We had a fantastic panel discussion at our 17 January event on “Allies, advocates, and supporters”. One of the things that emerged was that it is much easier to be an “ally” if you understand the community you want to support: the vocabulary they use, the challenges they face, the things that might offend or upset them, the kind of support they need. So often we are scared to say or do the wrong thing, and the panellists were quick to point out how important it is for an ally to listen, ask and learn: learn about what it is that makes somebody different from you – and in the process about the things you have in common.
We’re hoping to organise a webinar on this during 2019, involving all three of our networking and support communities in the same way as for the January event. In the meantime, it seems appropriate to revisit an article written for us back in 2016 by EIP’s Darren Smyth. Darren, a member of the IP Out committee, explains in a gentle, humorous and non-judgemental way how you can be a better “straight ally” for the LGBTQ+ community:
So, you want to be a straight ally?
First off, do you hate the term “straight ally”? So do I. If you can think of something better, please do. But I think we all know what the term is trying to get at – “I happen to be heterosexual, but I want to be supportive of LGBTQ+ people”. So here is my quick and easy* guide, shamelessly cribbing the format from The Last Leg.
I should start off by pointing out that although I write as a gay man, I can speak only to and from my own experience, which is also heavily influenced by other aspects of my background (white, Christian, public school, Oxford University, that sort of thing). Other people who share my sexuality coming from a different background may have a different take on these issues, although I have tried my best to reflect in this piece what I hear from friends with a different story from mine.
1. Is it OK to ask: Why LGBTQ+ ? What is wrong with “gay”?
Here, I am going to let you into a little secret. The different sections of the LGBTQ+ tribe (why I use the word “tribe” is part of the advanced course – you only get to do that when you have passed this basic course) are actually very different indeed. Other than growing up as a minority in a society that rejects what we are, we actually have rather little in common with each other. Let’s go through it (taking the first two in reverse order as it is more logical to explain that way round):
- Gay – this can be applied to men or women, but more often refers to men, since women have their own term (see Lesbian). “Gay” means being attracted to someone of the same sex.
- Lesbian – a woman who is sexually attracted to women. Why do they get their own word? Something to do with ancient Greece, I think. And why not.
- Bisexual – sexually attracted to both sexes. Actually many people think that sexuality is a continuum, and bisexual means that you are somewhere in the middle. Occasionally used as a euphemism by gay people who think that it makes them more acceptable to straight people. (It doesn’t).
- Transgender – now, here it gets complicated. I am a gay man – I have no right to speak for transgender people at all. While we generally are supportive of each other’s rights, I have no more entitlement to describe the transgender experience than you do. I think that I am able to say that it means that your gender identity is different from that assigned to you at birth. “Gay” does not mean that – as I gay man I feel no more “like” a woman than a straight man does. There is no correlation between gender identity and sexual orientation.
- Queer – a reclaimed term of abuse. It has a range of meanings that again are for the advanced course. Don’t use it about someone unless they give you permission.
- + – this is because any list is non-exhaustive. There are other subgroups within the LGBTQ+ tribe. (And sometimes you will see other letters in this list that allude to those subgroups, but again we can probably leave that for later).
So, I hope you can see that the single word “gay” is just not enough to cover the range of what we are dealing with here. I am writing this as a gay man – others within the tribe will tell you lots of other things that I cannot begin to explain, because I have no more experience of them than anyone else might.
2. Is it OK to ask what people are looking for in a straight ally?
I think that what we are asking you to support providing is an environment where we don’t have to “filter” – we don’t need to constantly monitor our behaviour so that we avoid saying this thing, or referring to that thing. I would like to be able to casually refer to my partner, my friends, my social activities, without worrying that I am going to be judged, criticised, or attacked. We would also like your help in dispelling some stereotypes and preconceptions, some of which are wrong and damaging. I am sure that you don’t have these, otherwise you would probably not be reading this, but many of those around you may do.
In the workplace, providing a supportive environment could include having HR policies that specifically include people of same-sex attraction, ensuring that if you have events to which partners are invited it is made clear that same-sex partners are welcome, and ensuring that homophobic remarks are not tolerated in the workplace.
3. Is it OK to ask about children?
A common misconception is that being gay and wanting children are in no way linked. Many gay people have no desire to have children; many others want children very much indeed. I will let you into a little secret – I have noticed that gay men who want children are often partnered with men who don’t. Odd that, isn’t it?
While we are on the topic of children, it would be great if you could help us dispel the idea that we are somehow not “safe” around children. When people have an instinctive concern about their children, it usually means one of three things:
- They are confusing homosexuality with paedophilia. They have nothing to do with each other. Gay men are no more likely to be paedophiles than straight men. In fact, quite a lot less. We would like people to get this idea out of their minds. We will be very offended if they don’t.
- They think that homosexuality can be “caught”. It can’t. Trust me. How do I know? Well, while I don’t know of anyone who has tried to become gay, I do know a lot who have tried to become straight. It never works. Sexuality is basically fixed – you can’t change it. So relax, if your daughter is going to be a lesbian she is one already – it won’t be anything to do with meeting me or seeing me kissing my boyfriend.
- They think that same sex relationships are somehow a more “grown-up” subject than opposite-sex relationships and that children need to be protected from knowing about gay relationships in order to protect their innocence. This is where “homosexuality” is something of an unfortunate term since it implies that there is something more “sexual” to being gay than there is to being straight. Of course in reality, gay or straight, it’s fundamentally about relationships and love. Also, “protecting” children from any knowledge of the existence of same-sex relationships is very damaging to those children who are themselves gay, even if this is not a realisation that they have yet come to.
4. Is it OK to make positive generalisations?
Please let me stop you right there. It is no more reasonable to suppose that a gay man is more witty, artistic, or good at interior design (or anything else for that matter) than a straight one than it is to suppose that all women are good at ironing and childcare. We are not, necessarily. OK, as it happens I am extraordinarily witty, but I assure you that some of us are quite dull. No, honestly. A stereotype is a stereotype, even if you think it is a positive one. While we are on the subject, we don’t all like Kylie / Graham Norton / ballroom dancing / [fill in activity with large gay following] either, as I am sure you know.
5. Is it OK to ask for details of your sex life?
When you put it like that, the answer seems to be quite self-evidently “no”, doesn’t it? But some people seem to believe that they are showing how open minded they are, and how knowledgeable they are about various terminology, by asking questions like “Are you a top or a bottom?” But really, unless you are basically my closest friend (in which case you will know), then it is none of your business.
6. Is it OK to ask about your personal life?
Generally, if you know me well, it is perfectly fine to ask about my partner (if you know I have one) and my gay friends. I would like that. But (and I am sorry to make things complicated here) some of us have spent so long filtering out of our conversation any reference that might reveal our sexuality that we have become rather reserved about these things, and these learned behaviours can take a long time to unlearn. So if you sense any reticence from us, please understand and don’t take it personally. In that case, I would suggest to stick to open questions instead, that leave the decision to us about what level of detail to provide.
7. Is it OK to support gay marriage?
This is a subtle one. Gay people who want to marry their partners don’t want “gay” marriage. They want “marriage”. Equal marriage. The same marriage that you might have. Putting the “gay” in front of it is quite wrong, when you stop to think about it. As it happens, while many gay people do wish to marry their partners, many others actually do not like the cultural and historical baggage that comes with the concept, and do not wish to express their commitment in that way. Of course we all want to have that choice available to us, even if we do not choose to avail ourselves of it. Some of us actually still opt for Civil Partnership.
8. Is it OK to ask whether you know…?
Sorry, I am afraid that the chances that I know the only other gay person you know are quite slim.
9. Is it OK to ask if you would mind toning it down in front of…?
Of course I can “tone it down” in front of whoever you like. I have a lifetime of experience of doing that, and I am pretty expert at it by now. But asking us to starting filtering again in a particular environment risks undoing all the marvellously supportive work you have otherwise been doing.
10. Is it OK to help someone come out if I think that they might be gay?
It is really kind of you to consider this, but actually probably no. If you have the kind of environment mentioned above (at 2), then someone will come out if and when they are ready. Asking outright, or dropping hints, will probably just lead to embarrassment. As will locking them in a room with another gay person.
I am so glad that we had this little chat. I hope that it has helped.
* I lied – it is neither quick nor easy. Many LGBTQ+ people are not supportive of other LGBTQ+ people, so if you don’t get it quite right, don’t worry too much. As long as you are trying.
Guest blogger for IP Inclusive