The Challenges of Allies, Part I

Both social constructs involved in this short statement – my whiteness and my maleness – are fraught with privilege. That is, based on a complex variety of historical and cultural reasons, and expressed in a bizarre variety of ways, U.S. society pretty consistently rewards me for having light skin and a male body. Furthermore, I’m often not even aware of how deeply the system is rigged in my favor. White privilege has been compared to an invisible knapsack, or a “gift that keeps on giving,” without burdening me with the knowledge of when and how it is operational. Male privilege, connected to the pervasiveness of patriarchy, works in similar ways.

It wasn’t until college that I started connecting the dots between America’s stark history of racial discrimination and the ongoing reality of racial injustice. And it wasn’t until seminary that my eyes were opened to the extraordinary challenges women face when it comes to being respected, gaining equal opportunities to access different social spheres, and receiving equal compensation for the contributions that they make there.

During my first seminary experience, even as I was shocked to discover the depths of my own privilege (beyond whiteness and maleness, I have American citizenship and quite a bit of education as well), I was also beginning to recognize its subversive possibilities. That is, the very privilege which I was lamenting as unfair was also affording me special opportunities to expose and undermine it

Thus, both within that seminary and in the local municipal community I began looking for ways to use my particular advantages (which I had inherited as a white man through no merit of my own) to advocate for the respect, fair treatment, and full inclusion of racial minorities and women. I did not do this on my own in an effort to avoid reinforcing my privilege (i.e., “Hey look at that wonderfully prophetic young white guy, who’s tirelessly working for justice!”). Rather my initially stumbling, and eventually confident advocacy was nurtured, directed, and sustained by conversation and community with minority and women friends – people who loved me enough to tell me when I was crowding out their voice (ironically, in an effort to fight for it!), and who were patient enough to teach me when I just didn’t get it. While I certainly have a ways to go in learning how to rightly advocate with and for women and minorities through the politically savvy subversion of privilege, it has been a grace-filled journey so far.

I am gay.

An area in which I do not have privilege is my sexuality. Throughout my life I have always been persistently and powerfully attracted to other men in physical, emotional, relational, romantic, and erotic ways. This orientation has not been an advantage to me in church or in society at large. Even as the push for gay rights continues to gain steam in the U.S. and beyond, heteronormativity and homophobia are still rampant – even in communities that pride themselves on being “liberal.” And in more conservative religious circles, LGBT persons like me continue to experience pain and marginalization.

Ideally, this is where allies come in. Allies are straight friends who offer a voice of encouragement and an embrace of welcome to us, while simultaneously leveraging the privilege of their heterosexuality on our behalf by advocating for greater respect and inclusion in an institution. An ally can be a critically important role for a straight person to play in the life of an LGBT individual and within a larger community.

However, not all who style themselves as allies consistently demonstrate such a helpful method. In practice, straight allies sometimes flaunt their heterosexual privilege in such a way that perpetuates the marginalization of LGBT persons. In an era when the designation of ally has become something of a coveted space – perceived as a vehicle for straight people to participate in a movement for social justice, and even being granted a letter in the ever-growing acronym LGBTQIA – special care is needed. In light of these initial reflections, I will use my next post to offer a few guidelines for straight people to keep in mind when desiring to be allies.