OK, one last post about the GCN Conference, and then I'll move on to other topics.
I mentioned in my last post that I wanted to learn to be a better ally by attending the conference. As I've said over and over, I don't think it's necessary (or smart) to try to devote yourself to every cause in order to make the world a better place; I'd much rather see everyone care deeply and take action on one or two big issues.
For me, one of those issues is making our world a safer place for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) individuals -- safe not only from physical harm, but from emotional and mental harm stemming from being told hateful and false things about oneself, from financial harm from lacking legal protections from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, from social harm by being treated as second-class citizens. I do this because it affects people I love, and I especially care about removing the very real stain of discrimination and hatred from Christianity.
But I've always felt like a bit of phony, saying that one of the defining issues of my life is gay rights. "Well, what do you do about it?" asks the invisible devil's advocate in my head. "Oh, I write things... on the Internet... and I share stuff on Facebook." Wasn't there a checklist of "Ally Things" I was missing, like marching in gay pride parades and phone banking for marriage equality?
The conversations I had with people at the GCN conference showed me that being an ally isn't about how many pride parades you've been to or how many volunteer hours you've put in. It's not about which church you attend or what political party you identify with.
Being a true ally means doing two very simple, and very difficult, things.
Being an ally of the LGBTQ community means acknowledging that you don't know everything. It means recognizing that no matter how much you read, and how many people you meet, you must always stay open to learning something new. It means not trying to put labels or categories on other people, but instead letting people choose their own label, or no label, for their sexual orientation or gender identity.
It means trusting and believing people when they tell you about their experiences. It means accepting that someone's experience may challenge your own worldview, or your religious beliefs, or your personal understanding of what it means to love or what it means to be male or female, and it means not treating the story of someone's life experience as a theological debate. It means taking the responsibility to read and listen and educate yourself as much as possible. It means asking those you know who identify as LGBTQ what they need from you, and then listening carefully and taking them at their word that that is really what they need most at that moment.
Being an ally may also mean being the person who listens to those who are hurt or confused that someone they love has just come out. It may mean being the person who's there to allow someone to process their feelings out loud so the LGBTQ person they love doesn't have to be the recipient of their anger or grief or guilt. It may mean having patience with those who are still learning the right words to use, when those who have been personally hurt by the wrong words find it too difficult to hear them.
Being an ally can mean speaking out, like I do on this blog, reaching out to people in order to correct misconceptions and create conversation about LGBTQ issues. But most importantly, it means speaking up in day-to-day conversations -- to challenge homophobic comments and jokes, to correct misconceptions, to share stories that don't fit with others' preconceived notions. It is using your privilege to your advantage because you don't have to worry about "outing" yourself if you speak up, and you don't have any supposed ulterior motive hanging over you ("You're gay, of course you want 'special' rights for gay people").*
This is what people told me over and over again at the GCN conference. "My parents don't want to hear what I think the Bible says about gay people. They want to know what straight Christians think the Bible says." "I have to laugh along with the terrible gay jokes because if they even suspected, I could be fired..." Allies create safer spaces for LGBTQ people by letting others know that their hurtful words are not OK. They have the ability to argue for equal rights not because it's of any benefit to them personally, but because it's the right thing to do. They have the ability to create what the Rev. Gene Robinson called "holy confusion" by disrupting others' belief that everyone "just like them" thinks the same way.
Speaking up as an ally can also happen on a political scale. It can include casting a vote in such a way that you make the world a little safer for LGBTQ folks. That doesn't mean that there is always one right way to vote as an ally, but it means that you make the effort to vote when you think that doing so will create a better world for others. It can mean adding your name to a petition that you believe will help create that safer world, knowing that you provide strength in numbers and also that you may be in a safer position to put your name out there than those who need protection. (For a look at some petitions that made a difference last year, check out this Change.org video -- note that it auto-plays when the page loads.)
Who Can Be an Ally?
I think "ally" is one of those words like "feminist" that, while it doesn't carry the same potentially negative connotations, is made far more complex than it needs to be.
Some people believe that to call oneself a feminist means you have to be pro-choice, or you have to believe that gender is socially constructed, or any number of other notions lumped in with the idea of feminism. Different people have different definitions, but to my best understanding being a feminist means that you don't believe anyone should have fewer opportunities or rights solely because of their gender, and you're willing to work to make that a reality.
Similarly, being an ally doesn't mean you have to attend an affirming church (or be an atheist), and it doesn't mean you have to be Side A, and it doesn't mean you have to be a Democrat. It means you don't believe anyone should have fewer opportunities or rights solely because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and you're willing to work to make that a reality through listening and speaking up. That's it. Even if we disagree on many things, I'm willing to work side by side with you as a fellow ally if you are truly willing to listen with an open heart and to speak up to make the world a safer place for LGBTQ folks.
That's what I believe it means to be a straight ally.
What does "being an ally" mean to you? For my straight readers, do you consider yourself an ally? For my LGBTQ readers, what makes you consider someone an ally?
*Note: Of course, do so only to the extent that you are able in your particular situation. If you are in such a toxic environment that even being perceived as an ally could get you fired or physically harmed, do what you need to to keep yourself safe. But I also challenge you to push your comfort level a little bit and let others' capacity to change surprise you.
Don't forget that the contest to win a copy of Torn ends at midnight Pacific Time tonight! You still have a great shot at winning, especially in the 1 and 2 groups!