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.