3 Qualities of Being an Ally

The idea of being an ally is alluring to most of us, right? We want to be helpful, respectful human beings. We want to show our support. We want to do the best we know how to do.

And sometimes it’s hard to know where to start.

The amount of information to know can seem absolutely overwhelming.

The lists on the internet that identify the top 150 ways you can be an ally are, well, actually overwhelming.

And there’s often this all or nothing kind of attitude that comes with those listsyou must do and be all 150 things or you’re no ally!

No wonder it often feels daunting.

A phrase you’ll see around my website and in my trainings is one that keeps me gentle with myself and other people: we all start at the beginning.

All of us.

So, let’s reframe allyship as a journey. A process. An evolution.

Before a recent presentation, I was introduced to a fantastic booklet that PFLAG publishes called Guide to Being a Trans Ally. It talks about the qualities of an ally, which include:

  • Allies want to learn.
    • Please note that this quality doesn’t say: allies know everything already. Because no one does. But allies know that there are many things that they don’t knowthat they’d like to knowand there is an authentic desire to grow and learn.

  • Allies address their barriers.
    • Has any process that involved learning a new skill or pushed you to grow ever been easy? Not that every new learning opportunity has to be overwhelmingly difficult, but growth is about stretching into aspects of ourselves yet uncharted. It means being uncomfortable sometimes. It means having to examine some of the stuff that comes up as a result of the growthold belief systems, biases, ways we’ve been holding ourselves back. Allies know that stuff is going to come up during their evolution, and they’re willing to address the stuff that comes up. Even if it’s hard. Even if it’s not very pretty.

  • Allies are diverse and know that support comes in many forms.
    • The exciting (and freeing, in my opinion) thing about allyship is the range of what being an ally looks like. There are the allies who want to plaster themselves in rainbows and head to the pride parades. There are the allies who ask new people what pronouns they use. There are the allies who speak up when one of their friends makes a transphobic joke. There are the allies who are beginning to learn the language and concepts relevant to trans lives and experiences because they know it’s important. They might have even recently picked up a book written by a trans author at the library. See the range there? Freeing, right?

All of that being said, it might be helpful to view allyship as a spectrum. What’s nice about this model is that it allows for folks to be in different places and really recognize the process of being an ally as one of learning and evolution. It recognizes that it’s important to have people at all different levels of allyship, and it allows people agency in their own process and identity as an ally.

At one end of the ally spectrum is the “it’s not my issue, but I guess I’ll listen to you” ally; at the other end of the spectrum is the super allythe one who is ready to march into the legislator’s office to change some laws. And there are so many places in between!

The beautiful thing is that diversity and range are important! We don’t need every ally to be marching into the legislator’s office demanding law change. We also need people to be doing the more subtle ally workbeing willing to have important conversations, to challenge other people on their language and assumptions, to ask someone about their pronouns.

Just as with any discussion about labels and identity politics, some of you may be wondering: why do I need to label myself as an ally? Can’t I just be that person silently supporting in the background?

Absolutely, you can! And also: we live in a world where language is extremely important.

I love what PFLAG has to say here about this very issue:

To us, identifying as an ally isn’t a label—it is a term of empowerment. It is a state of being, an explanation of who someone is, and where their values lie. It communicates key things that matter to them—LGBTQ equality, care for their LGBTQ friends, family, and colleagues—in a powerful way. It is a vocal and positive stand that clarifies an important point: while I may not be LGBTQ, LGBTQ issues are my issues, too.

And applied specifically to my work: while I may not be trans or gender nonconforming, issues relevant to trans and gender nonconforming communities are my issues too.

Trans allies are extremely important.

It takes some of the burden of self-advocacy off of trans and gender nonconforming folks.

Trans allies model what it means to respect and dignify these communities.

Some concrete examples:

  • If you’re planning a gathering or get togetherwhether at work or for social purposesthink ahead about the venue you choose: does this establishment have a gender-neutral bathroom option?

  • Is your workplace culture one where everyone is given the option to state their pronouns before starting a meeting, regardless of whether or not there are trans or gender nonconforming folks on staff?

  • Does your intake or new employee paperwork have an option for someone’s preferred or chosen name?

These are seemingly small things but can make a huge difference in the life of someone who is trans or gender nonconforming.

When someone else besides the trans or gender nonconforming person(s) considers what it might be like to move through the world as a trans or gender nonconforming person, it can mean a great deal.

A huge deal actually.

I know that being an ally isn’t always easy. We all have barriers that come up for us on our journey to being an ally. In my next post, we’ll explore some of those barriers and strategies for moving through them.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you:

  • Where would you place yourself on the ally spectrum?
  • Does anything come up for you around using the term “ally”?
  • What have been some of the celebrations and challenges on your ally journey so far?

Let us know in the comments below—it’s super helpful to hear other people’s experiences as we’re learning and growing. 

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