Ally is a Verb

Cishet people: Center queer and trans folks, not yourselves.

Singer-songwriter Be Steadwell performs at a black queer and trans event in Oakland, December 2016. All photos by Pax Ahimsa Gethen, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Given the higher visibility of discrimination and violence against queer and trans people in today’s social media-driven world, it’s important for cishet (cisgender heterosexual) allies to use their privileges to call for an end to this oppression. Progressives are getting the message that being an ally requires more than simply refraining from attacking or condemning queer people. But many well-meaning cishet folks are still centering themselves and their needs in a struggle that is, ultimately, not about them.

Ally is a verb, not a self-granted title. To ally with queer and trans people is to take action for our benefit, not yours. Being an ally should not be seen as an identity worthy of inclusion in the LGBT+ acronym. Allies are part of the dominant cishet majority, and by sheer numbers will likely always be so; there is no need for them to have a special status label for taking actions to improve the lives of the oppressed.

Nor do allies need their own Pride flag or symbol. There’s nothing wrong with having pride in your work, but Pride in the LGBTQ context is about surviving, thriving, and living authentically despite centuries of targeted discrimination, harassment, and violence. Cishet people might get some splash damage when they are mistaken for one of us, but living as a member of the dominant majority grants many privileges that queer and trans people cannot enjoy.

Some self-described allies are offended when queer and trans people do not shower them with gratitude for their actions. Here’s the thing: If your willingness to help the oppressed is contingent upon being celebrated for your work, or if you cannot handle constructive criticism from affected community members, your “help” is actually a hindrance. Cishet people should be taking direction from the affected communities, centering and amplifying our voices, not deciding for themselves which actions should be worthy of recognition.

If you have openly queer and trans people in your organization, particularly women/of color, they should be the ones approached first to design, organize, and lead LGBTQ-related programming and initiatives. Cishet speakers and performers should not dominate queer events. Ideally, all those featured at such events should be from the queer community, and these speakers should be invited to present at other, non-LGBTQ-specific events as well.

If your organization is of any significant size and has no openly queer or trans people, or none are willing to take leadership or speak publicly, that points to a serious problem. Hire a consultant from the LGBTQ community, and pay them well for their time. Too often queer and trans people are asked or expected to work for free. All the goodwill and love in the world will not pay our rent or put food on our tables.

Ally-centering is evident in some LGBTQ-run spaces as well. Today I was doing some Wikipedia editing and noticed that the page for Out magazine includes a lengthy list of celebrities that have been featured on the cover. I saw the names of many straight, cisgender people in that list, some of whom had been featured multiple times. The section was almost entirely devoid of references for verification (and I added a template noting such), but I have little reason to doubt its veracity.

I recognize that featuring a high-profile cishet celebrity who is known for LGBTQ activism is a good sales draw. But there is no shortage of out LGBTQ celebrities to celebrate instead of centering allies. I am hopeful that new executive editor Raquel Willis, a black trans activist who I met when she was working for the Transgender Law Center, will feature fewer cishet people on the cover of a magazine that is purportedly by and for the LGBTQ community.

Raquel Willis speaks on the Trans Day of Remembrance, San Francisco, November 2017.

Another LGBTQ magazine that has featured cishet people on the cover is The Advocate. I’m still disgusted that in 2015 they featured Pope Francis, the head of the blatantly cisheterosexist Catholic Church, as Person of the Year. As I wrote at that time, the Pope is no ally of mine, and it’s pathetic for LGBTQ organizations to grab for crumbs like this when there are plenty of activists in our own community whose voices should be elevated and celebrated. Catholics and other Christians who deny that their churches are discriminatory against women, queer or trans people ought to take a good hard look at whether or not they “practice what they preach”.

Some LGBTQ publications and organizations may promote and coddle cishet allies because they cater to the mainstream. Such organizations often center the needs of cis white gay men, who are more palatable to the public than more marginalized groups like black and brown trans women. This can be true even in progressive cities like San Francisco, where I live. Awareness that the LGBTQ community is not a monolith is important.

Performing acts of allyship should be encouraged, but not for the benefit of cishet people’s egos. Look to those of us who have lived experience in queer bodies to tell you what we actually want and need. Working together, we can create a society that truly respects and values people of all gender identities and sexual orientations.