For LGBT History Month 2019, Crystal Rasmussen writes on the true power of being a good ally – and offers advice on how you can improve your own allyship.
I’m gay. I’m queer. I’m non-binary. I’m a drag queen. I’m funny (sometimes). I’m a bad cook. I’m an over-spender. I’m way too excited about this new throw I got for my bed. I’m a bottle blonde. I’m sensitive. (Am I writing a Shania Twain song?)
I’m loads of things. But so often, especially in spaces like the media, I have to lead with perhaps the most ‘exciting’ things about myself – namely the parts of my identity that have put me in a fair amount of danger my whole life.
Often, I don’t really mind – it’s a very beautiful thing to be the first four things on that list. Every day my queer friends and I text each other, in response to some genius story or incisive take on popular culture, and thank GaGa that we’re queer. Truly, despite all the difficulty (and trust me, when you’re visibly non-conforming and femme, there’s a lot), there’s no better feeling than being here: 27 and extremely grateful to be the thing you desperately didn’t want to be when you were growing up.
How did we get here? Well, foremost it’s each other – meeting drag performers, queer folk, trans and non-binary people saved my life. All of those deeply lonely experiences that haunted your adolescence – such as being in your room, dressed as a girl, desperately scratching off the nail varnish you had just applied so nobody would see – suddenly become a point of connection. Meeting someone like yourself is like a big neon sign flashing: telling you that you exist, are valid. Yes, you were lonely, but there’s comfort in the idea that others like you were lonely too, that you were alone at the same time, and now you’re together.
But there’s another key to the puzzle here: the allies. To be frank, good allies are few and far between. People who ask you to go shopping and box you into the ‘omg so fabulous!’ column aren’t really allies. People who ‘would love a gay kid’ aren’t really allies. People who aren’t sure whether they agree with TERFs or not aren’t allies. Carrie Bradshaw (while my personal hero) is not an ally. No: these people are consumers of queers, fetishisers of queers. They think we’re good for nothing more than shopping and girl talk, and they’re just not sold on trans folk.
But every once in a while you do meet a good ally. What does that look like? What’s the key to active ally-ship? What makes that standout ally a standout? In answer to all of these questions I present to you, a listicle:
• First things first: it’s about a knowledge and a removal of your own privilege, without seeking a big bouquet of flowers and a thank you. This doesn’t mean you should give all your money away to crowdfunders and charities (although if you have it, it helps) but it does mean recognising that this conversation isn’t about you or your position within it.
• Listening is the extension of that, and if someone challenges you on language you use or behaviour you display, take a moment to recognise, internalise and change that behaviour. We’ve all had to do it and, trust me, it feels stunning when you do.
• A good ally won’t make us work out your relationship to queerness for you. Likelihood is, if you have to ask for my approval then you probably don’t deserve it.
• Please don’t tell me about the one time in high school you thought you had sexual urges toward your friend/ PE teacher of the same sex but never acted on it then or since. That’s fun, but that doesn’t make you queer. (Unless it does, and you’re about to come out as pan, in which case I’m here for you!)
• Queer people have very differing views on things; we are not a monolith, so each and every interaction with us might require you to expand your opinion.
• Don’t assume or question people’s genders. They are what they told you they are.
• Try to avoid telling queer folk what is and isn’t queer/homo/trans/biphobia. You might see it, but we feel it.
• Don’t worry about getting things wrong, now or in the past. Just admit it, accept it, apologise for it, and move on. We all get s**t wrong. Hell, I used to walk around calling everything gay (not in the good way), and now I’m telling you how to be an ally.
• That said, if you’re going to ask personal questions, please google them. Remember we have spent years answering these very basic questions, to which we had to find the answers out ourselves. You can very much do the same.
• Don’t think that our only goal is acceptance and assimilation. We want much more than that.
• Personally I’m happy for you to come to (some of) our spaces. But remember that while for you it might be a party without the sexual pressure, for us it’s an emergency room and one of the only places we can go to feel safe. A good ally doesn’t need to invade these spaces.
• Watching RuPaul doesn’t make you queer.
• If you come out as an ally, don’t just say it. Rocking up to Pride or going to gay bars is not enough. Challenge your colleagues, platform LGBTQIA+ people, unlearn unhealthy phobias. Try to prioritise those who really need it in our community – not simply great gay guys who lend you sunglasses.
• Physically and emotionally defend your LGBTQIA+ friends: in real life, online by reporting hatefulness and not just bulldozing the conversation, and even behind their backs.
This list is a list. It’s both daunting and absolutely incomplete, but it’s a start. Each point will morph depending on the context, the friend, the person you’re with – but our need for allies remains the same in each case.
With conversations about allyship in real life, I’ve often found that people feel either criticised or like they don’t want to be an ally, they want to be queer. But what nobody’s telling you is that being an active ally is wonderful, rare, kind, special, and much easier than actually being LGBTQIA+.
It’s a wonderful thing to do for someone, and in my experience good allies are loved like one of our own. I mean, look at Lady Gaga! That could be you!
Diary of a Drag Queen is published by Ebury Press (£14.99)
Photography: Edo Chang