What does it take to be an ally? Hear it from this LGBTQIA+ rights activist
(This interview was first published on the Prajnya Trust’s Peace Blog.)
What do LGBTQIA+ people mean when they speak about allies? “An ally is a person who is a member of the dominant group who works to end oppression in his or her own personal and professional life by supporting and advocating with the oppressed population,” writes Shruti Venkatesh in the beautiful new e-book, How To Be A Great Ally, published earlier this year by a feminist, youth-led, non-profit organization called One Future Collective (OFC) headquartered in Mumbai.
The practice of allyship is not limited to cisgender-heterosexual people who want to support LGBTQIA+ folx but is spoken of in contexts of oppression based on race, caste, disability, ethnicity, and other identities. Let us look more deeply into what it means to be an ally to persons who are oppressed because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression or sex characteristics.
Here is an interview with Shruti, who is an LGBTQIA+ rights activist and Program Director of OFC’s Queer Resource Centre that is meant to “serve as a safe space for queer persons” and “build awareness and visibility for the queer community.”
Question: At the very outset, you have indicated that this book has grown out of your own experience of being surrounded by people who served as excellent examples of allyship. Would you like to speak a bit about that, and share what it has meant to you, so that our readers get a fuller sense of what allyship can do?
Answer: The queer community finds so much strength and acceptance in its allies. I would like to stress on the unparalleled value of childhood friends who offer unconditional love and support inspite of growing up with our younger, closeted selves. These are friendships that do not pressure us into coming out to them, and accept us with outstretched arms when the time is right, not to mention experiencing no change in the intensity of such relationships as a result of our sexualities. This sort of allyship truly helps us ease into our identities, and also normalises it for us during chaotic and troubling times. The overwhelming relief of knowing we have other roofs and open doors during periods of uncertainty cannot be emphasised enough.
Question: Let’s examine the idea of allyship in some more detail. In the book, you have stated, “Many who consider themselves to be allies to the LGBTQ+ community engage in several counterproductive behaviours, making queer people feel uncomfortable or overshadowed.” Could you please share examples of some such behaviours so that our readers can avoid them?
Answer: The intention versus impact debate really comes into play here. Not everything that allies do may be empowering to the LGBTQIA+ community. They might truly wish to support queer persons, however it is important that they keep in check how their statements and behaviours may actually affect the community. They need to understand the difference between admiration and objectification of queer persons. Also, allyship must extend beyond supporting only queer people who fit certain societal standards of appearance and desirability. Many times, allyship is also only centred around queer celebrities who are usually white people and not queer persons of colour. A similar issue is of fetishising queer women. Good allyship excludes any and all forms of sexualisation of queer women.
I have also often noticed that certain behaviours end up creating an unpleasant atmosphere for queer persons, especially in environments which are meant to serve as safe spaces for the community. For example, I see an overwhelming number of cis-het persons attending pride parties. I am thrilled to know that our allies are happy to celebrate with us but they must keep in mind that this should be done respectfully. At such events, I have often had personal encounters with cis-het people who are strangers being overly touchy and intrusive of my personal space. I have tried expressing my discomfort as well in these scenarios but the usual response I receive is, “Don’t worry, I am straight”. Does this imply that just because their orientation does not involve an attraction towards my gender, they are allowed to make me uncomfortable? While I appreciate the love and support from allies, they must be mindful and respectful in their expression.
One of the common phrases I hear is, “Oh, you could pass off as straight!” or “I would have never been able to tell that the person is trans.” Rating queer persons as how well they pass can be really insensitive. The tone is usually of pleasant surprise, which indirectly appreciates them for not looking similar to ‘typical’ gay, trans or non-binary people. Does that mean it is insulting or derogatory to look like anything other than what a ‘typical’ cisgender or heterosexual person looks like?
Allies must also not ask queer persons to “toughen up” or not be “too triggered” if an anti-LBGTQIA+ joke or remark is made. It is not our responsibility to take everything in our stride. Slurs and mockery of queer people needs to end, and allies must support this. If called out, allies should also not use the excuse of having best friends, siblings or relatives who are queer. If that is the case, they should be even more sensitised to subtle homophobia and its impact.
Allies can try to understand that it is not okay to make blanket statements, and pass them off as harmless opinions. These opinions often hurt queer sentiments. For example, I was recently at an event where a cisgender heterosexual woman strongly insisted that we must do away with the term ‘queer’ because its literal meaning is ‘strange’, and it has historically been used as a slur. A queer woman responded saying that the community has reclaimed the term, and that heterosexuals often feel entitled to dictate what queer persons must do. Although the intentions of the former may have been positive, the tone and language created an unintended negative impact.
Allies usually do not think twice before they ask queer persons — who they may not know personally — whether their families accept them. Much of the Indian LGBTQIA+ community struggles with familial acceptance, and it might be quite triggering to have to answer this question to unfamiliar people. Besides, most queer persons do not open up about familial non-acceptance for much of their lives. Hence, it is also important for allies to keep their curiosity in check, and let queer persons willingly and voluntarily broach certain subjects.
At the end of the day, there is no perfect ally. We are all at different levels of allyship. For the most part, it is your empathy, compassion and respect that will make the greatest difference.
Question: I appreciate your emphasis on using preferred pronouns, and was wondering how it could be more responsive to the needs of individuals who speak languages other than English. What do you think?
Answer: Studies show that gender inclusive language can help reduce long standing gender inequities, and contribute to the promotion of gender and LGBTQIA+ equality and tolerance. Using people’s preferred pronouns will also improve their psychological well-being, and allies can really help reduce the poor effects of repeated mispronouning. Such positive impacts direct us to believe that we must definitely use people’s preferred pronouns, and this should not stop with English. Everybody should be able to benefit from being addressed the way they wish to be addressed.
A common factor in many languages such as Tamil, Bengali and Marathi is that typically plural pronouns are also used in the singular form while conveying respect to the said person. This immediately shuts down popular arguments against gender neutral pronouns — that they are inconvenient to use, or that they do not follow the correct grammatical rules. When the practice of applying plural pronouns to individuals already exists, although in a different cultural context, I believe it would be fantastic to apply them to persons who prefer gender neutral pronouns as well.
That being said, of course, not everything needs to depend on cis-het convenience. Languages and states should coin their own gender neutral pronouns if they inherently lack them. There also exists a particular research which aims at conceptualising gay affirmative practice in India. Very interestingly, one of the counselors mentions the need to create positive, queer affirmative words for trans persons by using pronouns which are usually used to address someone with respect as prefixes to words that translate to either Male-to-Female (MTF) or Female-to-Male (FTM).
For example, in Tamil:
Nangai — MTF
Tiru — Used to address a person with respect
Word created: Tirunangai
Nambi — FTM
Tiru — Used to address a person with respect
Word created: Tirunambi
The counselor emphasises that such words are extremely affirming in nature, and help queer persons tackle internalised homophobia. Although trans friendly, these words are not gender neutral. However, what we need to note is that using similar gender neutral pronouns which have connotations of respect may bring along the added advantage of queer affirmation.
Question: Your book suggests that allies should be sensitive while asking questions that may be more personal than others. If we go with the idea that people vary in their intuitive understanding of what is personal and what is not, what are some questions that are best avoided?
Answer: A lot here also depends on the relationship an ally shares with the person in question. For example, if a trans person with a mum who is a very supportive ally is considering gender affirmation surgery, then it is reasonable for their mum to ask them questions regarding the same. However, it can definitely be intrusive for a stranger or acquaintance to do so.
I feel that, generally speaking, certain questions regarding genitalia, sex, surgeries/therapies, instances of homophobia, abuse etc. should be left only to the person in question to speak about or not. Similarly, depending on the relationship one shares, it is important to avoid blatantly demanding to know about the person’s familial acceptance, when they came out, how they came out, etc.
One thing important to understand here is that queer folx are usually assigned the responsibility of educating others about their gender, sexuality, and even bodies. This is inherently wrong. Unless they are willing to share more information about their identities, or have chosen professions which require them to do so, queer people are not responsible for educating others merely because they are queer.
Question: It would be great if you could also give examples of ways in which questions can be sensitively framed even when the information being sought is personal. Imagine that the ally in this case is a teacher.
Answer: Teachers could frame these questions in a manner that also allows their queer students to refrain from answering if they feel like it. For example: “Would you like to speak about xyz? Feel free to let me know if I’m overstepping or if you’d like to refrain from answering.” If they are aware of the student’s pronouns, they can be mindful as to not mispronoun them while asking these questions.
Teachers should also avoid assuming genders and sexualities. They could begin the year with activities and introductions that include the preferred pronouns of their students.
If a student comes out to a teacher, the teacher could thank the student for confiding in them and should ask them if they can be of any help. The teacher must ensure that this does not become staffroom conversation as it would greatly affect the child. The teacher could also offer to introduce the student to the in-house counselor, in case the student is having a hard time dealing with their sexuality. This is something many people at a younger age go through. The teacher should keep in mind that the student’s family may or may not know of the child’s sexuality. It is important to maintain confidentiality considering the psychological and physical safety of the child.
Question: It’s one thing to embrace a queer student when they come out, and a totally different thing when the teacher is expected to show support in more public ways. What your book is saying to me, without explicitly saying so, is that allyship is not only about respect, care and protection in a low-key manner. It is a political choice, and the ally must be willing to show up and stand up whenever needed. Am I reading this in the way you intended?
Answer: With a strict focus on teachers, I think it goes without saying that it is their primary responsibility to shield the child against any form of bullying, keeping their political stance aside. Teachers must understand that LGBTQIA+ students are much more at risk when it comes to bullying as homophobia is extremely prevalent in schools. Teachers must definitely intervene when necessary, and make it explicitly clear that homophobic language and any form of physical and sexual violence will not be tolerated.
They should also create an equitable learning environment in which queer students can thrive. Teachers should be as inclusive as possible, even with their teaching techniques. They should try to provide adequate queer representation through examples, storytelling, audio-visual material, etc. Rates of depression, anxiety and suicide are disturbingly high amongst LGBTQIA+ youth and school going children. Teachers play a huge role in being strong support systems.
Question: I am glad you have pointed out in the book that many straight people do not advocate for the queer community because they are afraid of being thought of as gay. Is it possible to be an ally without openly challenging heteronormative structures in society? What are your thoughts on this? Do LGBTQ+ folx need to take on the additional task of making allies feel safe in their allyship?
Answer: I definitely feel that allies must attempt to fight homophobia as much as they can. Having said that, not all allies are the same. It isn’t necessary that each ally must loudly prove their support. For example, I know of allies whose families may even go as far as physically abusing them if they spoke in support of the LGBTQIA+ community. In such scenarios, we definitely cannot expect them to put themselves at risk. I do see the same allies lend a helping hand to our community in whatever capacity they are able to, and challenging heteronormative structures in spaces other than their homes. Hence, there is no definitive allyship.
The queer community greatly appreciates allyship. Allies have supported our movement for so many decades, and are willing to do so until we finally reach equality. Our expression of gratitude can definitely include standing up for our allies at times when they may be looking for help. However, I would not say that this should particularly be one of our added responsibilities.
Question: In countries like the United States of America and Canada, a large number of students go to schools that have gay-straight alliances (GSAs) run by students and supported by teachers. Would you say that India could benefit from a model like that? What can be done in our country to create institutional structures that encourage allyship from an early age?
Answer: GSAs are amazing! Indian students can benefit from a similar model. Having GSAs in schools improves students’ sense of safety, and allies can also become more aware. Questioning students have a great place to go to, which will provide plenty of resources to help them out. Besides, knowing that your teachers are affirming sources in your life can create an extremely accepting and warm school atmosphere. This is something many queer students in India are painfully deprived of. GSAs help to begin dialogues about much ignored topics like safe sex, mental health, bullying, etc.
To ensure inclusivity and encourage allyship, schools and college can provide queer specific counselling services in safe and accessible environments, resource centres and libraries inclusive of queer literature and history, gender neutral bathrooms and gender neutral campus housing, queer faculty members, free sexuality education, free sexual health supplies and active pride circles.
Question: Your book speaks of allyship mainly in terms of gender identity and sexual orientation. However, religion, caste, class and disability play a huge role in shaping the life experiences of queer folx. If you were to look at allyship from a more intersectional lens, would this be a different book? For instance, heterosexual people who proudly go to pride marches might be completely opposed to inter-caste marriage. Would you call them allies if their allyship does not include queer folx who identify as Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi?
Answer: I think looking at intersectionality is pivotal, especially in a country like India. I fully agree that queer lives are shaped by various such factors. For example, one of your earlier questions beautifully points out the need and use of preferred pronouns in languages other than English.
The idea of this book was to establish a base we can build upon. I think intersections are extremely important to dive into once readers are familiar with queer terminologies and definitions. I have known allies who are seemingly supportive of the community but are also repulsed by HIV+ queer folx. I think, in such instances, allyship almost becomes pointless.
Allyship should be all-inclusive, and must offer unconditional support. We are eagerly looking forward to exploring allyship in much more depth, and providing a specific Indian context to this, in the next edition of this book.