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Several years ago I was attending Pride festivities in Denver. I bought a pin that said “Ally” – I hadn’t heard the word before in that context, and I was excited to convey my support for the LGBT community.
This is what my pin looked like.

This is what my pin looked like.

As the years have passed, I’ve come across more and more sentiments against this term, and these astute criticisms have opened my eyes to a big issue: the word ally isn’t functioning correctly, and those who are outside of (but wish to support) any marginalized community need to think long and hard about how they self identify.
For me, when I first encountered the term I thought it meant identifying myself openly as someone who feels strongly that the LGBT community deserves the same rights I had been given without having to ask. I liked the idea that I could show people my support in another way besides donating money and voting.
I didn’t see the snags and problems with the use of this term, but now that I’ve read a bit about it, I can’t un-see them. Today, I encountered this hilarious and pointed critique of some people who self-identify as an ally:
The OED defines the term as “a person who helps or cooperates with another; a supporter, an associate; a friend.”
It seems in its most negative form, it has come to mean a person who implies or claims privilege or membership in a marginalized group without taking on the work or hardship that group is subject to.
This makes me cringe.

This makes me cringe.

In my own conversations with people, it seems often those who call themselves allies do so in order to speak about their own experiences, rather than to listen. To cooperate. As Mia McKenzie implies in her post linked above, they make it about them, not about the people with whom they claim to support.
Based on this, it seems to me that ally is a term a person has to earn with actions, not choose. But I still think there’s something to be said for having a word that can be used to self-identify, a word that implies agreement, caring, and hope. I’m going to go with “friend.” I hope someday I can earn ally.
I think this is a great sentiment - how would you perceive someone wearing this pin?

I think this is a great sentiment – how would you perceive someone wearing this pin?

I’d love to hear your experiences with this term…

2 responses »

  1. It’s a rocky subject, for me. I hate the term “ally—” what does it mean? Are we in WWII? And if so, who are the axis powers?

    But really—the term “ally” is too heavy for me. But every social movement has this woe. Male feminists have self-identified as proto-feminists proto feminists (lack of dash intentional), feminists, etc., and have received criticism from every angle. I myself identify as a “feminist—” not necessarily because I think it’s my right (or privilege), but because it’s the term that best describes my feelings, attitudes, and worldview.

    So, if straight supporters of the LGBTQ community feel strongly enough to call themselves “allies,” perhaps I should not cringe—after all, it’s better than the opposite.

    But what do allies do? Do they fight my cause for me, or simply support it? THIS is an issue that makes me cringe.

    I like seeing allies at Pride parades/festivals, I like seeing them come to the defense of LGBTQ rights on public forums (and on the streets), and generally I like to see them. But I only like the idea of active observers. THE crux of my chagrin is the whole Zach Wahls hubbub. This straight man is literally making a career—he is actively making money—off of saying what people in the LGBTQ community (including his mothers) have been saying for DECADES, but have been ignored because, unlike Wahls, they are not white straight college-graduate middle class men. I’m glad Wahls is making waves, and is “getting the message out,” but at what cost? (That’s a trick question. It’s at NO cost to him.) Okay. Rant over.

    On the positive, take my best friend for example. She is straight but not an ally. That’s right, her best friend is gay, but she actively DENIES being an ally—because in her eyes, I’m her friend; not her “ward” or “charge” to be defended.

    I quite like the idea of that—of friends, and best friends.

    At the end of the day, who am I to complain? If people want to support me, and my community, I should not be so persnickety as to how they identify. The important part is action, not vocabulary. Personally, I would prefer the whole “ally” business be put to rest, and we walk forward as “friends—” friends who support each other, but do not fight each other’s battles for one another.

    But social justice is never so tidy. As long as we are moving forward, I’m willing to accept misnomers and awkward tensions.

    • Neal – one word you use really sticks out to me as capturing the big problem with the term ally: ward. Whether or not ally is defined as a supporting figure, it has come to have really gross patronizing connotations. As a woman, I want men in the conversation about gender bias and misogyny, and I want them to act to prevent these things. But I do not want them speaking FOR me. It just recreates negative social power structures! I think it may be that the same thing has happened with this idea/term.
      As I think through this, two things keep coming up:
      1. Listen rather than speak, and act rather than speak.
      2. Whenever possible, check your privilege. I think it’s people who are clueless about their own privilege (which, well, is most of us) that have ruined this term.

      PS. I just was reading a thread about the recent Paula Deen scandal, and a black poster offered a white poster her/his “ally cookie” for speaking up and saying “me and all my white friends think this is so racist and horrible” or something like that. Made me laugh – perfectly captures the awkward tensions around this issue. That’s why I like the “listen and act” model.


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