The Challenges of Allies, Part II

In my last post, I made some preliminary comments about the complicated dynamics involved when people of privileged status attempt to offer support to and speak out on behalf of members of other groups. In what follows I would like to offer a few cautions for straight people who desire to call themselves allies, as well as a personal encounter in which this was done well.

Please note from the outset that I do not see sexual orientation as operating in the same ways – either with individuals or communities – as race and gender (as if LGBT experiences of marginalization are to be equated as identical with those of racial minorities and women). This is especially poignant on a day like today, when so many of us are grieved and angered by the lack of a grand jury indictment in Ferguson. There is much, much more to be said on the matter, but that subject is for another post! (If you’d like a helpful step in the right direction, you can check out my friend Chelsea’s ruminations). With this strong caveat in mind, allow me to humbly propose these recommendations to you:

  1. Avoid the “hip straight person” persona. (Note: this is a twist on Brenda Salter McNeil’s “hip white person” construct in The Heart of Racial Justice). This is a heterosexual who revels in brandishing his or her comfort around gay people and takes pride in being more enlightened than all those other straight people who “just don’t get it.” All things being equal, of course, comfort is definitely preferable to uneasiness or hostility. Some of my best friendships with straight people (guys in particular) are those in which carefree joking (including about each other’s sexuality) is free to flourish. But there can come a point in which “comfort” actually gives way to a renewed power imbalance, and the hip straight person either uses his/her gay friends to boost his/her own sense of tolerant self-importance or implicitly demonstrates a posture of “Look how broad-minded I am not to be weirded out by you!” Either way, a good thing (ease and comfort with sexual minorities) is taken too far and exploited, and heterosexual privilege hardens.
  2. Beware diminishing the agency of sexual minorities. This happens more often in dialogues or disputes about sexuality and again it takes a practice that is helpful (and sometimes necessary) and corrupts it. Regardless of the context, it is true that when homophobic assumptions or heteronormative practices rise to the surface, gay people often could use some backup and encouragement from straight people. Sometimes an ally is needed to speak a word in a setting that an LGBT person simply does not have access to. But when straight people automatically assume that it is their job to come to the rescue, take over the conversation, or develop the solution without consulting their gay friends and neighbors, they unintentionally but powerfully militate against LGBT empowerment and reinforce their own privilege. (Again, while there certainly are differences, I do think that there are parallels between the potential pitfalls of LGBT allies, male feminists, and white people who advocate with and for racial minority groups.)
  3. Don’t assume that you know exactly what LGBT persons are seeking. Related to the previous point is the reality that “the gay community”– as a monolithic entity that moves in lock step – does not exist. LGBT lives are diverse and complex and to make broad assumptions about what gay people as a group should want or would need is an exercise in reductionism that perpetuates gay marginalization. Depending on the setting (church, job, neighborhood, political sphere, etc.), personal experience (relationships, family, and history), and convictions (religious or philosophical) of the LGBT persons in question, we often have quite different goals. When allies demonstrate the humility of asking about our perspective and actively listening to the answer before being willing to offer  support and respect (even and especially when they would have preferred to go in a different direction), they go a long way toward undermining heterosexual privilege.

The good news is that the flip sides of these negative habits – unpretentious mutual comfort, empowering partnership, and humble respect – are always available options for any conscientious straight person, even if she or he is not in full agreement with their LGBT friends and neighbors whom they seek to support. Although progressive political and religious convictions have often been particularly associated with the role of ally, this is not universally the case, nor does it have to be so. In fact, as a gay Christian who embraces the church’s traditional sexual ethic, I have sometimes been excluded by political and theological liberals who automatically assumed that my convictions were retrograde and were afraid that my participation in ministry with them would foster exclusion. And conversely, I have also been impressed and blessed by the kindness and humility of some conservatives who have admitted how much they do not know about these topics and have sought to learn from me and from other sexual minorities (of varying convictions).

I experienced a good example of an unexpected ally a few days ago during a panel discussion on sexuality at an evangelical theological conference. Things began poorly, as the session organizer gave a confused, at times bizarre lecture about how a homosexual orientation is inherently sinful (whether acted on or not). The session moderator likewise behaved in an unfriendly and unhelpful way. Responding to this charge was Wesley Hill, a celibate gay Christian whose nuanced reflections on the topic were both theologically stronger and more pastorally attentive. But there was a fourth voice – Preston Sprinkle, a straight Bible college professor. Preston’s surfer-bro manner and conservative pedigree may have made him appear to be an unlikely ally, but his combination of self-deprecating humor and thoughtful critique complemented Wesley’s approach. He didn’t undermine Wesley by attempting to come to the rescue or to speak on behalf of all gay Christians everywhere (as if that were possible). Instead, he helped hold the other speakers accountable for some of the negative implications of their ideas, and he fielded some of the more hostile questions from audience members (so that they didn’t all fall to Wesley). Preston didn’t do everything perfectly (he made a couple of statements that made me cringe), but his overall posture was humble, irenic, and comfortable. As a gay man listening with significant concern to what was being said, it was a great relief to know that someone who is quite different from me had my back.

Comfort, partnership, and humility. All of these are difficult to practice but accessible postures for any straight person who wants to seek the good of their LGBT friends and neighbors. When even the language of “ally” connotes the battle mentality of culture wars – tempting us toward a self-righteousness that is not helpful for people of any sexual orientation – we can instead strive to offer comfortable friendship, encouragement, support, and humble respect across differences. As with many important endeavors, it helps to take the goal more seriously than yourself. So go for it!