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True Allyship: A Toolkit for Allies of the LGBTQIA+ Community

Thursday, October 3, 2019  
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True Allyship: A Toolkit for Allies of the LGBTQIA+ Community

Kyle Keith - North Carolina State University
Kory Saunders - North Carolina State University
Christina Thompson - Barcelona SAE

A snapshot of contemporary LGBTQIA+ issues in the United States portrays a contradictory and ever-changing cultural landscape. LGBTQIA+ themed programming is in many subscribers’ “most recently watched” queue. Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness fabulously proclaims the transformative effects of self-care and acceptance to Netflix’s ballooning audience of an estimated 139 million paid subscribers1. In June, Pride Month celebrations briefly wash neighborhoods and towns with rainbow flags and storefront displays for inaugural Pride potlucks in rural North Carolina2 to the Stonewall 50 commemorations and parades in the country’s urban centers.

At the same time, according to recently released survey results from GLAAD and The Harris Poll3, the number of self-identified allies of the LGBTQIA+ community declined in 2018 to just 45% of surveyed 18-34-year-olds. In addition, a growing number reported feeling “uncomfortable” having LGBTQIA+ -identified family members, physicians, and having LGBTQIA+ history included in their child’s school’s curriculum. Recent headlines and tweets show a radical change in policy ranging from barring transgender service members4 in the military to pending Supreme Court rulings on LGBTQIA+ workplace discrimination depict a fragile state of progress for LGBTQIA+ Americans.

Given the conflicting state of affairs described above, self-identified allies of the LGBTQIA+ community -- who, as defined by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN)5, is “any person who supports and stands up for the rights of LGBT people” -- may ask themselves: What more can I be doing to demonstrate my support for my LGBTQIA+ friends, colleagues, and family members?

Social justice bloggers and activists offer one critical suggestion for allies: transform your allyship from “performative allyship” -- or passive displays of support focused on one’s self rather than the community in question -- to demonstrations of solidarity with marginalized populations. As described by columnist Eric Peterson in a 2017 Medium.com6 piece: “One of the important jobs an ally can take on is to amplify the voices of the unheard...The performatively woke person takes up a lot of space. The ally makes space. It’s a crucial difference.”

This definition of performative allyship is further expanded in the blog of author and activist Mia Mckenzie7, in which she employs the term “ally theater” to describe the seemingly superficial, but perhaps well-intended ways in which some allies perform allyship publicly for an audience, rather than centering the needs and concerns of the community in question. According to McKenzie: “Fighting oppression, for these folks, isn’t worth it unless everybody can see them doing it...Real solidarity doesn’t require an audience or a pat on the back.”

Avoiding the pitfalls of performative allyship or ally theater can be challenging. For allies of the LGBTQIA+ community -- particularly those working in higher education settings -- we have curated a toolkit designed to serve as a catalyst for shifting the ally narrative in offices and on campuses to a more action-oriented positionality. The toolkit includes 3 key elements: Brave Zone Action, Diversity Action Planning and Self Assessment, and Building Effective Trust.

Daring to be brave: Transforming the traditional “Safe Zones” training narratives

Safe Zone training is intended to give participants the resources to learn to become allies for those in the LGBTQIA+ community. Many universities and corporations have safe zone training that many who work there attend. At times, attending these introductory trainings for allies can be treated as just another checkbox for new employee onboarding or required diversity education programming.

When we think of “Safe Zones” who is it really safe for? In moving from safe zones, which implies an unrealistic feeling of safety usually felt by those with dominant identities. These trainings may leave those with marginalized identities with feelings of discomfort, which they experience regularly. It should not be the responsibility of the marginalized community to make the dominant communities feel safe. According to Arao and Clemens8, hearing and respecting contrasting views does not mean that one has to agree with them. This provides context to understanding a person or a community’s narrative and gives an opportunity for growth of perspectives. This is necessary for true allyship versus performative allyship. Arao and Clemens propose the concept of “challenge by choice” to allow individuals to decide to what extent they want to take action. In true allyship, rather than performative allyship, Allies must always choose to challenge their thoughts, preconceived notions and that which they have been taught. When allies choose to be brave and take action rather than remaining complacent and safe, we move closer to authentic community with our LGBTQIA+ friends, colleagues, and family .

Specificity and accountability: LGBTQIA+ Diversity Action Plan and self-assessment

Another strategy for true allyship, is reviewing current strategic diversity planning within offices or on campuses, which are often broad and non-specific (e.g. better support of trans-identified students on campus). To start, assess the current climate or policies of your work environment by using a tool like the Organizational Self Assessment9 by The Coalition Ending Gender-Based Violence. Creating an LGBTQIA+ specific diversity action plan and using it as a measure for self-assessment is useful in helping to move staff beyond performative actions and their own discomfort. Diversity action planning helps to push task forces and working groups beyond talk into attainable action and critical reflection. An effective diversity action plan includes a clear mission, S.M.A.R.T goals, and accountable leadership.

Diversity action plans can be used for institutional and/or individual staff goals. It is important that everyone engages in the creation of a goal that relates to their professional responsibilities. Consider creating a personal link for staff learning something new and the community to which they hope to support. For example, if a staff member is an avid reader but is unfamiliar with the LGBTQIA+ community, they might start off by completing a recommended reading and report what they learned. Even with the best intentions, diversity action plans can be created and then gather dust, without some assessment of progress. Using self-assessment, will allow allies to identify points of growth in their ongoing work towards true allyship.

Cultivating trust: True allyship as a verb, not a noun

When moving away from performative allyship, allies should understand that effective trust-building with members of the LGBTQIA+ community should take time. Many allies have good intentions but often perplexed when rejected by the very community they are trying to support.

Understanding the complex history between the LGBTQIA+ community and the culturally dominant narrative is essential. Allies should consider participating in guided discussions, including joining an LGBTQIA+ book club, which will allow allies to learn about the community from the community. Allies must be aware of their own positionality and how it affects the community they intend to support. Many allies must first understand the levels of privilege that are afforded to them based on their identity. In true allyship, having an understanding of one’s positionality and the history of the LGBTQIA+ community can be used to guide the ally of when to use their privilege on the front lines of issues and causes, as well as behind the scenes. Another way to establish trust is to garner referrals from the LGBTQIA+ community. Referrals can be helpful when trying to establish trust on a personal level.

Through these suggested guidelines, allies to the community can move from a static, perhaps performative space, to true allyship, which is more inclusive, affirming, and action-oriented As an ally, how do you plan to incorporate these steps to move towards true allyship?


1 https://www.cnn.com/2019/01/17/media/netflix-earnings-q4/index.html
2 https://www.npr.org/2019/06/19/733955591/small-town-pride-as-picnic
3 https://www.glaad.org/sites/default/files/Accelerating%20Acceptance%202019.pdf
4 https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/dominicholden/trump-trans-military-ban-takes-effect
5 https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/dominicholden/trump-trans-military-ban-takes-effect
6 https://medium.com/@Tawdry_Hepburn/on-allyship-and-performative-wokeness-30581808bf8b
7 http://www.blackgirldangerous.com/2015/11/ally-theater/
8 https://sites.lsa.umich.edu/inclusive-teaching/wp-content/uploads/sites/355/2016/06/From-Safe-Spaces-to -Brave-Spaces.pdf
9 https://endgv.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Organizational-Self-Assessment.pdf