Allyship: Intent vs Impact

How can allies show support without taking up queer spaces?

The Feminist Closet

I went to my first queer event when I still thought I was straight. The summer after eighth grade, while at a residential camp, a queer girl who lived down the hall invited me to a camp-sponsored discussion on BGLTQ issues. The event was open to everyone and was meant to be an informative panel where leaders could give an overview of different sexualities and genders and queer campers could talk about their experiences. During the discussion, I quietly listened to the speakers and took mental notes of my questions so I could Google them later. I left feeling concerned about the lack of BGLTQ equality in the world but empowered to learn more about it and do whatever I could as a cisgender and heterosexual (aka cishet) ally to change that.

A week later, two queer people in my hall were hosting a small queer get-together in a dorm room. I wasn’t personally invited, but, eager to be supportive in my role as a newly minted ally, I showed up anyways. Other allies had the same idea, and the event quickly dissolved into a Q&A; session where the few self-identified queer people in the room felt obligated to explain their identities to a large group of curious allies. I didn’t notice how exhausted they were because I was too focused on my own questions, my own learning, and my own experience as an ally. I invaded their space and prioritized my desire to perform allyship over their need to build community.

Fast forward five years, and I no longer identify as a straight ally. When I attend queer events now, my main goal is to join a community where I feel safe and accepted. Everywhere else, being straight and cisgender is the dominant norm, so it’s important to create spaces that are centered around queer experiences. But, of course, that’s not always their only purpose. Another key function of queer events is to build solidarity and support for the queer community, and sometimes that comes from other queer people, and other times it comes from allies. In this way, allies can play a role in the BGLTQ movement without being members of the BGLTQ community.

Just as in any movement, allies should be careful about the role they play and how they take up space. They should also make sure to listen to members of the movement they’re supporting (in this case, queer people) to determine how they can best support them. This means that if you are a queer person, do all you can to make your voice heard. And if you’re an ally, use your privilege to lift queer voices, support queer people in the ways they ask you to, and then step aside. Allyship should not be centered around the allies themselves, but rather on the marginalized groups they’re supporting. If your allyship is about you, you’re not helping the cause in the way you think you are.

One way that allies can be mindful of space is by being thoughtful in deciding which queer events to attend. Pride parades are probably the most inclusive, and allies should feel free to participate. Similarly, events that are centered around activism and education on BGLTQ issues are also usually open to allies. But allies should be more cautious about attending queer parties and social events, such as Queer Prom or Hotspot. For many queer people, these events are a great way to meet other queer people, as they can interact with cishet people at every other social event. And, undoubtedly, with niche affinity groups or anonymous support groups, you really should be queer to join.

Allies should also consider why they want to go to a particular queer event. Obviously, if their queer friends invite them to attend (as a friendly plus one or as a partner), no further questions need to be asked; go right ahead. To my queer peers who prefer such events to be completely closed, consider that some queer people don’t have other queer friends, and it can be daunting to attend events alone. They might want to bring a cishet friend for support. But, allies that weren’t invited by a queer person need to be more reflective when deciding whether they should attend. For example, a cishet couple wanting to attend a queer dance together for “fun” might want to think twice, especially given that nearly every other dance is catered to them.

It’s okay to not know what the right move is. When unsure, allies should ask someone who is a part of the community. Of course, not everyone in the queer community will have the same opinion, but the important thing is that allies recognize that they are entering a space that is not their own and listen to the people who do own that space. If an ally gets offended when they’re asked not to attend a queer community event, I’d urge them to recognize that these events are more than just social outings for queer people. It’s comforting to be surrounded by people who understand a part of your identity on a personal level, where you don’t feel pressured to explain yourself.

These events also serve as places for closeted queer people to find community without outing themselves to our wider society. But what if a cishet person shows up? Suddenly, that queer person is outed without warning or consent. Speaking from personal experience, coming out to cishet people feels very different from coming out to other queer people. Perspectives like these are hard to come to as a straight ally, which is exactly why it's a good idea to ask first. While your intentions might be good, your actions may be harmful.

More work and dialogue needs to be done on improving allyship. There are no easy answers, but I hope we can all start by asking more questions.

Becina J. Ganther ’20 is a Crimson editorial editor in Wigglesworth Hall. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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