for an ally that fits every queer person you meet, and each person will need something different from you. No one ever said it would be easy, and it is guaranteed that you will make mistakes. Allyship is so much more than a gold star or a pat on the back, and you will be uncomfortable often.
But this work is so difficult because it is necessary. It is necessary for us to identify that prejudiced person inside of us so we may confront them. If you take nothing more from this article, understand that those hard questions, uncomfortable conversations, and tense interactions are integral to your job as an ally, as LGBTQ people don’t have the luxury of being idle when they arise. As an ally, it is your responsibility to take part in the uncomfortable work. It is part of shaping a more comfortable place in equality. Allyship isn’t all just rainbows and pride flags, and it will take a lot more work to cede the oppression faced by LGBTQ people every day.
Emery Vela is a GLSEN Student Ambassador.