It’s 2014, and many college students like to think of themselves as progressive and inclusive. Lots of us know (or are!) members of the LGBTQ+ community: We may be good friends with someone who identifies as LGBTQ+, we may have an LGBTQ+-identifying family member or we may work with someone who identifies. No matter your connection to the community or how you identify, it is really important to know how to be a good ally. Why? Because we never know who identifies as LGBTQ+, and we want to make sure that not only do they feel comfortable coming out to us, but that they know that we 100 percent have their back.
Olivia Guerrieri, a senior student worker in the Gender & LGBTQIA Center at Elon University, helped us come up with tips for how to be a strong ally to members of the LGBTQ+ community. Read on so you can be the best ally you can be!
1. Don’t think you’re exempt
Being an ally doesn’t just go for straight folks. Even those of us who identify as LGBTQ+ may have something to learn about how to be better allies! Ever heard of biphobia or transphobia? Homophobia isn’t the only way that we fail our fellow LGBTQ+ folks.
Make sure that you’re always on the lookout for how you can better support people beyond the gay male. We tend to get so caught up in that narrative (especially in the media) that we forget about everyone else and how much we all need and deserve support.
2. Watch your words
So you walk into a classroom filled with people with long hair and stereotypically girly clothing and say, “Hey, girls!” Maybe you don’t even think about it, but for someone in the room, that gendering may be really uncomfortable.
To be a great ally, try not to make assumptions about preferred gender pronouns. Make it a norm for you to ask people which pronouns they prefer. We know this can be awkward at first—after all, we live in a society that encourages us to look and decide what gender someone is. However, it can be really empowering for people to be able to identify themselves.
Furthermore, be careful about slurs. “Point out when friends say things that could be hurtful—even if you know they're ‘just joking,’ someone else might not,” Olivia says.
Just because you have one gay friend who’s okay with the F-word or a lesbian friend who is okay with the D-word doesn’t mean that all members of the gay or lesbian community are cool with it. Same goes for the T-word.
3. Know your privilege
Straight collegiettes, one of the first things you have to learn is that straight privilege is a very real and very unfortunate thing. Straight privilege is defined by The Gender Equity Resource Center at UC Berkeley as “benefits derived automatically by being (or being perceived as) heterosexual that are denied to gays, lesbians, bisexuals, queers and all other non-heterosexual sexual orientations."
Think about how easily you throw around the word “boyfriend” without flinching. This is something that your bisexual or lesbian friends don’t get to do without stressing out. Same goes for going on dates, engaging in PDA or even just asking someone to formal.
Cisgender collegiettes (meaning those who currently identify with the gender that they were given at birth), one of the first things you have to learn is that cis privilege is real. Recognize the little ways in which we privilege those who do not identify as transgender (meaning those who identify with a gender different than the one they were given at birth). Discrimination is huge for trans people.
“Understand your privilege as an ally, and don't get upset if you feel ‘excluded’ by the community sometimes,” Olivia says. “Remember that people who identify as LGBTQ+ feel excluded everywhere else in society, and that having an exclusive community of people who truly understand these issues can be incredibly beneficial. You can be the most supportive, involved ally in the world, but you still don't know, and you will never know, what it's like to identify as LGBTQ+.”
Once you recognize your privilege, it’s a good idea to put your new perspective into action. One way to do this is by voting. Go out and get political; vote, and not just for the president! Vote in your local and state elections to keep anti-gay laws off the books. What better way to show your love and support than to make sure that the heterosexist laws in place are taken down in order to make room for a more supportive structure?
Members of the LGBTQ+ community deserve to be safe in their workplaces, in schools and everywhere else. Make sure that the law protects the people you care about. Research what your elected officials’ views are.
5. Respect all identities
Maybe you don’t understand why someone isn’t okay with identifying strictly as a lesbian, or why someone doesn’t feel that the gender they were assigned matches up with how they identify—to be honest, it doesn’t really matter. No one has to explain their gender or sexual identity to anyone. Be careful not to label people unless they’ve labeled themselves in such a way.
As Olivia says, “Don't assume your friend identifies as a lesbian because you saw her on a date with another girl.” For real. Just listen and go with it.
6. Speak up
Being an ally sometimes means stepping forward and putting yourself on the line for the people you care about. So now you know how to be an ally—awesome! Go teach others to do the same. Talk about it. Write about it. It isn’t enough to have inclusive thoughts; you need to take inclusive actions as well.
“Be that obnoxious person who stops conversations to correct offensive language,” Olivia says. Friends don’t let friends get away with throwing around slurs or stereotypes.
Another important point is that it isn’t always easy to be an ally. “The hardest time to be an ally is when you're in spaces outside of the LGBTQ+ community,” Olivia says. “Allies aren't as helpful if they're closeted. Let everyone know you're an ally!”
7. Know when to step back
Though there will be times when your voice is needed, there are other times when an LGBTQ+ space needs to be an LGBTQ+ space. If you identify as heterosexual, you have to be careful not to speak over the voices of queer folks. If you identify as cisgender, you have to be careful not to speak over the voices of trans folks. If you identify as gay or lesbian, you have to be careful not to speak over the voices of bisexual and pansexual folks—making sense so far?
Basically, know when you are needed, and know when you aren’t. In our culture we like to act like members of the LGBTQ+ community are voiceless, when so often they are speaking and just being ignored or shut down.
For example, if you’re in a situation where you are with queer people and do not identify as queer, don’t be the one talking about the queer experience because, chances are, your LGBTQ+ friends have a better understanding than you do. However, if you are in a space without any openly queer friends, and you want to help educate someone, it’s your time to shine!
Collegiette Sarah says, “Don’t expect some sort of high praises or a space in the LGBTQ+ community. Having allies is great, but I've come across some pretty haughty ones, and there doesn't always seem to be much of a difference between them and non-allies, because they're too busy talking over us and not listening.”
We know that sometimes it’s really hard to be an ally. It’s also difficult to reach out and ask your friends to be better allies. We all want to be good to our friends, and being an ally is a part of that. With these seven tips in mind, you can help shape our culture into one that is more supportive of members of the LGBTQ+ community. If we work together, we can create a culture not only of tolerance and respect, but also of love.