Striving to be in allyship

December 5, 2016

by CJ Rowe

I came upon a sign posted outside of a local bar while walking around Seattle recently. The sign read:

15321651_10154319326713049_510437851_oThe sign signals to me an intent that the folks operating a space are hoping to create a safer space for a diverse community of folks. The downside is that it might over promise and under deliver.

How do you ensure that a space is safe? How do you work towards generating the awareness of everyone in the space to step up when racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia or general hatefulness arises?

The tricky thing about this behaviour is that it’s learned. It’s held deep in our bodies, minds and hearts because it’s infused in the world around us. It’s pervasive. We might not see it unless we are directly impacted by it. Growing up I remember hearing this schoolyard song “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” and, that’s just not true.  

In the early 90s, before I came out, the biggest barrier and the most homophobic person I had to face was myself. My own internalized homophobia was powerful and silencing. It took a lot of work for me to find acceptance and even develop love for myself. I witnessed homophobia all around me; sentiments expressed by loved ones, news media and friends. Their remarks only pushed me deeper into that closet because I felt like I couldn’t chance loosing any of them.

Which brings me back to the sign above: How do we engage in the labour it takes to work towards being an ally? To build and hold safer spaces?

I use ally as a verb. It’s an identity that we can’t claim as our own but is a term that is given to us by people we are striving to be in allyship with. For example, my big sister is one of my biggest allies. She tries really hard to be there with me and stand up for me and other queer and trans folks when we are and aren’t around. She’s beautifully imperfect at this, and I love her to bits, but she can’t claim to be an ally. She can, however, say that she tries really hard to be in allyship with me.

One thing many of us have noticed since the US election is that we seem to be entering a political climate where some people are expressing hate in ways we as a society haven’t seen in a long time. I’m not saying that this behaviour is new, what I am saying is that people are experiencing hateful and hurtful comments more regularly and much more overtly than ever before. While we encourage freedom of expression, hate speech, harassment and discrimination are something entirely different. I see this shift as one that has to engage all of us now to step up when individuals and groups are targeted by hate. This is one of the ways that the sentiment expressed in the sign above can be lived up to.

How do we do this?

We learn and make a commitment to ongoing learning and unlearning because this kind of work takes a lifetime. If you can opt out of this learning, you are probably experiencing some form of privilege that others don’t have the opportunity to opt out of. These are conversations and experiences that some of us live each and every day.

There are many resources to draw from when we think about how to work towards being an ally.

One example is the cartoon developed by Paris-based illustrator, Maeril created a useful guide to encourage people to become active bystanders to step in when Muslims are targeted because of their faith. This is an approach that can be used in any instance where a person might be the target of hurtful, hateful, harassing and discriminatory behaviour in public.

Another example is MIT’s bystander intervention strategies.

Next month, I’ll share with you tips and strategies shared with me on my personal Facebook page. Stay tuned!