By Samuel Murray, Jewish Care Executive and LGBTI+ Liaison Officer
I am a proud gay cisgender male and have almost always been surrounded by decent people, both in and out of work – and over the years, have come across a lot of heterosexual and cisgender people who call themselves an “ally” to me and the LGBTI+ community.
This is not a bad thing.
I live in a world where I’m vastly outnumbered by heterosexual people, and whilst I don’t see my life as a fierce battle, I definitely prefer being around people that call themselves allies rather the opposite.
Still, calling yourself an ally is also not always a great thing.
Many lesbian, bisexual, trans/gender diverse, and intersex Australians have not been made to feel welcome, or included by their communities - an experience of alienation they share with other minority populations. Our society views heterosexuality and cisgender as privileged, so when someone’s gender/sexual identity strays away from this they are often left vulnerable to discrimination, abuse, or worse. Many who consider themselves allies, act in ways that can result in LGBTI+ people feeling intensely uncomfortable, embarrassed, or invisible. It’s almost never intended with any malice, simply the result of heterosexual/cisgender people not knowing what it’s like to be a lesbian, bisexual, gay, trans/gender diverse, or have an intersex variation – similarly, LGBTI+ folk don’t have the experience of being heterosexual/cisgender – this can produce a gap in empathy that make even the most well-intended ally act like a schlemiel.
If you’re someone who identifies as an ally to the LGBTI+ community: mazel tov and toda raba. Here are five ways you can be mensch level at it:
Think about how much space you truly take up
It is great when straight/cisgender people want to go to queer spaces (such as gay bars, pride festivals, and let’s be honest nearly every café in Melbourne). Many of us queer folk grew up feeling like an outsider, so when you want to visit “our world” it’s a huge shift from our experiences of being the outcast. So imagine for a moment what it would be like if, every time you visited your local hangout, there were groups of queer people there saying how much they loved straight people, and the way straight bars are so interesting and always have the best music. After a while, you’d get pretty tired of it. Bored of feeling like a side show exhibit, of being watched, of being othered – when you only want to relax, or flirt, or enjoy time with friends.
“Speak the truth even if your voice shakes”
You might recognise this abbreviated version of a widely known quote about being a powerful voice for others. It comes from the prominent Elder rights activist, Maggie Kuhn, who founded the Grey Panthers movement. The entire quote gives pause for thought when considering what a true ally should do: “Leave safety behind. Put your body on the line. Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind – even if your voice shakes. When you least expect it, someone may actually listen to what you have to say. Well-aimed slingshots can topple giants. And do your homework.”
Never diminish someone’s queer identity
Give me a shekel for each time I’ve heard a well-intended friend or colleague repeat any variation of “seriously, I don’t think of you as being gay, I just think of you as being a regular person” and I could retire now and move to New York. And what does “being gay” even look like? A person’s queer identity is uniquely theirs and should never been stereotyped. For some, their identity is nothing more than a subtle sound in the background of their life. For many, it depends where they are and who they’re with – my own identity can go from being mostly a subtle sound day-to-day to leaping about the house singing Troye Sivan’s My My My! at full volume as Ned, my Chow Chow, looks at me in a way best described as “awkward”. Regardless of how I relate to my identity or how I choose to present to others, telling me that you don’t recognise, or even think about, my queer identity is not chessed in any situation. At best, it makes a huge chunk of my identity feel like a mere footnote – but, at its worst, it can make me, and other LGBTI+ folk, feel as though queer identity is best kept shtum.
Accept that queer people will disappoint you
Despite what my brain tells me after a l’chaim, I cannot and will not ever be able to sing and dance like Neil Patrick Harris. The media represent queer people in a way that is habitually geared towards the highly polished and unrealistic – with characters often depicted as well-dressed, sharp-witted, successful, funny, musically-talented, and likeable, or as the principled victim, fighting honourably against uncomplicated acts of discrimination, or portrayed as the adorable sidekicks and “gay best friends”, their presence only to support the straight central character/s or to provide comedic shtick.
Seeing positive LGBTI+ depictions in the media is better than not seeing any, but at the same time pigeon-holing LGBTI+ people does not reflect real life – I spent last Sunday in ugly trackies and ate two-day old pizza, like a schlub, just to avoid the COVID-complicit crowds at my local Woolies with the chutzpah to not wear masks correctly, or at all, as they bulk buy Sorbent two-ply. Oy vey ist mir!
I’m a proud supporter of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and the characters I see in queer films can sometimes feel as unfamiliar to me as any straight film character. It is perfectly okay, and normal, that almost all queer people will never be as inspiring, fascinating, or friendly as those seen in movies and tv shows. Queer people are simply humans who contend with relationships, work, families, social circles, bills, romantic lives, and personal baggage – sound familiar? We are imperfect, we are thoughtless, we are inadequate, we are frightened of dying, we are grouchy for no reason, we are insecure, and we are lonely — does that also sound familiar? It should, because queer folk are just like every other human being, the good and the bad.
Being an ally is bigger and more meaningful than any legal reform
There is still so much work to do for LGBTI+, especially trans/gender diverse, people to be treated equally under Australian law. Marriage equality may have been achieved, but it’s still legal to practice harmful “gay conversion therapy”; there is an ever-looming risk to queer folk (and women, and people of colour, and people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, and disabled people) if the proposed Religious Discrimination Act passes; and across our country trans/gender-diverse people are required to undergo surgery/medical treatment before being able to change the sex/gender marker on their birth certificate. These are all critical issues and being an ally means joining the fight whenever and however possible. That said, I cannot tell you the number of times I could’ve done with an “ally” before ever considering legislation or any human rights campaign.
So many of the problems associated with being LGBTI+ are not the legal ones – family rejection, that funny gay joke or stereotype that just isn’t funny, the relentlessly heteronormative world we have to navigate, being harassed in the street, the “oh, that’s the gay one” whispers at a party, the internalised shame, the demeaning, perversely intrusive, and ill-informed media representations of LGBTI+ people, or the impact on one’s mental health having to navigate all of that every single day.
But here is the exasperating truth: triumphs like marriage equality don’t miraculously make everything better. LGBTI+ people’s feelings of being rejected, excluded, or shamed, especially around a central part of their identity, causes serious harm before and a long time after they exchange nuptials. And the experiences that do the most harm – like being shunned from their families or being bullied at school – often look far less dramatic than being denied the right to marry.
Being a great ally, isn’t about being a therapist or counsellor, but it is about being present to offer up a listening and supportive ear to the LGBTI+ people in your life. Ask them if they’re okay; be aware that they may have gone through (and still might be going through) things you may not understand; offer support when you can; and choose your words carefully – words have power.
Derech eretz (respect), kehilla (community), hachlala (inclusion), and achrayoot chevratit (social responsibility) underpin who we are and everything we do at Jewish Care – they are also solid behaviours of a great ally. Having an open mind, an open heart, a sense of justice, and keeping a watch out for LGBTI+ friends, family, neighbours, and work colleagues, well after marching with them at Midsumma Pride, closing Zoom down after a Wear It Purple Day event, or completing your online LGBTI+ education, will do so much more than any protesting, voting, campaigning, or making rainbow cupcakes will ever do.
Although, please keep making the cupcakes!