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“Stepping In”. What does it mean to be an ‘Ally’?

A few weeks back I was asked what I thought it meant to be an ally to the LGBTQ+ community. This was something I had thought about from time to time but never really had the occasion to express it verbally.

How does anyone “be an ally” to another? To me, empathy is the answer. Empathy is to honestly try and understand another individual’s life experience, and through that, deepen our compassion for others. Further, in being empathic, we foster a willingness to look at our own judgements and biases based on that experience. Said differently, to be an ally we need to “step in to” another person’s experiences in life; to “walk a mile” in their shoes, to understand how they experience the world and how the world perceives them.

Of course, we cannot comprehend another person’s life experience one hundred percent. We are all unique tapestries of experiences, circumstances, mind states, perspectives and outlooks. However, I know we can shift our own perspectives to better understand a general experience of another, especially when it pertains to an experience similar to one of our own normal behaviors. Admittedly, there will be plenty of opportunities to “step in it” when we try to do this, but I believe if our intent is clear, we can achieve deepening understanding.

To me, in this light, when we discuss ‘being an ally’, it doesn’t require you to march in a parade or wave a banner… the fact that you are willing to listen and expand your consciousness is a start to stepping into ally-ship. Perhaps this slight shifting of your consciousness will, at some point in the future when relating your thoughts to others, help them to reevaluate these experiences and judgements as well.

As fate would have it, as fate often does, I encountered an experience which I thought would exemplify what it means to be LGBTQ+ in the world today; something to which other people could relate. I was asked to go to dinner with a straight male friend where I would be introduced to his girlfriend of about six months.

It had been a few years since I had been involved in a dinner like this and I had forgotten how much I really didn’t enjoy them. During much of the dinner my good friend and the new girlfriend held hands, kissed, and called one another pet names. While not completely over indulgent, it did make me uncomfortable.

In the days that followed I found myself getting increasingly irritated when I reflected on the dinner. As mindfulness is key to me, I began to ask myself why this situation bothered me. Upon reflection, I recalled similar experiences from earlier in my life and how they had also irritated me at the time. When these patterns of emotional reactions occur, I look for root causes to help me understand my fraught state of mind.

The answer that bubbled up was, I was upset because I felt, in general, that I was not allowed that same freedom that they enjoyed. I did not feel free to exhibit that same carefree intimate behavior if I were out with another man. Straight couples, on the other hand, have few boundaries around where they can express and show affection.

When I say “in general”, there are places in the world where I would be comfortable exhibiting this behavior. For example, in gay meccas and vacation paradises such as West Hollywood, Chelsea, Palm Springs or Key West it would be completely acceptable. No one would bat an eye, except for wayward tourists. However, anywhere else, reactions would range from being stared at (and yes, we do see you staring), to verbal and or physical assault, and in some places in the world, being imprisoned or even killed.

Admittedly, the tolerance to take being stared at or accepting verbal threats is a personal one. I know some people are more comfortable than others and I’m excited to see younger generations pushing these norms, albeit with dire consequences at times. Because of the reality of this backlash, it causes people in the LGBTQ+ community to constantly be situationally aware and inhibited in their ability to freely share their affection in many places they go. LGBTQ+ have to stay vigilant about their honest natural expressions of love, aware of exhibiting a seemingly innocent behavior which ‘straight’ people unconsciously take for granted. On top of that, if you layer race, gender and gender identity discrimination into the mix and it gets even more complicated for people in this community.

I think it’s helpful to understand how pervasive this “straight” reinforced behavior is in our society and the subtle message that is implied to the community… “but not you”. It’s seen in cartoons, comic books, TV shows, movies, at the mall, restaurants and concerts, in the hallways of high school and college campuses and at company parties… and any public setting really. It’s a constant reinforcement that you are different.

If you want to be an ally to someone in the LGBTQ+ Community, or anyone different than you really, the key is, can you “step in” and expand your consciousness, ideally fostering empathy for others? Additionally, I think it’s important to take the initiative to research these topics on your own. Reading articles about these experiences or by searching for similar conversations can bring insight. If asking another person directly about their experience, it should be done lightly and with care. At times these conversations can trigger emotional duress for those being questioned.

If you would like to try this concept of ‘stepping in’, I ask you to reflect on the first time you saw a same sex couple engaging in affectionate behavior. How did you react? What judgements came up? Are those judgements still there today? How do you react when you see that behavior today? Now, “step in” to that LGBTQ+ person’s experience at that moment. How would you feel being in this situation as them feeling the judgements you are leveraging towards them? As I said earlier, we are a unique tapestry built of our life experiences. Our lives, environments and influences have given each of us a unique lens in which to navigate the world. Understanding this, there is no need to blame yourself for your feelings or judgements. This exercise is not meant to make anyone feel bad about themselves or to judge their previous actions. This is meant to be a way to expand your consciousness, ideally fostering empathy for others. The question is, what will you do with this knowledge the next time this experience comes up either in person or in conversation? Will you be an ‘ally’ and stand up for them? Will you share your new understanding with others who may have felt as you did previously?

I believe if we all make the space to try and understand someone else’s life experience, we can open the door wider to finding commonality with one another. So… I invite you to “step in” and be an ally, the door is open. It always has been. You are welcome in and always will be.

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