By Lindsay Maddox Pratt
Working in gender-justice work, the subject of allies comes up frequently in my life. “How to be a good ally” is an ongoing conversation that I have with faculty and staff at the college where I work and lead workshops in transgender sensitivity. As someone who is also in the process of coming out as genderqueer, it is also a conversation that I have been having with friends who wish to support me in my process. I would say that I am rather more versed in the concept of allies than your average person, yet when it comes to being a good ally to fellow queer or genderqueer friends I find that I still have a lot to learn.
Being a good ally to someone who is facing discrimination similar to that which I face myself is more difficult than I ever expected. How do I respond when I myself feel triggered by the comment/behavior in question? How do I support others while at the same time recognize that I myself may need support?
A couple of months ago when I was beginning transitioning with pronoun use, a friend of mine with a similar identity found himself struggling with how to be an ally to me. Having spent years teaching people how to be allies to him in his process, he found himself stumped when faced with the need to be an ally to someone with a similar experience. At the same time I was questioning my ability to be an ally to him while I was depending on him to be mine. I began to be critical of myself for not being able to speak up due to my own emotional state when I recognized that speaking up was exactly what was called for. Th is self-criticism only served to exacerbate the problem—it did nothing to help me become a better ally to him and stopped me from being an ally to myself.
It is easy to slip into self-criticism which can, oh so quickly, lead to internalizing the oppression and becoming our own perpetrators. This makes it vitally important when doing ally work to have compassion for ourselves, our mistakes, and our own sensitivities, understanding that each of us is going to have moments and situations in which we are unable to stand up for someone in our community. Not being able to speak up in the moment does not make us bad allies. On the contrary, it creates the opportunity to expand our perception of what ally work can look like.
Ally work does not always mean addressing the discriminatory or ignorant remark in the moment, it may mean lending an ear, empathizing, letting someone know that they are not alone, or that there is nothing wrong with feeling hurt. Opening up our definition of ally work also makes room for greater ability to be allies to ourselves—what a novel concept! By working to accept my own identity and, indeed, to value it, I am fighting against the tendency to repeat the hurtful comments that I hear. At the same time, forgiving myself when I do repeat them can go great lengths towards dissipating their negative charge. As Patty Griffin poignantly sang, “everybody needs a little forgiveness.”
This leads me to my final (for the moment) comment on allies: if you are ever unsure of what someone needs/wants from you as an ally—ask! Not one of us knows what is needed in every situation. Have compassion for your own moments of ignorance and uncertainty, and don’t be afraid to ask for guidance. While I say this a lot when it comes to addressing preferred pronoun use (by the way I prefer ze and hir) it applies to so much more. We should all feel more empowered when we see a fellow queer/gay/bi/trans community member who looks like they may need an ally to ask them what that would look like. We may not always be able to give exactly what they may need, and that’s okay. But by asking we are saying, “I value what you have to say and I am willing to listen.” Something as simple as that can go a long way in this battle against oppression.
Lindsay Maddox Pratt lives in San Francisco and studies psychology and queer studies at City College of San Francisco. Ze has many interests, including acting and poetry. One of hir poems appears on page 11.