Allyship has been defined by the Canadian PeerNetBC as “an active, consistent and arduous practice of unlearning and re-evaluating, in which a person in a position of privilege and power seeks to operate in solidarity with a marginalised group”.
The term “ally” is used in the lesbian gay bisexual transgender (LGBT) community to describe someone who is supportive of its people. This term includes non-LGBT allies as well as those in the LGBT community who support each other; for example, a lesbian who is an ally of the bisexual community.
In the age of social media and digital activism, allyship comes under fire for being lacklustre at best and problematic at worst. There are a lot of ways it looks good on social media — Instagram photos at Pride, woke tweets during #BiVisbility week or Facebook filters supporting legalisation about homosexuality in India, but there is more that goes into it than a contrived selfie. There are some lessons to learn about how to be a good ally to the queer community.
Listen and learn
Knowing queer people does not make you an expert. Having some insight into queer lives sometimes means that people think they can speak on behalf of others and that they can ignore their own prejudices and biases.
Be open to learning about the unique and diverse experiences that make up the lives of the queer community, and remember people vary from country to country and from context to context. Listening to your queer friends/family/acquaintances matters.
In eagerness to be an ally, the first instinct may be to jump in and ask a whole bunch of questions (some of which can be intrusive) or to make observations. But listening to what they want and need to tell you should be top of mind. Queer people are the ones who know about their lives, so it’s best to let them lead the conversation.
Support in the way they want
Each queer person will need support in different ways.
For some it could mean help to come out in difficult spaces, such as with family and friends, for others it could be the need for a sounding board while they figure out their sexuality. It could simply mean recognising their queerness and not being weird about it or it could mean helping them find someone to sit on their face on Friday night.
The experiences of people are diverse, and their needs will vary. Try to find out about the intricacies of a person’s life, be it the activism they are passionate about, the personal issues they face or whether they are interested in being a “super gay”.
Understand that their entire life is not their sexuality. Often when people come out to others, their entire identity suddenly rotates around them not being straight. They are no longer a doctor but a “lesbian doctor”, no longer someone’s favourite barber, but now a “pansexual hair cutter”. No one thinks of a heterosexual lawyer as “the straight lawyer”.
Although it can be difficult not to zero in on this part of their identity, try to be cognisant of the fact that you are doing it. Being queer is not the only aspect of their lives. They are still everything else you knew them to be.
Stay out of their sex life
Queer sex can seem strange and exciting. Having access to this information might lead you to misuse it. The hyper-sexualisation of queer people means that often straight people have few to no boundaries about asking what they do when they are butt-naked.
It is incorrect to think that being gay is all about sex, all day every day. It is also intrusive to ask personal questions about it. Queer lives are not a whacky, kinky Wikipedia page for you to scroll through. Chatting coitus over some chardonnay in a social setting where everyone is sharing and learning is fine, but do not turn someone into a spectacle because they have sex that is different from yours. However, on that note, it is okay to (respectfully) get tips. Queers know things.
Do your own research
Sometimes the questions can get a bit much. You may be bursting to find out everything from your friend or loved one, it may be best to use the blessing that is Google. The internet’s trove of information can alleviate some of the burden of asking your loved one a whole host of awkward, and sometimes taxing, questions. Your own research can also be a starting point to have conversations.
A process of unlearning
Realise that your queer friend/loved one is not a prop to add to your “woke” starter kit, but a whole human being living a life. They do not exist to give your life a dash of glitter. Also remember, you do not get a cookie for being an ally — it is just the decent thing to do.
Kagure Mugo is the cofounder and full-time curator of HOLAAfrica!