Friday, February 11, 2011

Seven Things Allies (YOU!) Can Do

Keeping It Queer
By Erica Chu

Seven Things Allies (YOU!) Can Do

The world is an incredibly unjust place, but one of the best things you can do to make it better is to acknowledge the advantages you receive for being read as “normal” (whether it’s because you’re middle class, formally educated, able-bodied, slim, or not transgendered) and then make the conscious decision to ally yourself with those who are ill treated because they are read as “abnormal.”  We all know what a difference it makes when straight allies speak up and become part of overcoming homophobia, and so it’s all the more important that we also come out as allies in the fight against the systems of injustice that devalue the lives and experiences of: ethnic and racial minorities, people struggling to make a living, people struggling to get an education, people with disabilities, transpeople, genderqueer folks, intersexed people, and so many other kinds of people.

So what can you do to be an ally?  Glad you asked.  Here’s my list of seven things allies (you!) can do.

1. Be responsible for your own ignorance.  Although a lot of people enjoy talking about their experiences as a person with disabilities, as a transperson, or as some other kind of minority, there’s nothing more annoying than answering a series of mundane (and often offensive) questions because the person you’re talking to has been too lazy their whole life to try to figure out the answers on their own.  Curiosity is a wonderful attribute to have, but when you voice your curiosity about a transperson’s genitals, for example, you’re liable to get smacked.  A little research on your own can fill you in on the basics and prepare you for what kinds of topics are not acceptable for randomly bringing up with acquaintances.  The internet is a beautiful thing, and never before has it been so easy for you to figure out what you don’t know.  Don’t have regular access to the internet?  Try the library, use dictionaries, ask friends for books and other reading materials.  Yes, research can sometimes be time-consuming and difficult, but don’t you wish all the people you’ve known through the years had been knowledgeable about your identity and what offensive things not to say to you?

2. Listen first, listen second, speak later.  The saying goes, “You’ve got two ears and one mouth for a reason.”  Sometimes our eagerness to show support can come off as being condescending, creepy, and even rude.  Remember that even if you’ve read up on how to be an ally to people with disabilities, you’re not the expert on experiences with disability.  Keep your ears open.  Be available.  Wait for an invitation to be in conversation with someone about disability, but remember you’re here to learn, to show support, and to listen.

3. Remember that there is a time for questions (and that time is usually not now).  Similar to numbers one and two, this is a reminder that curiosity is not always a good reason to voice questions about personal issues.  What is your waiter’s ethnicity? How’d the guy in accounting lose his leg?  What was your transgendered colleague’s birth name?  Does your neighbor who has two partners have sex in a group or one at a time?  The answers to these questions do seem pretty interesting, yet when you presume to have the right to ask such personal questions, you assert your “normal” privilege in really hostile ways.  Wait till you’re close enough friends that the subject comes up more naturally.  Even then, ask in such a way that it’s still safe for the person not to answer.

4. Check your privilege. We tend not to notice our privilege till it’s gone.  This makes it extremely difficult but also extremely important for allies to be aware of what gives them advantages in this world.  Perhaps you can’t change how people read you, but you can try to stop taking advantage of it.   

5. Don’t try to prove that you’re an ally.  Be an ally because it’s the right thing to do not because you like having a reputation for being a good person.  Don’t talk about your support for a minority group so that others think you’re really progressive.  Live a progressive life.  Stand up and talk about the things that are important to you, but save the “evidence,” name dropping, and showing off talk for the posers.

6. Be understanding, not uncritical.  People with disabilities are the experts on disability.  Trans people are the experts on transgender issues.  But every person experiences these issues differently.  Always respect a person’s perspective, but don’t accept it as the gold standard of what it means for all people to have a disability or to be transgendered.

7. Don’t stop caring.  A lot of times, people come out as allies for a few months or a couple years and then stop.  Maybe you’ve stopped being friends with that transperson from work.  Maybe you don’t see your cousin with MS as much because she moved to California.  There are all sorts of reasons for losing that heightened awareness that you’re an ally, but don’t stop caring.  Look at the world differently.  Is it a safe and affirming place for every kind of person?  What can you do to work on that?  It’s easy to go back to our comforting privileged perspective, but if we want that better world, we have to keep on caring.

Why be an ally?  Read my column from two weeks ago.

Erica Chu is a student at Loyola University Chicago and is seeking a PhD in English with a concentration in Women Studies and Gender Studies.  They manage the blog and can be reached at

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