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Being an Ally Doesn't Always Mean You "Get" It

As a straight white female, I consider myself an ally to the LGBTQ+ community. I have friends and business partners that identify as multiple sexual orientations and genders. I participate in events that promote acceptance, like local pride festivals. Despite being as accepting and supportive as I am, I still view things from my straight, white, cisgender, comfortable bubble. My family never questioned my sexuality, nor did they have to come out of their comfort zones with the people I’ve dated (other than deep-seated racial biases which they consciously reject but still own, but that’s a topic for another post). There was never any question about my sexual orientation, save for a few “bi-curious” moments in my formative years. The challenges that lead many in the LGBTQ+ community to depression, suicide, and other mental health issues, were never part of my life. I’m lucky to fit neatly into society’s sexual and gender norms.

It’s always been my personal goal to be an ally to any marginalized community. Growing up in Lib-Central-USA (a.k.a. The Bay Area, CA) greatly influenced and supported this outlook. As I’ve grown, matured, and moved around the country, it has struck me that not every community is as supportive or accepting as the one I grew up in. People can be bold and harsh in their bias, wearing it like a badge of normalcy. The current political climate in this country seems to support this scared and proud form of bigotry, as it attempts to standardize the American person and American experience. How could this country of immigrants, of first second and third generation citizens, of religious refugees and survivors, of colorful and influential people, of innovators and discoverers, possibly be painted with a single brush? Our collective experiences and interactions are exactly what makes us so wonderful. And still, while I could never identify with the discrimination or the bigotry, I can, begrudgingly, identify with one thing - the confusion.

The Ever Changing Language of Sexuality

LGBT was the acronym I grew up with. When I was curious what “gay” meant, I was met with a matter of fact explanation that men sometimes love men, and lesbians were women who loved women. There’s nothing too confusing about that. As the years pass, the acronym grows larger, the vocabulary to describe sex, gender, and orientation increases, and it adds to what can turn into a very difficult path to navigate. I aim to be inclusive without offending and aim to be accepting without referring to someone as the wrong gender, pronoun, or orientation. And with the vocabulary becoming - like sexuality itself - more fluid, I find myself inadvertently stepping on verbal landmines.

You Can Be An Ally Without Knowing It All

Being an ally doesn’t mean that I necessarily have all the answers. It doesn’t mean that I can perfectly define each term for sexuality (although Google helps). There’s plenty that I don’t know, and while some people may be open to answering questions about their own sexuality, many aren’t, and frankly, it’s not their job. This, unfortunately, means that there are things I may never fully understand. But understanding each person’s unique experience isn’t the most important thing about being an ally. Understanding that each person has a unique experience and perspective is what’s important, even if you don’t get it.

Getting Personal

At a recent pride festival in my area, I had the opportunity to speak with two transgender women (transitioned from male to female), Valerie and Tracy (names have been changed to protect their identity), who were very open to answering my questions. The main thing I wanted to know was “what is most important to you from an ally?” Valerie’s response surprised me. She confirmed that support is more important than understanding, but it was the reasoning that caught me off guard. She said that many times, even they don’t know why they feel the way they do, just that they feel it. She admitted that, even at a younger age, she fought feelings of knowing that she wasn’t supposed to be a male. At age 5, she was wearing her mother’s clothing. She wonders to herself if it had anything to do with the strong women in her life, but even she doesn’t understand why she felt that she was a woman, even though physically she was born a male. Luckily for her, she’s had very positive responses from people in her circle, but she reiterated to me that, for many, that wasn’t the case. Which is why it’s so important for someone like me, who doesn’t identify with her struggle and doesn’t understand, to still be supportive.

Standing up for diversity and acceptance, not just tolerance, is what’s important. My friends are my allies, in the sense that they support me through many things I go through that they couldn’t possibly understand because they haven’t experienced them. It doesn’t mean they get it, it doesn’t mean they come from the same place, but it means they make an attempt to understand my experience and support me through whatever I go through. That makes them allies.

Inclusion Doesn’t Stop at the ROYGBIV Rainbow

LGBTQIA+, where the “+” stands for “more to come,” is not a sweeping acronym to describe one set of people. It describes anyone that doesn’t neatly fit into the box of what society has deemed “normal,” for as long as we can remember. As the acronym expands, the recognition of multiple sexualities and gender identities emerges. Even easily recognizable symbols of this community are expanding to be more inclusive. The rainbow flag was recently redesigned by an ad agency in Philadelphia with the addition of a black and brown stripe, representing LGBTQIA+ people of color. Not only am I straight and cisgender, but I’m also white. I have no idea how it feels to be a black or brown person in the U.S., and even less of an idea how feels to be part of two marginalized communities. My perspective fails me when it comes to first-hand experience, but I can still make every effort, as an ally, to understand the experiences of others, and support them in their journey towards equality. More importantly, I can be a part of that journey and fight on the side of love and justice.

How You Can Be An Ally

To be an ally to any marginalized community you must, first and foremost, listen to the people around you who have actually experienced what you’re trying to support. Listen to what’s being said, and what’s not being said. If someone is willing to openly talk with you about their experiences, ask intelligent and respectful questions. Remember, we might think we understand our friends’ experiences, but there’s no way for us to trade places with them, so it’s extremely important for us to be open to hearing the truth, and try not to filter it through our own experiences. Remember, too, that your one gay friend is just one person. Learning about their experience is a great way to help your understanding, but one person does not speak for an entire community. Understand that their stories may differ entirely from someone else’s. But also, do research on your own. The internet is full of great resources,  such as GLAAD, and The Gay Alliance, that can offer education on how to be an ally. Don’t be afraid to seek information. And make sure that your intentions as an ally are to support the LGBTQIA+ community, and not just to make yourself feel good. These are real world issues and real life people, not something to check off of our bucket list. Take it seriously, take action, and be an ally.


Mika Cohen is a world traveler based in St. Louis, MO. Her passions for writing and all things caffeinated keep her connected to the world around her. Say hi and share a virtual cup of joe on Instagram or via email.

Photo credit: David McNew/Getty Images

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