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