The Myriad Duties of an Ally

Note: If you’d like to skip down to the listed duties of an ally, please do; I’ll make a header that makes it easy to find. Everything before it is an explanation of how I came to feel like a(nother) list was needed. This is NOT a comprehensive list, and I expect it to be a “living document” that I occasionally update and change.

Often in the queer world we admonish our allies for not being “ally” enough. I’ve been on the receiving end of a person of color’s admonishment for not being a good white ally. I’ve given a few admonishments to Christian friends about their handling of my Jewish background, to straight and cisgender friends about their handling of my queerness, to upper-class friends and coworkers about their handling of money and social gatherings/outings.

You asked me about my “real” or “original name?” That’s privileged! How cissexist of you. You’re asking me about how I have sex with a partner? How heterosexist of you! You’re asking me to go out to dinner with you (and pay my own way) to a place that costs $30 a meal? How classist of you!

Being an ally to an underprivileged person (of any type) is really freaking hard. Typically it’s something that we expect (especially from friends) without really laying down any explicit expectations or rules for what that means. It’s an often thankless job, one devoid of any extrinsic motivation to do it. The only reason someone has (other than a love for being an ally or friend) to continue being an ally is the fact that we continue to interact with them. And, seriously, that’s sometimes less of a good thing than it would be if we just left them alone.

Being an ally is almost a type of masochism; it’s literally setting oneself up for almost constantly being wrong and offensive to someone they value as a friend. It’s literally accepting that one is not an expert in something where not being an expert can be (and often is) extremely harmful or triggering to friends… probably only worse than people who think they ARE experts, which is the progenitor of the whole “-splaining” meme (e.g. mansplaining, cisplaining, etc.).

Being an ally means accepting that not only does one belong to an oppressive group, sometimes they’ll also be the one doing the oppressing without even knowing it.

And that’s hard. This is part of why modern society sees “racist” and “bigot” as a slur and insult instead of states that are constant in all of us, instead of words intended to cause introspection and change. If I call a friend on cissexism, heterosexism, classism, racism, that feels like an attack.

This is a problem. The words are meant to till the mind to make change easier. They’re meant to bring an awareness of privilege that, by the very nature of privilege, is seen primarily from the underprivileged. Because people are so protective of who they are and so resistant to change, and because calling someone on an -ism is essentially telling them directly “you need to change” it feels like an attack.

And one major thing that an ally can’t be (at least, around the population that they’re ally to) is defensive.

So I thought I should make another list for allies that’s a general guide for allies of any population. Right away I need to warn of my biases, of course; I’m a queer person, I’m more invested in creating queer allies and that definitely colors my lens, but if you see something that I’m missing or that is blatantly helpful only for queer allies, please comment and let me know.

Some other sources for similar lists:  (if you’re white, read this. Period. An AWESOME deconstruction of how whiteness “takes over” the trans* discourse. While not a “list” it none-the-less allows for ways that white trans*folk can become better allies to POC trans*folk) (On the other hand, this IS a list, and transcendent) (This includes a TON of other sources referenced in it, too)

Do I agree with all of these sources? FUCK NO. For instance, I HATE Sam Killerman’s ( approach entirely. It feels disingenuous, crude, and disrespectful to the people he claims to be ally to (and I say that as a trans* person criticising his trans* allyship, including (and especially) the essentialist gingerbread person). I think that Sam Killerman is a transphobic piece of work, and the only reason I link to that post is because I’m reasonably sure it’s not plaigerized. His other stuff? Not so sure:

Here’s the reason why I share them, though: I’m not the only underprivileged person in social justice who needs allies. I recognize that MY opinions and MY feelings are also MY bias. I cannot speak for everyone who needs an ally ever, I can only speak to MY experiences and MY desires.

The Duties of an Ally:

  • You’re probably not an ally if you say you’re an ally.
    Ok, so this one is probably a hard pill to swallow. You do not get to decide whether or not you’re an ally. By the same token, if you are deciding that you’re an ally? Then you’re not. Allyship isn’t some sort of club that you have membership to. Likewise, even if you are an ally to one person in a group, that does not mean that you’re an ally to that entire group.Being an ally is about action, not identity. It’s really attractive to identify as an ally and to crusade on behalf of the underprivileged group. Feminism calls this form of benevolent bigotry “white knight syndrome,” where the person is looking to “save” the underprivileged. Typically, this urge is extremely privileged, coming from the belief that the “ally” knows better what the group needs than members of that group.

    Recognize the urge within yourself to “be an ally” and cull that, turning it into an urge to “do good.” Recognize that you’ll never be an ally to the entirety of a population and that ideas like “trans* ally” and “black ally” are fallacies. You can be Fluffy’s ally, but that doesn’t make you “a trans* ally.”

    Being an ally is an individual level of action. This is why it doesn’t transfer to a group level of action; just as a group can’t be a an ally for a person. DO use Ally as a short hand to ask what you can do to support someone else, DO NOT use Ally as an identity or label.

  • If an underprivileged person calls you on privilege, believe them.
    This is a really difficult job that allies face. The nature of privilege is that it is INVISIBLE to those who have it and very tangible to those who don’t. Because of that, if your queer/black/latino/female/poor/asian/etc. friends/acquaintances call you on racism, classism, heterosexism, homophobia, cissexism or any kind of bigotry, you should believe them. Do not become defensive. DO NOT become defensive.Because they are telling you how something that you’re doing or saying impacts them. Becoming defensive about that means INVALIDATING their experience because intent is more important than the impact it created.And that’s privilege too. Seriously. The fact that *intention* is more important than what it actually *did* is oppression; it says (again, regardless of intent) that the intended reality is more important than the actual experienced reality of the underprivileged population and, really, you lot should just fall into line with how things are done. That’s what modern racism looks like, more often than not.

    • Related to this: it is NOT your job to call others out on privilege that mirrors your own. In fact, that can become a sort of erasure in and of itself. Unless a person you are an ally to directly requests that you call someone on oppression related to their underprivilege, doing so can be inappropriate or even *unsafe*. On the other hand, speaking out about systemic oppression IS a separate duty, and one that I’ll go into later.
  • Optimism is the job of an ally, not of the underprivileged.
    This has two distinct parts to it so I’m going to tackle them separately:
    A) Do not admonish the underprivileged for not being optimistic or happy about what progress happens.
    Typically I see this as some politician changing their stance on a particular social justice issue. Allies (and non-intersectional and/or naive members) respond with enthusiasm, celebration and happiness. Those the issue impacts respond with wariness, cynicism and a lack of trust. The allies, exasperated, scold the community for not celebrating victories and what progress there’s been.A politician changing their stance, however, doesn’t feel like progress. In the trans* community, there is an idea being bandied about that I definitely agree with: we should not have to feel thankful or celebratory for someone treating us like equal people. That should be the expectation. Through that lens, someone changing a stance or a policy changing to be inclusive isn’t a victory, it’s not something to be celebrated. It’s something that lets us breathe a sigh of relief while the cords around our necks loosen.So just understand that while you see it as progress, *that might be privilege talking*. Actions speak louder than words; if you absolutely must celebrate, do so with actions. Better yet, celebrate only when those you are allying are celebrating; it will feel less like pandering. If you’re unsure if it’s ok to celebrate? Ask. It may seem silly, but I know that I would prefer a friend say “Hey, this thing happened; should we be celebrating it?” instead of “Hey why aren’t you APPLAUDING!? This thing finally happened!” It’s much easier for an ally to feel closer to the end of a fight with a milestone under their belts. For the underprivileged one obstacle is knocked aside to reveal more. Allies have a pretty unique top-down perspective that the under-privileged lack by nature of being who they are. Just remember that because you can see the end of the tunnel doesn’t mean we can, and it’s our vision that’s more important in this instance.

    B) Use optimism (and privilege) to cause change and create new allies.
    One of the biggest things that an ally can (and should) do is to use their privilege to enact change (more on this later), and one of the most effective ways of doing that is with their optimism. This lets them create buy-in with other potential allies (who may not be experienced with the unique challenges of allyship) and really use their understanding and perceptions of progress to drive home change.

    Use optimism to say to other allies and potential allies “Hey look at where we’re at and look at where we’re going!” Use optimism to boil it down to the few basic steps left for other allies. Under no circumstances should allies share that view with those they are allies to.

    Why? Because that’s devaluing the fight. If it feels like a mountain to climb and they’re saying it’s an ant-hill, they are automatically reinforcing a power struggle and forgetting their privilege. They’re right, it’s an ant-hill… to someone with a lot more power than we have. Remember that an ally’s perspective can’t help but be colored by their privilege; what’s easy to them, attainable to them, worthy to them does not always match up with the underprivileged. If I’m an ant, or something much smaller, an ant-hill can seem like a tremendous burden. If I’m a German Shepherd, it’s suddenly much less of one.

  • Be the change you want to see.
    (Interesting point here, this sentiment is often attributed to Gandhi but there’s actually no proof that he said it) If what you want to see, as an ally, is transfolk being treated equally, then begin to treat them as though they were just like you.This isn’t to say that you should ignore their trans*ness, but that you should not treat it as exceptional. You should not purport to be “colorblind” to your black friends. You should not rush to a white-knight-like defense of your female friends to “fight” their oppression for them. As a white person, it’s very easy for me to fall into a pattern of treating people differently for the color of their skin; I grew up in a homogeneous environment and my idea of “normal” was formalized while I was still very young. As a budding social justice fighter I went through a phase of “colorblindness” where my main philosophy was that color of someone’s skin did not matter.It does.But the fundamental philosophical piece that I was missing, the piece that made it offensive, was that I should not try to change how a person defines themselves, just as much as I shouldn’t define them by one characteristic myself. Instead of letting my friends define their own identity I was denying their experiences with race as part of who they are.

    Now I treat their experience with race as part of something that made them a whole person, not something that defined them unless they directly define themselves by their relationship to their race. A privileged person rarely, if ever, is defined by that privilege. “Hello, my name is Michael and I am a white, straight, cisgender male” is not something heard by the privileged. “Hello, my name is Michael and I am a genderqueer gay person, please use singular-they pronouns” often is; when an underprivileged person identifies themselves directly as a member of the group that’s partially by choice and also because that group identity is forced by the privileged population. Likewise, though, you’ll notice that the underprivileged person *did not* identify themselves with what identities that they have that include privilege. Be wary of this fact; it’s ridiculously hard to remember that just by being the “black” or “gay” or “poor” or “trans” or “female” etc. friend what privileges we have do not disappear.

    Allies must fight the tendency to define those they’re allying by their underprivilege and should, in contrast, become more comfortable and open about defining themselves by their privilege. The trick, here, is in still allowing those they’re allying to define themselves and honoring that definition. Intersectionality, of course, recognizes that allies may themselves be oppressed, too… but it also allows for the fact that oppressors may often be the oppressed.

    To put it simply, just because I’m queer does not mean that I’m more oppressed, or oppressed the same “amount” as a black person and vice versa. Types of oppression are *completely different* (even when there are similarities in what they look like). In order to effect change that reduces oppression of all types, we must first begin to BE that change we’re looking for.

  • It’s not an oppression contest.
    Look, I get it, you’re oppressed too. It sucks. It’s weird how very few people in this country actually fall into every single one of the “big eight” (Age, race/ethnicity, binary gender, cisgender, sexual orientation, class, religion, physical/mental ability) in regards to privilege, as well as how what those “big eight” become changes based on the country you’re in. A majority of the time, acting as an ally means putting your oppression aside. Not forever, not even for a long time, but for the duration that you’re acting as an ally specifically. As a gay, lesbian or bisexual trans*ally, if I speak out against something that’s blatantly anti-trans in what someone’s doing for the “LGBT” community, I’m not being incendiary. I’m not being combative. I’m not complaining because it wasn’t “good enough.” What I’m saying is that “by fighting this oppression against the LGB community, the trans* community is being hurt either directly or indirectly.”(Examples:  ) There is no better example than the HRC and their campaign of red and pink logos for the supreme court of the USA’s hearing on Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act. When I became very vocal about my disgust for HRC and, more specifically, the support by my friends of that transphobic organization, I saw two things happen:1) I got responses that said I was just “complaining” and “maybe things aren’t perfect but this is fixing an oppression that GLB people face!” and “you’re overreacting” and “stop being angry” “why are you creating in-fighting, we need solidarity” etc. etc. etc. (Including becoming unfriended by people who had already been ruffled by my insistence on intersectional “LGBT” work that actually included the T and people of color).2) Some allies stopped in their tracks, blinked twice at my anger, and did some research. Here is a great resource for a brief history of HRC’s direct oppression of transfolk in order to progress LGB rights *at the expense* of transfolk’s rights.Here’s the thing; even though we’re reciprocal allies I’m not going to sit down and shut up when a group someone supports is actively oppressing me. Likewise, if you notice that I’m so upset about this? Recognize that I probably know something that you don’t about it. That you didn’t have to know. Something that you were meant NOT to know BECAUSE of your privilege.

    I’m not trying to say that my oppression is *worse* than your oppression. I can’t place a quantitative value on that. I can’t honestly say that being forced to see two psychiatrists for over a year, live as yourself for a year and THEN start physical transitioning is worse than not having the control over your own body to choose to get an abortion. They’re dissimilar. Oppression is completely dissimilar. However, one is CLOSER to me, and one struggle is clearly more socially acceptable to have than the other.

    So if I seem upset at your oppression getting relieved it’s probably because that relief is *actively hurting me in some way*.

    As an underprivileged ally, are we always going to be doing the best interventions on our oppression that never affect another person’s oppression? No. Not at all. That would assume intersectionality and unintended consequences don’t exist. But if we notice (or are outright told) that it is oppressing a community we’re an ally to we are duty bound to relieve that.

    Otherwise, we’re not really an ally. We’re a “frienemy” of the worst kind.

    Their oppression may or may not be worse than your oppression; one person’s oppression does not justify them oppressing another person.

  • Speak out against systemic oppression
    Whereas “call outs” are specific and personal, directed at something a person or a small group is saying/doing that propagates or is oppression, SPEAKING out about systemic oppression is not. Speaking out is almost ALWAYS right to do, and damned near expected.ALMOST? You ask? Almost. I confirm.You see, there’s this weird tendency for allies (and underprivileged folk who aren’t intersectional) to forget that other folks are oppressed as well. Speaking out against systemic oppression by those groups by using oppression is a gross misuse of privilege. Conversely, speaking out against the systematic oppression being created by those people should be respectful, but ultimately championed by the idea that their oppression does not give them the right to oppress others.

    The HRC is a good example of this. I’ve seen some cis trans* allies respond to the HRC’s doings by calling them queer epithets that are deeply hurtful to some LGB people. This isn’t just insensitive, but oppressive itself. We must not fight oppression with oppression.

    That said, this is about the only way that allies can become allies to an actual *group* of people; by joining/supporting a group that’s actively working to to quell systemic oppression, and speaking out when they come across that oppression, the person is appropriately using what privilege they have to support the group.

    This is hard. There are a lot of groups out there working against systemic oppression by supporting some other type of systemic oppression (the HRC is, again, a good example. Have you noticed my bias, yet?). The best advice I can give, here, is to say “follow the money,” and “ask around.” By this I mean, ask your underprivileged friends what groups they support, or don’t support, and why. Talk about it a lot and figure out what’s worth your support. While you’re doing that, take a look at what partnerships/relationships exist between various groups, look at the group’s record, look at what they’re actually spending money on.


About Michael Robinson

An eclectic person living in a world rife with binaries, opposition, anger and pain and trying to find the spectra, love, happiness and catharsis within.
This entry was posted in Disclosure/Coming Out, Educational, Essay, Gender, Orientation, queer, QUILTBAG, Religion, Sex and Relationships. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Myriad Duties of an Ally

  1. Pingback: Diary of an Introvert: Episode Four | Eclectic Discourse

  2. Pingback: Why I Don’t Date “Nice Guys” (And Why You Shouldn’t Either) | Eclectic Discourse

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