Being an ally is never an easy thing. When we are in a position of privilege, with the power that comes with it, it’s not always easy to stand up and confront the microaggressions that we encounter from other people who assume we’re just like them because we might share a skin pigment or gender. If we’re going to claim that we’re allies of women, POC, or the LGBTQ+ community, then we need to start acting like it. And that means standing up to people even when it’s deeply uncomfortable. Maybe especially when it is.
Recently, I was sitting in a café, trying to work. I say trying because I was dealing with near constant interruptions, and I just wanted to get in my 5,000 words or so on my book before I needed to go pick up my son from school. There I was, quickly typing out a scene between two characters, when someone pulls out a chair at my table and sits right down across from me.
Now, I’m a white woman, closer now to 40 than 30. I was wearing a black shirt with black leggings, assorted jewelry, and makeup. I should have been blending in and working in peace. Instead, an elderly white gentleman sits across from me and picks a subject that he feels we might have in common: why the Boy Scouts have been ruined by “the gays.”
I instantly cringed, and I’ve never had much of a poker face. But he’d already committed to the topic. He continued on for a few minutes before switching to the loose values of young women in society and how girls are going on birth control as young as 16 when he feels it should at least be 21.
Now my wheels were busy turning, and I was torn between politely returning to my work, cringing in embarrassment for the awful things he was saying, and remembering my role as an ally. I’m not gay, but I do believe in championing the rights of others. There was no way that I could sit silently, but I also have a lot of compassion for other people and wanted to confront this bigotry head-on but without being aggressive. I worked my way backwards with the following statements:
If people can get married in some states as young as 16, why would you be opposed to birth control at that same age? Do you not believe that people should plan families so that they are able to afford them and won’t have to be supported by government aid? Do you not think that teen pregnancies should be prevented?
Why do you think it’s women who have loose values when men obviously have a role in these pregnancies? Why is it that women have to shoulder the burden of pregnancy and parenting when men absolve themselves of responsibility and often refuse to utilize contraceptives themselves? Why is it that the state refuses to hold men responsible for parental support but has so many statistics about birth control and pregnancy, as if we as women spontaneously impregnate ourselves? Perhaps we should be doing more comprehensive sex education at home and at schools rather than lecturing on “morality” and abstinence. And how about all the girls and women who use birth control for medical reasons?
Why shouldn’t gay people want to participate in Girl or Boy Scouts? Should they not have the same opportunities to participate in community activities? Do you not realize that being gay is not the same thing as being a pedophile? And, further, that gay people aren’t attracted to EVERYONE of the same sex?
You get the picture. I began to slowly unravel his line of bigotry because to sit silently and just ignore would mean that I’m not an ally; I just like to say I am.
Being an ally isn’t just sharing memes and raising awareness or throwing a few dollars to the cause. It’s not marching with women or at a Pride march. It’s more than just saying that we support human rights and voting for the better candidate. Being an ally means that we stand up to those who express their bigotry because they think we might be a safe space to share it.
We need to stop being a safe space for people to unload their prejudice. We need to send those racists and homophobes back into the closet they like to keep other people in. We need to let them know that we don’t agree with them, and when we’re silent, we’re as good as saying that we do. When we speak up and strongly disagree with their assertions, they may just lump us in with the kind of people with no morals, and I’m fine with that. Or they may just see that their reasoning isn’t sound.
He looked at me and saw someone who might agree that “the gays” have no place in the Scouts. He didn’t realize that I was sitting there as a “snowflake” willing to become an avalanche if that’s what is needed to create change. I didn’t respond to him with anger or aggression, but I passionately disputed every single one of his suppositions using reasoning and facts. I even invoked my post-graduate degree and training as a former child and family therapist. I fired away because I couldn’t sit silently and then put up another post that says that I support gay rights or women’s rights or anything else that matters if I’m not going to stand up for it in real life, in real time.
If you’re thinking that maybe I’m just comfortable confronting strangers, you’re wrong. I found it deeply uncomfortable and unsettling. I’m an introvert, and I didn’t want to seem unkind to an elderly man who came across as lonely and grasping to hold on to a world that was changing without him. But I couldn’t be silent because there was one time in my past when I was silent, when I sat awkwardly through an encounter that required that I speak up. It haunts me. I realized then that I was only pretending to be a supporter, but my actions showed a different story. I promised myself I would never sit silently again.
I saw a quote on an Instagram account about the fact that we can’t be allies if we have significant others who are homophobic. I’ve been in that position before, too. It really made me think about what it means to support others and how we all have to do better about furthering the rights of others, even if it’s not something that affects us at a personal level.
For women like me, that means standing with POC and the LGBTQ+ community. It means standing up and protecting the freedom of religion of faiths I don’t identify with. For men, it might mean standing up and being an ally for feminism—or better yet, in embracing the label of feminism for themselves, too. We can all do a better job of actually being allies, rather than just saying that we are.
I didn’t change his mind, in case you were wondering. I’m just another lost soul to him. But I know that I stood up for every child who wants to join Boy Scouts to earn a few merit badges in an organization that’s supposed to give a sense of community and support. I stood up for every girl who gets on birth control because she has a medical issue or simply doesn’t want an unplanned pregnancy, and for every single parent who has had to go it alone with little to no support. I called out a double standard and objected to his characterization of America getting so much worse when his day was so much better.
No one’s mind was changed. But I didn’t sit silently and let him think that I agreed either. Because I’m going to be a true ally—not just say I am one.
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