In 2019, the straight—as far as we know—leaders of the Trump administration are no allies to LGBT people. GLAAD has a running tally of 114 policy and rhetorical attacks from the administration.
At the beginning of this Pride month came news of a Straight Pride Parade, an anti-LGBT event that both echoed the Trump era's hostility, and served as a reaction against LGBT pride and progress itself.
Some of the Straight Pride pushers and movers come from “a far-right organization with a penchant for anti-Semitic and racist rhetoric,” the Daily Beast’s Will Sommer reported in early June. Sounds crazy, right? Weeks later on June 26, though, Boston officially approved that event. It’s actually going to happen. And it shouldn’t. But when someone starts yapping about anti-straight sentiment growing and the need to defend heterosexuality, what should an ally’s response be? What should your response be?
Taylor Swift, whose sexuality is much speculated about, released ‘You Need To Calm Down,’ a song of “allyship” asking for kinder behavior online and less homophobia. The response was mixed, as it always is when it comes to matters Swift.
What is required of the role of the straight LGBT ally? Is an ally simply a person who is "OK" with LGBT people? Is an ally a person who shares stories of LGBT plight on social media, and says the right things? Is an ally someone who joins LGBT campaigners on the front line? Does it take something more? Less? Why does it matter?
I asked several LGBT organizations to help me understand their definition of the A-word—my favorite response coming from AthleteAlly.
“An ally recognizes that toxic masculinity, white supremacy, and their manifestations—including racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia—hurt all of us,” the group’s spokesperson Joanna Hoffman told me. “To live in allyship is a constant, lifelong process of having often uncomfortable and difficult conversations... about the impact (not intent) of words and actions, and how seemingly harmless biases and beliefs can cause lasting harm to the people around us.”
Hoffman touches on one of the most important aspects of LGBT allyship, as I see it: It’s not so much about how you treat LGBT people. It’s about what you do and what you say to empower and encourage them to come out in the first place, and then support them in their fight for equality.
Within their means, any person should do what they can to propel their neighbors, friends, family, strangers, and enemies to feel safe and confident in their gender identity and sexual orientation. Today. Right now. And forever.
It’s great that you can respect a transgender person inside of an ongoing conversation, for example, but what do you do when that person walks away and a nearby bigot snickers and slurs?
Holistically, Americans might be more tolerant than they were before, sure. And they might seek to ruin the lives of less people for their gender identity or sexual orientation than in the past, sure. But more states score low on LGBT equality measures than score high.
● The American military is forcing servicemembers back into the closet.
● The White House is working to scupper anti-discriminatory medical protections for LGBT people.
● The State Department is ramping up challenges to the birthright of foreign-born American citizens (like me) when their parents are LGBT.
“We all want our culture change to be a big boom but culture change is slow and takes a lot of effort,” said Jean-Marie Navetta, the director of Learning and Inclusion at PFLAG, one of the first and largest organization for LGBTQ+ people, their parents and families, and allies. PFLAG has been around since 1972 and boasts 400 chapters across the country, connecting its more than 200,000 members.
Navetta has spent years studying the best ways to counter homophobia and anti-LGBT sentiment. According to her, with few exceptions, it’s important an ally “keeps having the conversation.”
“Creating space for people’s voices” is the only way to change minds, she explains. Does it always work? No. Religiosity is a great example. “I’m not going to try to change your beliefs on this and you are certainly not changing mine,” Navetta told me about how she internalizes conversations with faith-based homophobes. But if you “switch from belief to behavior,” she says, focusing on the laws and regulations surrounding sexuality and sex, you might successfully change someone’s future vote.
In 1998, the Washington Renegades Rugby Football Club in D.C. began openly recruiting gay men, the first club to do so in the US. Two years later, it became a founding member of International Gay Rugby. Several years after that in 2003, Ned Kieloch showed up to a Tuesday night Renegades practice and never left.
Kieloch, who is gay, is the president of the club now and was its president when I was on the team between 2016 and 2017. During summer tournaments when he’s wearing short sleeves, you’ll catch the club’s crest tattooed on his arm. I asked him what being an ally means in 2019.
“To be called an ally is to be called a friend and friend isn’t a term you toss around casually,” he told me. The Renegades is a mixed team in terms of sexual orientation, in contrast to many other LGBT teams. In fact, during my time with it, the majority of players were straight and yet the ethos was queer.
That is, the programming around the club, the atmosphere, the social aspect, were all much more sexually fluid and open than the rigid—and toxic, to reference back to AthleteAlly—masculinity prevalent in sports. “If you are putting on that jersey, I consider you an ally. If you aren't supportive of the Renegades and what they believe, than you wouldn’t do that,” said Kieloch.
“If we don’t undertake that part of educating, if we don’t define ourselves, other people will do it for us and chances are we won’t like their definitions,” he added.
When Kieloch sometimes sees social posts where LGBT people attack a vacuous audience with something like “It’s not our job to educate you,” he thinks it’s misguided. It’s much more effective to “be willing to meet people where they are right now.” There are limits to his patience, he points out, but said he aims to practice a level-minded approach.
This resonates with me. When words, phrases, and descriptions of LGBT life and reality are false, cruel, or in some way bigoted, it’s important for the ally to speak up. To correct. To inform. If the crowd is not receptive, fine. But the attempt is crucial. If you don’t even attempt to clarify a falsehood, truth doesn’t stand a chance.
“Allyship is not performative, it’s action-oriented,” said a.t. Furuya, manager of Youth Programs at GLSEN, which supports LGBTQ students. “Being an ally means taking action in solidarity with LGBTQ students and responding to their self-determined requests, for example, using the correct pronouns when referring to classmates or signing petitions demanding LGBTQ inclusion or policy change at school. Being an ally also means that LGBTQ students act in solidarity with other students who hold identities that are marginalized or attacked in our society.”
A church-goer might lament that her God doesn’t allow her to support something benign like gay marriage but, she likely emphasizes, she knows and respects some gay people—her values aren’t bigoted, she argues.
And yet, on a weekly basis, she enters an environment in which a so-called Man of God preaches that homosexuality is (at least) wrong. And in that congregation sit children whose internalized conflict has no outlet, whose sexual misalignment knows no guide, and whose often only respite is estrangement, seclusion, and isolation, if not something much worse.
According to the Trevor Project, for example, “LGB youth are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to heterosexual youth” and out of the 40 percent of transgender people who reported having attempted suicide, “92% of these individuals reported having attempted suicide before the age of 25.”
If you engender an environment that doesn’t allow for queerness to thrive, you’re endangering the lives of young queer people born into it. Yes, you. I’m reminded of Yuval Noah Harari’s history of mankind, Sapiens. “If you want to keep any human group isolated—women, Jews, Roma, gays, blacks—the best way to do it is to convince everyone that these people are a source of pollution,” he wrote.
That’s precisely what virtually every society on the planet did in relation to homosexuality and non-gender-conforming people.
Is such globally ingrained homophobia simple to tackle, then? Of course not. Should you try anyway? Of course you should. Especially if you consider yourself an ally.