February in the UK is LGBTQ (Lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer) History Month. This is an opportunity to shine a spotlight on LGBTQ history and culture. It provides an opportunity for celebration and to reflect on progress made and challenges not yet overcome. The theme of this year’s history month is Mind, Body, Spirit https://lgbtplushistorymonth.co.uk/).
I write this as a cis woman who has come to recognise that she is bisexual but who has lived her life as a straight woman. I cannot and do not claim to fully understand the oppression, repression and prejudice faced by those whose sexual orientation and gender presentation openly cuts against societies norms. What I can lay claim to, credibly, is being an ally. It’s been talked about a lot, even more so recently, ‘allyship’. But what is it? And how do you do it? And why should you bother?
Here in the UK acceptance and support of LGBTQ people has progressed in recent years, but the community still faces hate crimes, employment and housing discrimination, barriers to health care and other harmful bias. Globally, there are still many parts of the world where it is quite simply life threatening to be openly LGBTQ.
An “ally” is someone who supports LGBTQ people and equality in its many forms — both publicly and privately. Heterosexual and cisgender people can be allies as well as those within the LGBTQ community who support one another’s unique needs and struggles.
My ally recipe is self-awareness + knowledge + empathy. All these ingredients involve a desire to learn and, understand and to support and include LGBTQ people, addressing barriers to fairness and justice that they face.
First and foremost, to do anything sensible in the equality space you need to understand who you, yourself, are, what value and contributions do you bring? How do people experience you? Also, what has framed your perspectives and views? What privileges do you carry? What prejudices and biases?
For those Ru Paul Drag Race fans out there the refrain
“If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love someone else?’
will be very familiar, or put another way, put on your own life mask before attending to others. Effective allies are the ones who are clear about themselves and have handled and can continue to handle their own baggage – good and bad.
To be a decent ally you need to unlearn the historical messaging you have absorbed. You must consciously identify, unpack and challenge stereotypes and bias – explicit and implicit – that you hold. To do that you need some knowledge!
To do anything of any value requires knowledge – we can pick up ally knowledge in many, many ways. Are you a reader? A listener? A viewer? Do you like culture and museums? Whatever you’re learning preference and ways of consuming ‘content’ the resources will be there. Do a ‘google’ and you can quickly find lots of recommended books, podcasts, films, exhibitions, talks, events. There really is no excuse for ignorance.
When I first started ‘doing’ equality as a job, I recognised I had the lived experience of being a woman (at that time a relatively young one), of being brown, of being from a certain socio-economic background and of being a mother. I recognised that I didn’t have experience of marginalisation arising from my sexual orientation, my gender identity or from any disability. I put in place an education plan for myself. I read, I attended events and I listened to those who knew.
I still do this. My curriculum this last year has included reading The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World by Alan Downs and Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin; watching Pose, The Boys in the Band and re-watching Philadelphia (with my children), It’s a Sin as well as having some great bonding times with my daughter watching Drag Race from the very beginning; and attending several events – one I’d highly recommend is the Cocoa Butter Club.
These have all increased my knowledge and awareness- to give me insight into others’ lived experiences. Alongside this there are the historical facts and their impacts to consider. I can’t give you a detailed history lesson, but we must recognise that it is not that long since homosexuality was believed to be a mental illness and gay sex was illegal (being decriminalised here in the UK in 1967). When many of us were growing up, Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, was introduced, banning the “promotion” of homosexuality by local authorities and in schools, basically banning education from inclusion of LGBTQ related matters. That being open about sexual orientation could legally be a barrier to finance, insurance and significantly damage career prospects. The age of consent was only levelled in 2000 and same sex marriage only legalised in 2014. But there is still not full equality across the board – gay men still face barriers in, for example, donating blood.
These are the most basic pieces of knowledge. Considering the everyday impacts and long-term adjustments that this context sets for LGBTQ people takes me to the third vital ingredient: empathy.
Empathy is the ability to recognise, understand, and share the thoughts and feelings of another. Empathy is crucial for establishing relationships and for just being in the world, really. It is a critical factor in allyship. It requires us to listen and hear. It requires us to manage our own emotions and pay attention to another’s needs. True empathy needs us to rethink all the information we have been taught. It requires us to stop and reflect and say: ‘Does what I am hearing and thinking reflect the people I know that are LGBTQ?’” Even when you feel you have a solid grasp of history to know what is or is not accurate information, the next step is to recognise and try and understand how that has impacted LGBTQ individuals and how different it is for different generations and how it shows up each and every day. You can do that understanding by listening and hearing from those who experience it – not projecting or assuming your own perspective on to that.
In practising allyship we need to recognise that discrimination never sleeps, so we must be constant and reliable in our commitment. We need to keep in mind that LGBTQ people are just that – people – and they are all different; the global context will impact them each differently. This means your allyship needs to adapt. In each environment you are in, you can look around and ask whose voices are present? Who are you hearing or not hearing from? Most importantly recognise allyship needs you to leave your ego at the door, it’s not about you, no matter how outraged or emotional you are (back to self-awareness). Your commitment and value is providing what is needed in the moment – not what you want to give.
So, go forth and develop your self-awareness and knowledge and practice empathy every day to make yourself that great ally.