What is an ally and what does it mean to be one?
Being an ally is advocating alongside marginalised communities to empower their voices and together reach further to spread knowledge, awareness, respect, and to challenge oppression.
An individual from a marginalised community cannot simply discard the gravitas of their identity (or identities) shaped through oppression. They carry that weight every day. An ally understands that this is a weight that they, too, must be willing to carry and share.
Being an ally doesn’t necessarily mean you fully understand what it feels like to be oppressed. It means you’re taking on the struggle as your own.
Anyone has the potential to be an ally. Allies recognise that though they’re not a member of the communities they support, they make a determined effort to better understand the struggle.
Because an ally might have more privilege, recognising this, they can be powerful voices to amplify oppressed ones.
Allyship is active, not passive. To transform yourself from an equality supporter to an engaged and active LGBTQ+ ally is going to take some effort and may feel uncomfortable at times when challenging unconscious bias. It's possible that you'll make mistakes while getting better acquainted with the LGBTQ+ community and that's okay.
We have provided some helpful steps to start becoming an active and engaging ally. This guide is not comprehensive nor complete, you will need to take responsibility as an ally and further educate yourself on the topic.
What is ‘privilege’?
Privilege in this context refers to the inherent advantages possessed by individuals on the basis that they are part of a non-marginalised social group. “White privilege” or “straight privilege” doesn’t mean that you face no challenges or difficulties in life; it simply means that your race or sexuality (for example) aren’t one of the things making it more difficult.
1. Familiarise yourself with the language
It’s a key step to ensure you are using respectful terminology to everyone around you and help you to feel more confident when discussing LGBTQ+ issues. You could begin by reading a glossary of terms and teaching yourself the right language to use when talking with LGBTQ+ people.
It’s okay to ask questions but check that the person you’re asking is happy to answer them and that they're not offensive or uncomfortable. Remember it is unfair to expect LGBTQ+ people to teach you everything themselves. You will need to put your own work into understanding language and experiences.
Identity-based language for LGBTQ+ people can be a highly individual thing. Don’t assume that everyone is comfortable using the same language to describe their identity or experiences. If in doubt, always check with individuals to ensure you’re using language and terms they’re comfortable with.
2. Understand the difference between “offensive” and “harmful”
Slurs, microaggressions, misgendering, stereotypes and “humour” at the expense of marginalised people are not simply offensive – they are actively harmful towards the groups they’re aimed at because they actively perpetuate cultural and social ideas that people are worth less because of these aspects of their identity. This can cause harm on both an individual and a societal level, which is why it’s so important to challenge this behaviour wherever you see it.
3. Educate yourself on the history of LGBTQ+ activism
Getting to know the history of LGBTQ+ activism is a significant part in becoming an LGBTQ+ ally. It is important to recognise the history of the movement to understand the social context of people’s experiences, how far we have come and to understand how far we need to go. It can help to expose us to the culture of those different from us and can help to encourage tolerance through understanding.
The gay rights movement teaches people the kindness and resilience of the LGBTQ+ community, as well as the ability to stand up and achieve what they believe in.
4. Discover the challenges and barriers that the LGBTQ+ community face today
To be a good ally, it’s important to understand how LGBTQ+ people’s gender identity and sexuality exist in relation to other social issues. Do some research into the barriers different members of the LGBTQ+ community face, and learn how you can be active and focus your support to help really make a difference.
5. Understand that the LGBTQ+ experience is not ubiquitous
Under the umbrella of the LGBTQ+ community, individuals with different identities may have vastly different experiences based on their sexual or gender identity and how other aspects of their identity (such as race, religion, gender and disability) interact with these. Make a conscious effort to seek out different voices and perspectives when educating yourself, including from those who may be marginalised within the LGBTQ+ community itself.
6. Get involved in the community and show your support
Discover campaigns and groups in your local area that you can get involved with. Social media is a great tool for, educating others and uniting marginalised groups. However, be aware it can also make it easy for allies to speak on behalf of the LGBTQ+ community, despite not having the same struggles. To combat this, you can use your social media to raise awareness of issues but also to amplify LGBTQ+ voices. If you’re not sure how best to help, be sure to ask!
7. Speak up
Speak up! Although it’s not always easy, there are situations where being an ally really counts. The best way to encourage allyship is to simply start a conversation. If you hear or see something that's negative or harmful towards the LGBTQ+ community, speak up and challenge those with oppressive views – even if you don’t think there is anyone from that community present. Demonstrate that you are a safe person for LGBTQ+ to be themselves around. Use your voice alongside LGBTQ+ people to help create an equal safe environment for all. As with the above, make sure you do not overshadow or occupy an LGBTQ+ person's right to speak up for themselves.
Ultimately, being an ally is working alongside LGBTQ+ people to achieve equality.
8. Don’t make assumptions
A straightforward and meaningful way to demonstrate that you are an ally and a safe person is simply not to make assumptions about people’s identity. This involves being mindful of our default assumptions and unconscious biases. For example, if someone refers to their “partner”, use neutral pronouns instead of assuming their partner’s gender; if someone refers to having an ex-partner of a particular gender, don’t assume that this encapsulates their whole identity; don’t assume that because someone is trans, they will have undertaken certain medical interventions.
Four simple ways to advocate for the LGBTQ+ community whilst at University
- correct people if they misgender someone, even if that person isn't in the room
- speak up when a person uses slurs, assumptions, stereotypes or harmful language
- promote diversity and celebration of different identities in the University. Update your email signature to include pronouns
- show your support by wearing a Pride lanyard or pin.