I have a strange and complex relationship with Pride month. There’s always a part of me that says, “If seeing a Coke ad with a rainbow flag makes some young kid feel accepted enough to come out, then it’s not a bad thing.” At the same time, I feel it’s also become a time where people pat themselves on the back for being ‘allies,’ for caring so much about the queer community, without ever really understanding what being an ally entails. Worse, I’ve started to feel that those same people, the ones that tell us on Twitter that they’re an ally because they placed a rainbow emoji after their name, are the reason we aren’t making more progress.
I acknowledge that’s quite the claim, and I promise I’ll explain, but, if you’ll allow me a moment, I want to talk about the difference between a good and bad ally. A good ally should use their power, their platform, their voice to help focus on the voices of others, while a bad ally focuses themselves, and talks about how much of an ally they are. This is an important but often subtle distinction, so let’s look at a clear example:
Consider a producer of a popular show, or another person who has a decently sized follower count (let’s assume 15k or higher) and can affect change in a work of media (hey, I write about media, so I’ll work with what I know). Look at the following tweets:
“Happy Pride! I care about LGBT voices in my work!”
“Happy Pride! We’re working to be more inclusive at our studio!”
If you look at these tweets, you’ll notice they are both about the author, not about gay people themselves. While the gesture is nice, this is someone who could, with just a few more words, be a real ally:
“As we celebrate pride, I’d like to discuss some of the improvements we’re making at our studio to ensure queer voices are represented. Here are some specific policies we plan to enact…”
“As part of pride, I’d like to share this tweet from one of my queer friends, who has written on issues affecting the gay community. I hope you’ll all take a moment to read it over.”
These tweets, instead of focusing the straight creator, focus on queer people. The person is using their platform not to elevate themselves, but instead to elevate others.
Not everyone needs to do this. Being a proper ally takes effort, and it’s not required. And nice sentiment is still nice (it’s certainly not harmful). And, as I said, there’s something to be said for normalized and broadly visible displays of acceptance.
I understand many straight people don’t really know what to say, so they chose the safe, easy option. And that’s fine too – no one is born with an innate knowledge of these issues (nor do you magically gain knowledge of these issues when you realize you’re gay, a fact even queer people sometimes forget).
But, if you care about this, if you really want to claim to be an ally, is it really that much harder to ask your gay friend, or coworker, or neighbor, “Hey, how can I be a good ally?”
And that frustrates me to no end; the amount of effort to go from “nice gesture,” to “ally” isn’t all that much. It’s easy to slap a rainbow on your news site, but it’s not that much harder to invite a queer writer to pen an article or two. It’s easy to write a vacuous tweet about how you stand with the gays, but it’s not that much harder to share a link to an LGBT charity. More effort? Certainly. Significantly more? Often no.
And, if you’ll forgive the generalization, it’s often these people, the ones that pat themselves on the back for doing the barest minimum, the ones who brag about their care of queer issues, who slow our progress. Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King wrote a passage in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail that I come back to often:
I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”
As a gay person who reports on media, I spend a lot of time wondering why we don’t see more gay people on TV, why gay portrayals are often so hurtful, and the answer is often simple: Dr. King was right.
The problem isn’t the overt homophobe, who hopefully isn’t welcomed by most, but the quiet one, the one who almost certainly believes they are a good ally, the creator who says “gay people, we see you,” only to remind us that change takes time. The person who doesn’t want to rock the boat. The person who could make it better for us, if they only lent us their voice, and allowed it to be used in our service instead of theirs.
So, I have some issues with this month, because I find, more often than not, the conversation isn’t focused on gay people like me. It’s about people who aren’t gay telling other people who aren’t gay how much they care about gay people. But it’s not hard to do better. This pride, take a moment and speak to a gay person. Read about an issue affecting us. Endeavor to learn something, and share that knowledge. Use your voice to help us. Then you’ll be a real ally.