Mindset Monday: “Being an ally is an action, not a title”: 24 Ways To Support LGBTQ+ People

June 29, 2020

By MJ Ryan

June is LBGTQ+ Pride month, something that has been celebrated for the past 50 years in my neck of the woods, the San Francisco Bay Area. But even here, in one of the most accepting corners of the world, rampant trans and homophobia causes tremendous pain and suffering. My own young adult nonbinary child was physically attacked in downtown San Francisco for, as the attacker proclaimed, “being gay.” 

And they are not alone. According to Global Citizen, 1 out of 5 hate crimes in the United States was committed because of sexual orientation. Approximately 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ and 41% of transgender individuals and 10-20% of lesbian, gay and bisexual adults have attempted suicide, compared to 4% of the rest of the population. And at the intersection of race and gender, black trans women are specifically under tremendous threat, including two murders in the same week in separate states two weeks ago.

As we work to free our minds from the ways we consciously and unconsciously support racial injustice, so too must we unpack our mental models of gender and sexuality that create trans- and homophobia. I love the following list Kelly Gonsalves of Mindbodygreen created by reaching out to LGBTQ+ mental health experts, activists, content creators, and business owners asking them to share concrete actions that anyone can take to support LGBTQ+ people. I have edited it for length. Please commit to as many as you can. The links are live to make this easier.

  1. Do the work to educate yourself.

“Set aside some time to do your own research, and make sure you’re getting your information from reputable sources—ideally from folks in the community,” says Jesse Kahn, LCSW, CST, director and sex therapist at The Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center in NYC.  “Don’t be ashamed if you don’t know everything already; just make sure you take the time to educate yourself. This could also include paying someone to educate you, attending workshops, reading LGBTQ+-competent books, etc.”

  1. Learn the history.

“To be an ally, you need to learn about LGBTQ+ history,” says therapist Michael Salas, Psy.D., LPC, CST. “This can help you be aware of rhetoric and current affairs that matter. But even more importantly, it can help you understand why these issues matter to people who are part of the community. To me, this is the difference between tolerance and true acceptance. Making LGBTQ+ history a general history that has impacted us all rather than something that only LGBTQ+ people need to be aware of.”

  1. Introduce yourself with your pronouns. 

“Normalizing pronoun use for all gender identities⁠—not just trans or nonbinary folx—helps take away some of the burden and stress associated with being misgendered,” says Chess Needham, co-owner of stationery company Ash + Chess and co-author of The Gay Agenda.

Needham recommends actively introducing yourself using your pronouns when you meet new people, particularly in group settings. That might sound something like: Hi, I’m Kelly, and my pronouns are she/her.

It can also be helpful to include your pronouns in your social media bios, email signatures, and anywhere else you’re introducing yourself. The idea is to make it normal to not assume people’s pronouns, which makes it easier and safer for trans and gender-nonconforming people to make sure their correct pronouns are being used.

“Give people the choice to share their pronouns,” adds Kenya Crawford, LMHC, mental health counselor and co-founder of On the Mend. “Everyone may not feel comfortable sharing their pronouns in every space. For example, ‘My pronouns are she/they. If you feel safe, feel free to share your pronouns.'”

  1. Remember, there’s no such thing as “preferred” pronouns.

“Pronouns are not a preference,” Crawford adds. “They are expected. So instead, ask for pronouns.” Most women don’t “prefer” to use she/her pronouns, for example. Those are just their correct pronouns. This same principle applies to people of all genders.

  1. Beyond just learning definitions, build relationships.

There’s a lot of new language and new terminology popping up today that people are using to describe their gender and sexual identities. Memorizing the “right meanings” of all the words is not the point, says Sula Malina, a therapist in training at The Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center.

“While having a basic understanding of identities like ‘gay,’ ‘pansexual,’ and ‘nonbinary’ is important, these stock definitions are like a ZIP code; they give you only a general idea of someone’s experience,” they explain. “Every person has their own experience of ‘gay,’ ‘pansexual,’ ‘nonbinary,’ or any other identity. The real work is not in memorizing dictionary entries but in building trusting relationships with LGBTQ folks who will feel safe to share their experience with you.”

  1. Don’t criticize other people’s labels.

“Leave your ego at the door,” says queer content creator and body liberation activist Jude Valentin. “A lot of times, folks get in their feelings about how other people identify and what labels they use. But labels are personal, and it’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all assessment.”

Two people might use the same word to describe their identity and have very different definitions of what that word means to them. That doesn’t necessarily mean either person is using it “wrong.”

  1. Make a point to internalize people’s genders, beyond just the language.

“If someone shares their pronouns with you, take the time not only to practice (on your own) using these pronouns in a sentence but to really see that person the way they see themselves,” Malina adds. “Trans and nonbinary folks often know when you’re getting the words ‘right’ but still not seeing them as their gender. Plus, shifting your internal understanding of a person’s gender will probably make using their correct pronouns much easier!”

  1. Donate your time and money.

“Remember that using the correct name and pronouns for someone isn’t allyship—it’s just the bare minimum needed to avoid actively being a bigot,” says Tuck Woodstock, gender and equity educator and host of the Gender Reveal podcast.

“True allyship involves structural change and resource reallocation. So, if you’re looking to be an ally this Pride season, give money to trans people (there are endless surgery GoFundMes), trans media (e.g., Gender Reveal and Queersplaining), and trans organizations like the Sylvia Rivera Law Project and Trans Lifeline.”

Kahn adds, “Many LGBTQ+ orgs need volunteers and donations. A one-time donation is a fantastic gift. An even better gift is a recurring monthly donation so that organizations can count on your money every month and use it to continue their work.”

  1. Make your businesses actively inclusive.

Three ways to do that, directly from Mere Abrams, LCSW, a therapist and consultant focused on gender and identity: 

  • Make sure all forms have a dedicated space for name (if different from legal name), pronouns, and gender (male, female, trans, nonbinary, and other).
  • Make sure all staff receive resources and training about how to be inclusive of and respectful to trans and queer people.
  • Hire trans, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming people. Seeing yourself reflected in a given space or profession is an important part of feeling included. 
  1. Put LGBTQ+ people in positions of power.

“Have them in real positions of power. Don’t have them be token people or just have them there to inform the powers that be or be there just to educate,” Rachel Winard, founder and president of Soapwallatold mbg last year. “Have people who don’t look like you, haven’t had your life experiences in every possible way, be in those positions so you can hear what they need.”

  1. Follow through with pledges.

Especially during Pride, companies can sometimes invest in marketing a big project supposedly to support LGBTQ+ people⁠—but that doesn’t actually do anything tangible to help.

“Any corporation who is using a rainbow logo or any corporation who is doing any type of Pride stuff or if you’re a coffee shop and you’re making a rainbow latte and you’re selling it, you’re essentially making money off this community,” Bethany C. Meyers, LGBTQ+ activist and founder of the be.come project, told mbg in an interview last year. “Therefore money should be given back to the community.”

  1. Protect trans rights.

Across the world, transgender people still face significant discrimination and barriers to well-being…. According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, 33% have experienced mistreatment at the hands of a doctor in the last year, 47% have experienced sexual assault, [and] 54% experienced harassment while in school related to being trans…..  

Voting and civic engagement are one of the most important ways to support trans people: Vote out politicians who support discriminatory laws against trans people, and call up your local officials to demand they push forward legal protections for trans rights. 

  1. Protect black trans women, specifically.

 “For those with the financial means to do so, donating money to LGBTQ causes that center the needs of transgender women of color can have a major and direct impact on people’s lives. While national organizations supporting the LGBTQ community do important work, money donated to these groups does not always make it to the most marginalized members of the community,” Malina explains. “Do research to see which groups in your community are led by and serve trans folks of color, and contribute however you can!”

Crawford also emphasizes the importance of calling out your friends and family if you hear them making transphobic comments: “Protect Black trans women by calling out transphobia within your community. Use your voice to educate and advocate.”

You can also donate to black trans funds such as The Marsha P. Johnson Institute. Named after pioneering Black trans activist Marsha P. Johnson, MPJI protects the human rights of Black transgender people by organizing, advocating, creating an intentional community to heal, developing transformative leadership, and promoting collective power.

  1. Advocate for more inclusive schools.

“Everyone is at risk of being bullied, but LGBTQ+ individuals face more hostile situations,” explain bloggers Nicholas Fronduto and Anthony Nicolo. “Schools need to take more action regarding anti-LGBT behaviors/biases and work proactively to ensure more inclusive environments. Some students do not feel safe at their school because nothing is being done regarding bullying.”

  1. Don’t make assumptions about someone’s sexual orientation.

Pay attention to when you reflexively assume people are straight, such as assuming your female friend is looking to date guys. “We should never assume we know someone’s sexual orientation. Everyone is unique, and we should be accepting of that without judgment,” Fronduto and Nicolo say. 

Avoid words like “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” when talking about other people’s relationships too, says Crawford, unless you know those are the terms they use. Otherwise, spring for a gender-neutral label like “partner.”

  1. Also, don’t make assumptions about every LGBTQ+ person you meet. 

“When you know or have met a person who identifies as LGBTQ+, know that you have only met one such individual,” says Symonne Kennedy, LMSW, psychotherapist at The Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center. “Allies can really show support by not assuming that we all have somehow lived the same life, have the same goals, enjoy the same interests, etc. Rather than trying to assume and defend, try instead to listen and befriend, as you would with any other member of a given community.”

  1. Ditch gender stereotypes.

“No matter what culture we have grown up in, we have all been subject to the idea of gender roles. Allies can show support by making a conscious effort to unlearn the stereotypes that prescribe specific gender scripts and undermine gender expression and individualized identity formation,” Kennedy explains. “It may be helpful to remember that LGBTQ+-identified individuals have grown up in the same world as everyone else and therefore may also be working to unlearn these stereotypes.”

  1. Learn how to apologize without defensiveness.

“We all make mistakes, and when it comes to gender and queer-affirming language, it’s only a matter of time until you’ll slip up—even with the best of intentions,” says queer sex therapist Casey Tanner, LCPC. “When you do slip up, those intentions don’t matter so much as the harm that is done in the mistake. This doesn’t mean you need to be extra hard on yourself, employ negative self-talk, or shame spiral. It does mean that amends may be necessary.”

“Every queer person is different, and we all have different languages of apology, so I don’t speak for everyone. I do think it’s fair to say that, generally, we don’t want to hear excuses or explanations, and we don’t want a self-flagellating apology that puts us in a position to soothe straight or cis people. The best method is typically to apologize, correct yourself, move on, and do better in the future. If you need to process your mistake, or want to learn ways to do better, do NOT ask the person you have harmed. Go to someone you know is a great ally or a professional who you can pay to help you with that work. It isn’t a queer person’s job to educate you.”

  1. Focus on listening.

“Let marginalized communities lead the way. You are there for support, so make sure you are listening to and amplifying the voices of others. Make sure you’re not just listening to your fellow allies. Allyship is based around the folks you claim to be an ally to. This means listening more than you talk in spaces, educating yourself, and promoting community leaders,” says Kahn.

  1. Never out anyone.

Just because someone has told you about their sexual orientation or gender revelations doesn’t mean that it’s open information. The same goes for if someone casually mentions someone else’s sexual or gender identity. Don’t assume the information is public unless the person in question themselves publicly states it. “Being out is not a simple decision for a lot of folks, and this is not a choice you can make for someone else,” says Kahn.

  1. Ask questions.

“If you’re straight and you’re an ally—or you’re straight and you want to be an ally, and you don’t know, and you don’t want to mess up so you don’t try—just ask. Just ask. Ask any questions. That’s the only way you’ll ever get the opportunity to understand,” Winard said. “And then listen. Listen to the answers.”

  1. Be an ally even when there are no queer people in the room.

“Being a good ally means showing up for the community when you do not even know if anyone in the community is present to see you do it,” says sex educator and trauma specialist Jimanekia Eborn

  1. Remember that calling yourself an ally is not enough.

“Naming yourself an ally is not enough. Allyship is a practice, not an endpoint,” Crawford explains. “Do the work to actively dismantle systems that disrupt the safety of the LGBTQ community. You cannot deem yourself an ally just because you’ve gone to Pride or have a queer best friend. Your allyship must be named by folk within the community.”

Khan adds, “Being an ally is an action, not a title. It’s not something you are. It’s something you do. Don’t let your allyship begin and end here. Keep growing, learning, and fighting!”

  1. Don’t sit on the sidelines.

“Not doing anything is almost as bad as doing something negative,” Houston ballet soloist Harper Watters last year told mbg. “Put yourself outside of your comfort zone. Put yourself into the uncertainty. Always something really good, I feel, happens from that. By not participating in something, you’re still affecting someone. Small acts of kindness or change will make a greater change.”

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