In my experience as a gay man surrounded by generally decent human beings, I’ve encountered a lot of straight and cisgender people who identify as “allies” to the LGBT community.
This is never a bad thing — I spend most of my life in situations where I’m outnumbered by straight people. So I’d generally prefer they call themselves my “ally” than my “worst nightmare come to life.”
But it’s also not always a great thing.
A lot of people who think of themselves as allies engage in behavior that can make queer people feel deeply uncomfortable, unwelcome or unseen. It’s almost never intentional; straight and cisgender people don’t know what it’s like to be queer, and vice versa, and that can produce blind spots that make even well-meaning allies act like jerks.
So if you’re someone who identifies as an ally to the LGBT community: Thank you. And here are four ways you can be an ally and really mean it.
Be aware of how much space you take up.
It is awesome when straight and cisgender people want to visit queer spaces (bars, clubs and nearly every coffee shop). A lot of us grew up feeling like outcasts. Seeing that you want to visit our world is a powerful experience. But try to imagine what it would be like if, every time you went to a bar, groups of queer people were there commenting on how much they loved straight people; how cute you all are and how straight bars are so interesting and different. After a while, you’d get really annoyed. You’d be tired of feeling novel, of feeling different, when you’re just trying to relax or flirt or get laid. And you’d be right. We feel that way, too.
Don’t minimize a person’s queerness.
If I had a nickel for every time I heard a well-meaning friend say some version of “I don’t even think of you as a gay, I just think of you as a person” I could pay so many parking tickets. Every queer person relates to their queerness differently. For some, it’s background noise. For me, it’s full orchestra doing a Celine Dion medley at max volume in my head at all times. Either way, telling someone that you don’t acknowledge or think about their queerness is not kind or enlightened. At best, it makes a significant part of our identity feel like a footnote. At worst, it can make us feel like you think of our queerness as something that’s better left unsaid.
Let LGBT people disappoint you.
Despite what my brain tells me after exactly one light beer, I cannot and will not ever be Neil Patrick Harris. Media representations of LGBT people tend to be highly polished and unrealistic. LGBT characters are well-dressed, witty, successful, ambitious, funny and likable. Sometimes, they are noble victims, fighting righteously against clear-cut examples of discrimination. Other times, they’re lovable sidekicks, existing mainly to support the straight main character or offer comedic relief.
On one hand, it’s cool to see positive depictions of LGBT people on TV. On the other hand, I ate hummus with a plastic fork all this weekend because I didn’t want to deal with the anxiety of going to Trader Joe’s.
Most LGBT people will never be as impressive, interesting or likable as the ones you see on TV. LGBT people are fully formed humans who struggle with work, our families, our romantic lives and our own personal baggage. We are flawed, wounded, mean, thoughtless, inadequate, afraid of dying, confused, cranky for no reason, insecure and lonely — just like every other human. The LGBT characters we see on TV can sometimes feel as foreign to us as the straight characters.
If you find yourself frustrated that LGBT people in your life aren’t living up to the expectation you had for them in your mind, ask yourself where that expectation came from. Then let it go.
Being an ally is about more than policy.
It goes without saying that there’s a tremendous, kind of overwhelming amount of work to do until LGBTQ — especially transgender — people are treated equally under the law in the United States. That is incredibly important, and being an ally obviously means contributing to that fight whenever and however possible. But I can’t tell you how many times I needed an “ally” before I ever thought about laws or court cases.
So much of the difficult parts of being LGBT exist outside of the legal system — family rejection, street harassment, internalized shame, demeaning media representations and countless other social stressors.
And the frustrating truth is, even huge victories like legalizing same-sex marriage don’t magically make things better. Queer people’s feelings of rejection or shame, especially around a core part of their identities, can do a lot of long-term damage before and after they make it to the wedding chapel. And the experiences that do the most harm to queer people — such as being pushed away from their families or told they’re abnormal by their classmates — usually look way less sensational than county clerks refusing to issue marriage certificates.
As an ally, it’s not your job to be a therapist or counselor. But it is your job to listen to the LGBT people in your life, to ask them how they’re doing, to be aware that they may have gone through (and might still be going through) some things you don’t understand, and offer support when you can.
Keeping your heart open and an eye out for your LGBT brothers and sisters after the pride parties have ended and court cameras have turned off will go a lot further than votes or parade posters will ever do.