Why I Want You to Rethink Everything You Thought You Knew about Being An Ally

Since I entered my role as CEO at The Network, I’ve been doing a lot of studying, observing, and reflecting, on the kinds of trainings and programming we provide, the aims of the programming, the tools we use, and the outcomes we attain. We do some great things. There are also some major gaps. In 2015, we’re working on addressing some of those (we have a really great new board member who’s doing some amazing stuff to build up our social and support groups, for instance), and they teach us (and I mean us, not our straight allies) a lot about how to think critically about LGBTQIA+ challenges in 2015.

One new program we created is called Our Narratives – it’s the beginnings of an educational arm of the Network built around the idea that identity ownership is pivotal to the LGBTQIA+ struggle. We started with a first program based around the premise that our identity stories, or narratives, are one of the most powerful tools we have in advocating for change. Change could be big – changing the law or the policy of a large national or multi-national organization. It could be small – getting that one person in your class to actually get to know their queer peer instead of just making fun of her. That first event really overwhelmed us with just how powerful these stories are. My Teri, who led the facilitator group (while I hostessed), wrote about his experience of the event. Our outcomes data also showed that our people who did the program came in knowing who they were, but they didn’t understand how their own experiences related to the struggles of others (like an LGBT youth who is homeless, because he’s gay, may not know that 40% of homeless youth nationally are LGBTQIA+, and in Michigan, the number is more like 50%, even though probably only about 3-5% of people are LGBTQIA+). And they didn’t feel like they could relate their narratives to this broader story and use the combination to advocate for change. But Our Narratives impacted that. Our data suggests this is a trajectory alternating intervention – we are creating, together, an army of self-advocates and activists (apropos of that Smiths song, you don’t need an acoustic guitar, and what some activists look like might just surprise you*).


Girl loves her data.

But you know me – I just get radicaler and radicaler**. So two conversations sort of reached a confluence in what we’re doing next, at the end of January. First, we had a number of straight allies who wanted to be a part of Our Narratives. This brought up a lot of touchy conversations. And some boorish behavior – like straight allies who wanted us to stop our conversations and explain readily google-able terms***, like “cisgender.” But, ultimately, also, a respect on both “sides” that we needed to start with a space that was completely safe for LGBT people to tell stories about being LGBT people. Also, there’s this thing. We don’t disrespect the fact that our allies put themselves on the line in being our allies. But you would have limited patience for me (this is the relevant forewarning) if I advocated for change based on how difficult my path is being friends and allies with, say, black women. You might even find that offensive – not that it mightn’t be hard, occasionally, politically, for me to be friends with people who are marginalized, or cost me a couple of invitations to tea**** – but seriously, I ought to get over myself on that count pretty readily, and that story wouldn’t really move you to action. So if we want straight allies to participate in Our Narratives, we can teach them the general concept of using one’s own narrative to advocate for change, but we really can’t justify our space being co-opted for some purpose other than telling stories that center on the lived experience of LGBT people. That’s because The Network, and spaces like it, are by, of, and for LGBT people. And straight people, who feel like they don’t have a space of their own, should look, at, seriously, the world. That’s your space. It’s all yours – and in contrast, we’re the ones who frequently lack safe spaces.

The second conversation was starting to get constructive about what being an ally means. And for that, I’m going to need a diagram*****.

The solid lines mean that the group (in grey) serves to strengthen the system (in color). The dotted lines means the group serves to undermine the system.

The solid lines mean that the group (in grey) serves to strengthen the system (in color). The dotted lines means the group serves to undermine the system.

This is actually a really general concept, this business of what an ally is and should be. We live amidst Systems of Oppression – the patriarchy (or the heteropatriarchy or the cispatriarchy, if you prefer) is one, but just one. A System of Oppression is a process that keeps people marginalized. Notice, she said process. Not a person. Not a group of people. It’s a process. I purposely made all the groups of people in my version of this model grey. Because patriarchy is not synonymous with men. Heterosexism is not synonymous with straight people. White privilege is not synonymous with white people. However, all people – all people, and this is the radical part of the message – play, in any given situation, one of four roles (the names of the roles are negotiable, but not really the point – as my behaviorist friends taught me, it’s the function of the behavior and not the topography) in a system of oppression. They are oppressors, meaning they are in the advantaged group, and their actions maintain the system of oppression and frustrate the empowerment of the marginalized community. They are accomplices, meaning they are in the marginalized group, but their actions nonetheless help the oppressors maintain oppression and frustrate empowerment. Or they’re activists, meaning members of a marginalized community whose actions break down oppression and build empowerment. Or, finally, and this is the point that’s relevant to this story, they’re allies, who are members of an advantaged group who help activists break down oppression and build empowerment. It’s very important, however, that this concept cannot be explained by breaking people down into less than four groups. The role of an activist and the role of an ally is not the same role. Also, again, taking a cue from my behaviorist friends, in this model, a person being an ally is defined based on the function of their behavior – not what it looks like, and particularly, not just calling themselves an “ally.” You don’t get to call yourself an ally. You get to act like an ally, and we’ll call you an ally when we (that is, assuming, I am we) see it. And when you call yourself an ally, but your actions maintain oppression or marginalization, you’re not an ally. You’re functioning as an oppressor, whether you like it, or not.

Again, this model is broad. It applies to you, if you want to be my ally in trans empowerment, whether you are trans or not. It applies to me, when I’m allying with impoverished people as an affluent person. It applies to gay people who are allies in empowering the bisexual or pansexual communities. It breaks down the binary****** that classifies people as LGBTQIA+ or as straight allies, and instead, points out that, dynamically, we all play all four roles in this diagram, at different times and in the contexts of different systems of oppression.

And this is the part where it gets radicaler, yet. One of the things we want to confront with this workshop is that LGBTQIA+ people, all too often, make terrible allies. Lesbians and gay men make terrible allies to trans people, sometimes. Trans women make terrible allies to trans men and genderqueer / gender fluid / non-binary people, sometimes. The whole LGBT make pretty terrible allies to the asexual/aromantic community, rather frequently. And we end up in adversarial relations that push us into being bad allies to marginalized ethnic communities, too. So this isn’t (just) a workshop that is designed to make better allies (to the LGBTQIA+ community) out of straight people. It’s a workshop designed to help us all be better allies, and to help us all understand that, by exposing the dynamical process above, we can learn to be critical about when we are being an ally, and when we are being an oppressor.

Then, we have a choice. We can get defensive, and keep yelling over the voices of the oppressed, that we are their “allies,” or we can accept the problem, and we can correct it. And you don’t need a footnote to know which answer I think we should be adopting. So that’s the intro to what we’re up to next. If you’re in Grand Rapids, I hope you join us for it. Whether you’re here or not, I hope you join me as I learn to stop being an accomplice or an oppressor, keep being an activist, and start being an ally.

* The revolution is wearing heels (although not at this very moment) – which is something else I want to write much more about – how we successfully disentangle and own femininity, as feminine people, and how femininity can exist freely and proudly as something other than a means of oppression used by the patriarchy.

** No, Autocorrect, I do not mean ridiculer. For god’s sake, stop oppressing me.

*** Seriously, people, Google is a fierce thing and perhaps ultimately a horseman of the apocalypse, but when you Google cisgender, you don’t even have to pick a link to click. The definition is right there on the page in front of your eyes! It’s like magic. Srsly. Also, just as an aside by way of an aside, I don’t care if being called cisgender makes you feel uncomfortable. I’m not angry – if you know me, you know my experience from day to day is predominantly elemental joy. But if you really want to compare your discomfort at having to recognize that you’re not transgender to my having to pretend to be a boy and a man for 38 years, you can just tap on over to another blog.

**** Okay, seriously, I have a hard time even finding time for tea… and I’m not so bourgeoisie as all that… she says as she types on her fancy Macbook, leaving a fragrance of ambiguity lingering in the air of this footnote.

***** Because real feminists use diagrams, thus breaking down the gender binary that says that men are visual thinkers and us ladies are verbal / emotive or (more frequently) irrational. Also just because I can. And I give credit to my peep Amanda Niven, from whom I originally learned and subsequently stole this simple but informative model.

****** Careful readers and people who know me well will, at this point, be completely unable to stifle some sort of titter, snort, or open laughter, at the idea of me breaking down the binary, but here we are.

Why I Kind of Hate Calls to Signal Amplify

I hope this doesn’t come off as catty or self-absorbed. Okay. So I probably am both. I kind of hate calls to signal amplify. My intersectionalism card is sitting on the table, and I’ll give you the scissors, and you decide if you want to cut it up or not.

A little background from my particular perspective. I’ve survived a few decades of this rather awkward drag show in which I’ve been pretending to be a man, and feeling ridiculous, like when those women in bad comedy movies paint goatees on with makeup. But this experience is different for each of us. For me, although I knew really well the extent to which I was supposed to hide my feelings and particularly my fear or suffering, I just didn’t really have the heart to do it. I’ve been outright bullied, with non-metaphorical bruises to show for it, but much moreso, my childhood is littered with experiences where I tried to feel, publicly, even maybe complain or whine a little bit (not a lot, I’ve never needed to complain a lot), and this was met essentially with responses that boil down to, “Oh, your problems matter, but mine are worse. You should stop talking and listen to me, and when I don’t have any problems that are worse than yours, then it will be your turn.” Of course, my turn never seems to come up, and my friends and loved ones seemed to be blessed/cursed in such a way that it was always their day to suffer.

I feel that calls to signal amplify are very similar. There’s a phenomenon in our community that, as soon as some of us (and I believe this is often/usually directed against feminine people in the advocacy world) want to tell our own stories, we are hastily interrupted, a few words in, to “signal amplify,” because people who have it worse by virtue of their poverty, being in an oppressed ethnic minority, or being in another category targeted by the patriarchy for oppression. My experience is things like being pretty & stylish, and also smart or talented, seem to very quickly elicit calls to stop talking and start signal amplifying.

A couple of my own experiences. One person in the community, within a day or two of knowing me, comfortably told me, in essence, that I should empty my retirement accounts and give all my money to a loose acquaintance who feels that their transition is held up by lack of access to facial feminization surgery (if you’re not transfeminine, and you want to experience myocardial infarction, look up what that costs). Amazingly, this was the very first thing they suggested when I whined (no, emoted – I’m allowed to emote) that I didn’t know how to help this particular friend at this particular part of her struggle, because at the time, she was very negativistic and brushed off my attempts to empathize, listen, or even engage her in fun. Another person (I’m still friends with both the struggling person and this next person, for what it’s worth, and I have largely gotten over myself and found ways to connect and relate with them both) once came to my book club because we were reading Jenny Boylan’s book, and she felt Jenny’s voice should be silenced and replaced with voices of trans women who struggle more, because the fact that she is happy is unhelpful. Au contraire, ma sœur, these stories of happy trans women are what gave me the courage to finally start transitioning, what allowed me to survive. They mattered to me. bullhorn-muzzle

It may surprise you to note only one of these is designed
to amplify people’s voices. No, it’s not the muzzle

And here’s where it gets sticky, and you’ll have to decide if you’re going to out me as a faux intersectionalist. I do believe in the intersecting lines of oppression. I am cognizant of the fact that I am well educated and affluent, and that, while I am not white (later, I’ll take on the tricky question, “Am I a trans woman of color?” but let me work my way up to that), I am not very much racially oppressed either. I am aware that when these advantages are added to others, it’s likely that it will be far easier for me to survive transition than it will be for many of my sisters. I’m aware that I go to TDOR and mourn and grieve and advocate and call for justice, but it’s not people quite like me who end up in those shallow graves. And I do experience some “survivor guilt” over all of this. But (no, BUT) the path to empowering all of us is not to arbitrarily select a group of people who are “privileged enough” and isolate them and invalidate or silence their stories. And the people who self-select as arbiters, who have somehow given themselves the right to switch on and off other people’s right to be considered oppressed enough to have a story, are not helping the cause.

And then finally, here’s the part where I valiantly try to snatch my intersectionalism card back before you cut it up. I don’t hate signal amplification as a broad concept. These stories of (more) oppressed people (than me) are so important. It’s a major problem that there are now a solid number of stories of people like me – affluent, educated, professional trans women, who have a route to being fairly readily acceptable in society – and there is still hardly any visibility of transmasculine stories, of genderqueer stories, of stories of people who are discriminated against because they will never be “pretty” enough to be socially acceptable. It’s a major problem that the victors write history, and in the small way that women like me “win,” you hear our stories and not the story of the woman who spent months or years trying to find a basic job as a trans person and finally had to de-transition (or maybe even tried to kill herself), or the story of the person sent to live on the streets, and certainly not enough of the story of how those poor women and men we celebrate on TDOR suffered.

Rather, I celebrate these stories when I hear them. I’ve learned to listen when I hear them and know that they are absent (for which I am ever thankful to our sister-in-arms, Gloria Steinem, she taught me how to listen), and I do seek them out. So I think this is different than the longstanding battle in feminism between ethnic minority and majority voices. There, the problem is active silencing of black and Latina women’s voices, over which affluent middle-class white woman views are shouted. I’m not shouting over anyone. I’m the one being silenced. And silencing me is not the way to add visibility to these stories. Invalidating me is not the way to validate them. And ultimately, we need to support these brothers and sisters to be brave and tell their own stories, listen and celebrate with them, and get their backs when trouble comes. Not stop telling our own stories and insert theirs in our places – because there’s no story I will ever be able to tell like I can tell my story. So the kind of “signal amplifying” that involves invalidating other people, it’s got to go. And all our stories, all our experience, the house of love and hurt that makes us a community, they all have to matter.