Illustration by Nitya Chirravur

3 fears that prevent allies from standing up to violence and strategies to overcome them

Content Note: Discussion of Sexual Violence

I have a complicated relationship with posting #metoo on my facebook wall. On one hand, I am happy that so many people are visibly talking about the issue, and I am firm believer in never being silent about violence. On the other, despite experiencing sexual assault in my pre-transition days, I acknowledge that my newly perceived masculinity as a transman now protects me from dangers of sexual harassment many female-identifying folks and non-binary folks face daily when navigating the world. This is not to say that masculine folks should not voice their own experiences, since sexual violence can happen to anyone.

Today, a few weeks after the Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey allegations have flooded our news pages and facebook feeds, I am forced to reflect on my own responsibility in being a better ally to people around me.

Therefore, instead of posting another #metoo status, I wanted to shine light on some of the barriers we face in standing up to gender-based violence, and possible strategies we can use to overcome them to keep each other safe.

Fear of Violence

The threat of violence is a real concern when it comes to standing up to armed, physically stronger, or grouped individuals - especially for women, children, trans people, and other visible minorities. Although it is important to protect ourselves, we must remember that our responsibility of interfering from afar does not just end at self-preservation.

I learned that lesson the hard way.

Early Saturday morning, a few days after the Harvey Weinstein allegation, I was rushing to the bank before work when I passed a row of neighbouring houses. Out on the sidewalk, I saw a 6-foot-tall man, standing over a 12 year old girl, holding her by a chokehold and screaming at her. It looked as though he grabbed her from her reading circle of 3 other children to punish her for something she had said.

Time stood still as her eyes — tears streaming down her cheek — met mine. I stopped and panicked. He was visibly bigger than me. I feared that in his hoodie where one of his hands was tucked away, held a knife. Adrenaline rushed through my body. I was not sure if I had to step in to pull away the man. I looked around me, and other families walked on by. I could not blame them since they had younger children.

Before I could respond, her mom came in to pull the child away from him. Noticing me pull out my phone to call child services, he backed away, but remained standing over them. The situation seemed to have de-escalated after a few minutes. I rushed to the bank, deciding to file a detailed report in an hour. I thought my role in the incident was over.

But it was not; because the girl’s eyes haunted me.

I made a grave mistake. I should have interfered in the moment. I should have checked in and stayed till everyone was safe. The mom and child could have used a little more help.

Often, as allies, we forget to check in after the incident is over.

Fear of Being Uncertain

Witnessing violence can be a jarring experience. It is so beyond our normal comprehension of everyday events, that when we suddenly witness it, we are never fully sure if it is really happening or not and whether to take a direct action right away.

Years ago, I was at a New Year’s party with my at-the-time partner. She and I, both did not know the hosts well, and we showed up for the event mostly for the theme.

After a few meet-and-greets, we saw a girl, who looked like she had too much to drink, on the couch almost passing out. A guy had his hand around her neck, smiling with an unnerving grin. We walked up to them to introduce ourselves, and asked for her name. She slurred something with her eyes half closed; she was too intoxicated to respond.

He interjected, claiming to be her boyfriend and to just let her be. My ex and I both looked at each other, acknowledging our mutual gut feeling that something felt off.

In fear of looking stupid and paranoid, we let it be. Could something like this be happening in the middle of such a happy celebration?

We made another mistake — we should have taken the girl aside to check in with her or asked other people at the party if they knew her.

Sometimes, as allies, we are scared to make assumptions in fear of being wrong. It is better to have verified and asked, than to be sorry.

Fear of Peer Pressure

It never fails to amaze me how peer pressure does not go away after high school or university; it simply transforms from one form to another, and it often stops us from honouring our individual beliefs the same.

Just when I thought my days of pretending to be a straight, cisgender female in hopes to avoid homophobic slurs, were over, I was faced with a new, more insidious form of peer pressure — male peer pressure.

Few years into my transitioning, there was a time during a poetry slam where I gave a girl a standing ovation and 10/10 score for performing a piece on ending male violence. After the show, my gym buddy, who at the time did not know I was trans, walked up to me and asked me about why I did not defend masculinity: “I thought we were brothers? You should have stood up for us men.”

I brushed his comments aside, agreeing to disagree, in fear of being outcasted or outed from my newfound circle of acceptance. I so desperately tried to fit in.

These are the times I wish I were braver, and used my privilege to engage in conversation.

There are times where we, as allies, fail to stand up for other people’s rights, in fear of not being part of a group we already belong to and feel safe in.

Down the line, of course, I learned no level of acceptance, was worth sacrificing my values over.

Now I know we can’t change our past events, but we can always change the way we respond to them based on our new knowledge and experience. Here are some of the strategies that helped me when facing those fears:

Focusing on the victim: Even if we do not have the power to tackle down a 6-feet tall man, or to stand up to people who can cost us our jobs or stability, we can still be allies and check in to ensure that the person is safe and knows that they have support.

Taking bystander workshops: Precautionary measures are important. We can better equip ourselves in handling various situations by learning local resources and taking bystander intervention workshops. Simply googling free online resources and training sessions, such as at National Sexual Violence Centre or White Ribbon, is a good start.

Becoming uncomfortable: When we stand up for something, we put ourselves at risk of losing our careers or friends. It is a vulnerable experience to speak up and not follow the crowd. Therefore, we must also evaluate our circles, and align ourselves with people who support us and share the same values.

Using our privilege: Often, folks who undergo violence are also expected to advocate for themselves at the same time. It would be much easier if people in a place of privilege used their unique positioning to engage the groups they belong to in a conversation and back up the ones in more vulnerable positions.

Forgiving ourselves: It is hard. We mess up. We do the wrong thing. It is important to learn that just because we did not handle situations properly all these years, we can make a different choice today and learn from our actions.

As author Cheryl Strayed says, “But the reality is we often become our kindest, most ethical selves only by seeing what it feels like to be a selfish jackass first.”

By reflecting on how past scenes played out, and being better prepared to act differently next time, we can make allyship an ongoing and active role.

Robbie Ahmed grew up in four countries Russia, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, and now Canada. He writes about his journey in discovering what home, happiness, and healing means in the context of diasporic identity. His previous work was in running support programs for LGBTQ youth, providing academic support for marginalized students hoping to go back to college, and advocating for culturally appropriate mental health services.

A bystander: a person who is present when an event takes place but isn’t directly involved. Bystanders might be present when sexual assault or abuse occurs — or they could witness the circumstances that lead up to these crimes.

Information and Workshops 
White Ribbon: How to be an ally and workshop options
Immigrant and Refugee Communities: Resources for if you need help, want to help, or want to change.
NSVRC: Free Online Bystander Intervention Training Course
Security Magazine: 12 Methods to De-Escalate Violent Situations