So you’re looking to be a better ally to the LGBTQIA+ community.
Maybe your partner or someone close to you is queer. Maybe you’re tired of seeing abundant rainbow flags accompanied with mediocre allyship, like I am. Maybe you just want to be a decent human being and support the rights of your lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, questioning, intersex, and asexual friends to exist! No matter what your reasons are, I’m personally proud of you for doing your part in ensuring that everybody feels welcome in our society.
At the time of writing, I’ve been out as pansexual for seven years, as gender nonconforming for one year, and as a transgender male for a little less than a month. In all of that time, I’ve met a lot of allies who have asked me what they can do to be better supporters of the queer community. After being out, especially as a trans person, I’ve noticed a lot of nuanced ways in which allies can step it up.
Refer to all people using they/them pronouns until you actually know their pronouns
As someone who uses pronouns that don’t match his outward appearance, I’ve come to expect that people I don’t know will misgender me 100% of the time.
I know that there’s a learning curve when it comes to using a person’s pronouns, especially if their gender presentation is at odds with what they identify as. That’s why it feels so unbelievably nice when I’m out in public and hear people refer to me as “they”, or ask me for my pronouns, before referring to me in the third person.
Seriously, it feels even better than finding out that the one dress I’ve had my eye on forever is suddenly 50% off.
The other day, I was at a new doctor’s office in downtown San Francisco. Instead of saying “hello, ma’am,” the receptionist greeted me with a friendly “hey there,” and used they/them pronouns for me until they got my preferred pronouns from the sheet I filled out. I was so pleasantly surprised that I almost forgot that I was sick.
I do use some gendered terms in my essays in order to distinguish between the people I’m talking about (“the lady in the seat next to me,” “the guy on the corner”, etc). However, when talking about a person in real life, I always make sure to use they/them pronouns until I know which pronouns they prefer.
Use a gender-neutral term for any group of people, even if they all appear to be the same gender
I can’t tell you how many times I was out with a group of femme-presenting people, only to have someone refer to all of us as “ladies”, “girls”, etc.
For some reason, this one tends to really raise people’s hackles when I bring it up. “Ladies” is just a word! “Gentlemen” is just a word! People shouldn’t be so hung up on that sort of shit. Plus, “guys” is gender neutral … isn’t it?
“Guys” may colloquially be used as a gender-neutral term, but it reinforces the idea that the masculine versions of words (such as “guys,” “chairman,” “actor”) are gender neutral, whereas the feminine versions (such as “gals,” “chairwoman,” “actress”) are for women only. This sends out the message that it’s better to be masculine, that it’s the ideal that everybody should strive for. While I certainly strive to be a (non-toxic) masculine person, I find this implication a little cringey.
And yeah, “ladies”, “gentlemen,” etc. are just words, but the words we use matter. “Everybody”, “everyone”, “you all”, etc. are also just words, and perfectly fine ones to use at that!
Do your research before buying a rainbow-themed item
Rainbow capitalism, or the tendency of big companies to slap a rainbow on everything during the month of June, is getting more and more prevalent with each passing year. Yes, it’s cool to see representation everywhere, but some of these companies financially contribute to anti-LGBTQIA+ groups and a lot of them only put on their Pride mask in order to make money off of the queer community. Is something really representation, or allyship, if it’s done for reasons other than supporting LGBTQIA+ people … such as turning a profit?
I’ve made several jokes this Pride month about how rainbow decorations are like the Christmas lights of June — everybody’s putting them up, regardless of whether or not they actually celebrate Pride. Although I’m glad that awareness is being spread, I tend to think that these rainbow-colored things signify lip service more than they do real allyship, especially when the rainbows are on things that people can buy.
If you really want Pride-themed stuff, why not pick it up from an independent seller who is part of the LGBTQIA+ community? You’ll be directly supporting them rather than funneling your money into a company that may or may not be actually supporting queer people.
I know, I know — but that stuff is sooooo cute! I’m a Forever 21 and SheIn addict, too, and I’m very aware of how tempting it can be to pick up an $8 rainbow dress for the Pride parade. If you must buy things like this, you can either buy secondhand from others (you’d be surprised at how much barely-worn secondhand fast fashion is out there for even cheaper than you’d pay for something new), or donate just as much as you spent on that rainbow-capitalist merch to an LGBTQIA+ organization. That way, you’re making a direct contribution to queer people for every Pride-themed item that you purchase.
For example, I bought this adorable rainbow-striped black romper from SheIn for $11.90. Since I’m pretty sure that SheIn isn’t affiliated with any LGBTQIA+ groups, I also made sure to donate $11.90 to The Trevor Project, a non-profit organization that is focused on suicide prevention efforts among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth.
Keep in mind that labels have different meanings to different people
We queers are a diverse group, and different labels mean may mean completely different things to each of us. For example, I consider myself to be “queer.” I regularly use the term to describe myself and others who are not cisgender and/or heterosexual. However, others may think that this word is still a slur that it is completely inappropriate to use. They may prefer the phrase “LGBTQIA+” instead. I identify as a man but present as female, so I refer to myself as a “femme” quite often; others may take “femme” to mean something completely different.
It can be confusing to navigate these conflicting opinions as an ally. Hell, even I have trouble with it sometimes. It can be super uncomfortable if you use a term in the “wrong” way and get chewed out for it. If this happens to you, take it in stride — apologize and accept that labels are as diverse as the people who occupy them.
Say “excuse me” rather than referring to someone as “sir” or “ma’am”
As someone who never, ever remembers to answer to “ma’am” while out in public, I have no idea why it’s a thing to use honorifics to address people at all. I once saw a flight attendant say “sir” when she was coming up the aisle, and — no joke — all six men sitting on both sides of the aisle turned to look at her.
If a gendered term is that general, why not just get rid of it entirely? Why not simply say “excuse me” or “pardon me” without the “sir” or “ma’am” after it?
This can be a hard one if you work in an industry where customers are regularly addressed using honorifics, and by all means, please don’t let me tell you how to do your job. If you don’t absolutely have to use these titles, though, try getting rid of them! I promise you won’t sound any less polite.
Don’t assume that everybody is straight, or that their friend is the same sex as they are
Because I look like a cisgender woman, people often assume that a) I have a male partner, and b) all of my friends are female. This is often shown when they are asking me questions like:
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
“Are you doing anything fun with your boyfriend this weekend?”
“Oh, you have a friend living in Mountain View? Does she like the weather down there?”
This happens even when I haven’t explicitly mentioned the other person’s gender, and it reflects some heteronormative ideas about the kinds of relationships I have.
Rather than saying “do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend”, you could say “do you have a partner?” or “are you in a relationship?”
Instead of using a specific pronoun to refer to a friend of an unknown gender, try using the friendly “they/them.”
Once more, a simple word change can make a world of difference.
Don’t go to spaces/events that are not meant for you
Sometimes, the best way to “show up” as an ally is to not show up at all.
This goes for all LGBTQIA+ spaces and events, but especially for spaces and events that are meant for queer people to find one another. If you are a straight person, ask yourself if you really want to be going to that gay bar, and why. Oftentimes, these places are the only ones where queer people can meet and mingle without worrying if others there are attracted to their gender at all. Trust me, there’s no greater disappointment than hitting on someone and having them tell you that they’re actually straight and just there to dance among the queers for the night. If you’re not going to a queer space with a queer person, consider staying out of the space altogether.
If you accidentally misgender someone, politely apologize and move on
When I first came out and said that I used he/him pronouns at work, I’d regularly get misgendered, and then I’d politely correct the person … only to have them apologize profusely and talk about how bad they felt that they disrespected my identity. To be honest, this made me feel super awkward — the goal of pronoun usage is for it to be fluid and almost non-noticeable. I don’t particularly like correcting people because it makes conversations awkward and makes me feel like an asshole (which doesn’t stop me from doing it, but still).
It gets way more embarrassing — and takes up way more emotional labor — when I have to consider the fact that not only do I have to correct you, I have to make you feel better for making a mistake in the first place. It’s okay to fuck up once in a while, I promise! I fuck up others’ pronouns sometimes, too.
If you mess up, just apologize in a respectful manner, correct yourself, and continue on with the conversation: “I was reviewing her — sorry, I mean his — code this morning and approved it at 11 AM.” I promise everything will be way smoother if you don’t make it into a big deal.
Refrain from talking about a group of people based on their physical attributes
“Hahaha, there’s so much estrogen in this room!”
“Ugh, that party was a total sausage fest.”
Women can have penises, men can get pregnant, and it’s pretty cissexist to assume otherwise. This is another one that elicits a lot of protest — “the vast majority of all pregnant people are women!” — but consider the implications about what you’re saying when you assume things about peoples’ genders based off of their physical attributes. If convenience is more important to you than using inclusive language, how committed are you, actually, about making your LGBTQIA+ friends feel welcome?
Don’t take it (too) personally if someone gets snippy with you
Some questions I ask myself with almost every single “ally” (whether it be an individual, an organization, or an event) I encounter: Do they actually understand what it is to be an ally? Are they genuinely in support of me and my community, or are they just giving us lip service?
Even when someone is legitimately and has LGBTQIA+ interests at heart, they can sometimes still say or do things that they don’t realize are offensive or harmful. Then, the question becomes I know that they’re not doing/saying this hurtful thing on purpose. Do I call them out (and spend energy educating them/answering all of their questions?).
It gets fucking exhausting doing this all the time — emotional burnout is real! Because of this, we sometimes won’t take the time to a) understand your own nuanced beliefs as an ally or b) engage with you about why we think your behavior is problematic. Sometimes we jump straight to the calling-out phase.
No, I don’t think this is constructive at all — I’ve seen queer people and allies get really upset at one another over simple misunderstandings — but, as an ally, you should realize that you are not entitled to queer people’s time and energy. If someone leaves you a nasty comment or message, it’s safe to assume that they’re probably just having a bad day. You can choose to not engage, too. If you really want to, try politely reaching out a few days later, after things have hopefully blown over.
Respect others’ gender identities, even if you don’t understand them yourself
It is not your job to police queer identities. It is doubly not your job to “let queer people know what identities make sense.”
Yes, trans boys who look like girls and identify as straight (meaning that they like girls), nonbinary lesbians, etc. exist. There’s also no “right” way for an LGBTQIA+ person to present themselves. Not all trans people want to “pass” as cis; not all gay guys want to look flamboyant. The way someone looks does not validate or invalidate their identity.
Gender identity is a personal thing, and it’s different for all individuals. It’s not your job to be the Ultimate Judge of what identity is “legit.”
If you’re really curious, you can ask them politely — “hey! I noticed that you identify as a nonbinary lesbian, and from my understanding, you have to identify as a woman to be a lesbian. If you’re comfortable with doing so, would you mind telling me what your identity means to you?”
Remember that they are under no obligation to explain themselves to you. Keep the discussion centered on their comfort, not your curiosity, and you should be fine.
Listen to and be there for your queer friends
If you’re a cis person and your trans friend of the same gender is nervous about using the bathroom, offer to go with them. Ask your trans, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming friends what you should do if they are ever misgendered in public — would they prefer that you speak up about it or just let it be?
Most of all, actually listen to your friends. Sometimes, they just need someone to rant to about the sucky, everyday things about being queer. Sometimes, they’d prefer not to be outed in public or for a big scene to be made on their behalf. You may have ideas about how your friend should handle being discriminated against, for example, but if they are more comfortable with letting things be, respect their choice. Remember, it’s about them, not about you.
Speak up even if there are no LGBTQIA+ people around you
Is someone misgendering your coworker in a private conversation? Say something about it. Witness a homophobic joke? Shut that shit down. You can’t half-ass being an ally.
This is especially important when it comes to calling attention to your other friends’ problematic behaviors. We’re way more likely to listen to our friends when they bring things up than we are to people we aren’t as close to. Take advantage of this tendency when it comes to calling your friends out!
At the end of the day, these are just a bunch of suggestions. The principle from which they all stem is that being an ally is about putting your queer friends’ comfort and safety above your own. Refrain from making assumptions based on appearance, be open to being corrected, and you should be fine. ♚