Thursday, November 5, 2009

Why the term "ally" is not mine to apply

A stripey grey cat puts its face in its paws while a solid grey cat looks on. They sit on a wood ledge. Below, the text reads: "Tell me. Maybe Iz help."

When I was in a mostly-lesbian social circle in college, I claimed the label of ally to support my friends.* The term ally was fashionable - enough to be honored in the already-problematic acronym LBGTQ in most of our GSA’s publications. But one day, I began to wonder why the experiences of a heterosexual cis woman with a heterosexual cis boyfriend should be included in that acronym. Why should this conversation be about me, too?

My privilege socially elevates me above my peers, and the term ally centers and dismisses that privilege. If I claim the term, I’m saying that my privilege is no big deal, I’m in it to win it too! But I’m not in it to win it the way my trans, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and queer friends are. I’ve already won it. In the context of a conversation that should center oppressed folks, the very privilege that oppresses my friends is not just neutralized but beneficed with a special title.

While I’m not going to claim the term ally, I’m also not going to reject it. If an individual without cis or het privilege wants to apply that term to me, then that makes me happy. If they want to call me a bad ally to imply that I mean well but fuck up regularly, I’m not going to police their language with regard to harm on my part. My whole point is that it’s not my language to decide. The language that folks without privilege use in discussing their lack of privilege and others’ use of privilege is theirs to determine.

Are there cases where I see it as appropriate? Sure. My standards with regard to language are not universal, and I'm not saying you can't call yourself an ally. After all, it's not my word to apply or not apply to anyone. It can still be provocative in some contexts, and everyone has their own comfort level with regard to language. And I definitely think that people of privilege who are intimately impacted by lack of privilege – cis people in het relationships with trans partners, het cis children of non-het or non-cis parents – have enough of a stake to claim a special term. They are doing the daily, IRL work that I am not. I write or think about it on a daily basis – but I don’t have to.

Ally is not my word to apply – I can’t say that I am a good ally because I don’t feel the effects of my own actions. If I fuck up and don’t realize it and keep on calling myself a good ally, it’s another assertion of privilege. It’s saying that I am the one who gets to pat myself on the back, I am the arbitrator of effective support. And I’m not.

However, not claiming the word is also a bit of a privileged move on my part. It’s washing myself of the hurt and the harm of other well-meaning people of privilege. “Ally” carries weight that I need to recognize and remember – that I’m constantly able to fuck up and weaponize my privilege.

Working to support folks who are oppressed is not something that I see as enough to earn a trip to the cookie jar. I don’t get a special title – this isn’t feudal England, I’m not “The Goode Ally RMJ”. I’m just a cis, heterosexual, white woman who’s trying to be a good person, who’s not trying to fuck up – but who still has privilege that can’t be neutralized.

*Ally is used in other contexts, but since my experience with the term has mainly been in discussion about cis/het privilege, that’s how I’m framing this discussion.


  1. Oh. Wow. This.

    I cannot stand it when the A is tagged onto LGBT (or however you choose to expand the acronym).

    Being a recovering racist does not make me an honorary person of color. Oh, dear heavens, can you imagine the reactions I would get? And being a feminist does not make a man an honorary woman. "LGBT" should be no different. It's interesting that it seems to be the one issue where "allies" try to colonize the actual experience (rather than just dominate the movement). I think it maybe has something to do with queerness being seen (by those "allies") as a way to transgress social boundaries, maybe? (Thus, you know, totally erasing our actual experiences?)

    And don't get me started on the use of the phrase "I'm not gay but." Suffice to say that I consider any het (can't speak about cis/trans here) person who speaks out for LGB rights without prefacing EVERYTHING with "I'm not gay but" to be fully worthy of the title Ally.

    Great post, great lolcat.

    1. A is often "tagged" onto LGBT to include asexuals.

  2. This is completely tangential, probably, but I always thought the A was for asexual. It's definitely problematic that allies are included in the acronym, I would say.

  3. Hi Willow - I agree with everything you've said, but I thought I'd let you know re: I cannot stand it when the A is tagged onto LGBT (or however you choose to expand the acronym) that the "A" is usually meant to include those who identify as asexual, not allies.

    Not that I haven't seen it applied that way (often when GSA/LGBTQ organizations on high school and college campuses are trying to emphasize that they would welcome het members ;D), but in my experience that's not the way it's usually used.

    I mean, okay. In general I don't hear allies yelling "I'm an ally!" a lot, so I have no defensive position about the word, but that may just be that I'm close friends with, like, four heterosexual people and most of them assume I know they're pro-gay-rights.

  4. Hey all - thanks for pointing out about the initial A representing the asexual community, and apologies for the. I'll address that particular foul - up at further length tomorrow.

  5. Being a trans person, I respect that some people like RMJ really want to be allies and respect their intentions. That, at times, means patiently explaining one thing or another to them.

    I have learned that most of us are privileged in at least one way and "minority" in some other. I work in a place that's 80% black and am often praised for my "empathy" and
    "compassion." However, as a white woman--not to mention that I have an advanced education from respected institutions--I realize that I do have privilege that they don't share. And many of them have suffered in ways I can't even imagine. Then again, many people tell me they can't imagine what I've experienced.

    If you'll indulge me a cliche, all we can do is live and learn.

  6. Not sure if there's really a "usually" in this instance; it seems like at least anecdotally we're coming up with examples from both sides.

    I do want to add, though, that I've seen the A as representing Alliance, not Allies, which is actually a pretty big distinction--it refers to members of a group being allied together, rather than as outsiders (in this case, het folks) being allied with a marginalized group.

  7. "I’m constantly able to fuck up and weaponize my privilege."

    Nice turn of phrase. Good post.

  8. I believe the BGLTSA at Harvard uses the 'a' for allies, and I remember thinking it very problematic from an organisational perspective that straight people could join and theoretically take leadership positions.

    But, I do think it depends on the context in which the acronym is being used. Obviously talk about 'LGBTQA people' as victims of discrimination etc, with the A for allies, would be deeply problematic. But on a banner or as the name for a loose organisation it can be helpful as a reminder to the community it's not 'us v them' etc.

    Also, I love Justine's comment. Many of us are on the easy side of the majority/minority divide, or the oppressor/oppressed divide, in some areas even if we're queer/a woman/black etc.


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