Archive for May, 2009


Who’s an Ally?

There’s a push to institute semi-mandatory Safezone training at the university I’m at; as a leader of the most visible (to the administration, anyway) GLBTQ student group on campus, I’ve been talking about the initial stages with the folks working on it. So far there’ve been some pilot trainings for staff and faculty.
Safezone training, for those who don’t know, is basically LGBTQ awareness training: terminology, some basic identity stuff, how to be respectful, and the particular coordinator the Cultural Center brought in had folks doing some ‘coming out’ activities that put them in the shoes of a young LGBT person. I heard from a Gender and Women’s Studies (GWST) professor (Superprof), who should know, that these activities were among the more lightbulb-moment parts of the meetings. The more advanced sessions had a panel discussion, more sharing, and went into more detail.
Now, what traditionally happens with ‘real’ Safezone training is, they hand out stickers to the folks who complete it and identify themselves as allies of the LGBTQ community, which are put in office windows, classroom doors, etc. Problem is, the people who want to ‘cure’ us think they’re helping, and if they’re helping they must be allies, right?
The pat answer here is ‘Wrong’. But what does that mean in terms of solutions? It means someone makes a judgment call on whether someone else is an ally or not. Someone gets to decide whether another person’s activism (and thereby part of their outward-expressed identity) is valid.

Let’s repeat that in boldface, with some extra linespaceing, because I think it’s skeevy: Someone decides whether another person’s identity is valid.

And who is making this decision? The Cultural Center coordinators, who are by their own admission straight and need help and information on how to represent the LGBTQ community? Students who are members of the community, who may or may not be attending faculty/staff meetings, may or may not be comfortable self-identifying, may or may not actually know the faculty/staff in question? Does the list get run through HR and Admissions, compared to outside affiliations and resumes, do folk need to provide references? Do they need to prove themselves by wearing a pink triangle on their arm for a week? Do they write a paper?
Or, do we let anyone completing the training have an official ally designation, and find out later that they ‘helped’ a student into reparative therapy? Do we then revoke their Safezone sticker?
I brought this up at the review meeting recently, and no one was able to give an answer. I may simply not have enough details on what the pilot meetings included, but gah.

Is there an exclusive definition of ‘ally’, some prerequisite that must be filled? And are all allies equal? Is ‘ally’ really an identity?
My working definition of ‘ally’ in the context here is anyone who supports someone who identified differently than them: heterosexual folk supporting non-heterosexual folk, cisgender people supporting transpeople, and I throw in vanilla folk supporting kinky folk because that’s part of my identity and I like having allies. So, there are different levels of support: the spectrum between not beating on the queer kid and active intervention at some cost to one’s self. But where’s the line? Is there a line? Are people who accept LGBTQ folks allies, but those who merely tolerate are not? Does it require activism and emotional support, or is mere indifference enough? Is the statement ‘I am an ally of the LGBTQ community’ itself an act of alliance by dint of its confrontational nature? What amount of a person’s actions need to be classified as supportive for them to be considered an ally by the community they ally themselves to?

What are the ramifications of allowing people to identify as something, when the assumptions of support that come with it can end in harm? More importantly, who gets to decide?

One of the solutions I’ve been tossing around my head is defining a spectrum from “ally” to “advocate” — sort of a Kinsey scale of understanding/action/outreach/support. (Insert rant on definitions and labels here… as always.)