As the Queer Resource Center’s Community Outreach Coordinator, part of my job is getting straight people to care. The more time I spend working on bringing allies into our space, however, the more I realize that a significant gap in ally-directed education has developed in our community. Put simply, our allies are learning how to respectfully participate in intergroup dialogue about queer people in a low-stakes academic context, but they aren’t developing pragmatic ally skills meant for the real world, where the stakes are so much higher.
Let me be clear — I’m really happy with the progress that so many of my classmates have made in holding effective discussions about identity. When I talk about being a gay man on campus, I can clearly see how my peers have internalized all the theoretical principles of being good allies. They validate my experience of my own identity. They don’t presume an objective perspective on my experiences. They even ask before taking candy from the QRC because they don’t want to drain resources that aren’t meant for them. These things are great, but our allies aren’t learning how to put them to use when it truly matters.
In my four years at Amherst, I’ve only encountered open homophobia a handful of times. In each instance, however, I was confronted with the painful realization that people I assumed were “allies” were too scared to speak up. A roommate, a student group acquaintance and a fellow Val front room sitter — the same people who validated my identity and assured me I was welcome here — sat silently as I defended my community, only to meekly apologize for their silence after the fact. These people were great allies in the safe context of private or group discussion, but they could not put their theoretical principles into practice when I needed them the most.
It was easy to blame this failure to act entirely on the people themselves: “They’re just cowards,” I would think to myself as I lay awake at night, replaying the events in my mind. As I’ve thought more about these incidents, though, I’ve started to wonder if part of the gap in action comes from ally education itself. We spend so much time on theory for low-stakes interactions, which make up the majority of queer identity discussions on this campus. The problem is, those principles don’t translate well to more serious confrontations. If someone has been told to always defer to queer people on queer topics, to not take up space by speaking too much in queer settings and to never act like a savior, isn’t it only natural that they would stand silently and allow queer people to defend themselves alone? Rather than representing some sort of betrayal, doesn’t this passive approach fit those principles perfectly?
This is precisely why we need more bystander intervention training as part of our ally education. It’s true: Straight people shouldn’t walk around acting like saviors, charging into queer spaces and screaming their opinions. At the same time, though, allies should learn that there are instances in which this response is exactly what queer people need. In the few times I’ve been seriously concerned for my safety as a gay guy in the real world, I’ve never worried that a straight ally would use the wrong term or speak too much on my behalf. When the stakes are high, you’ll take whatever support you can get, and there is always time to unpack it later.
Here’s an example: I remember once going to a New Year’s Eve party during winter break and hearing someone launch into a virulently homophobic speech. I felt my stomach drop as I realized that, once again, I’d be all alone in standing up for myself. Before I knew it, though, three of my brothers appeared from the kitchen, pulled the guy aside, yelled at him and made him come up to me (as the token gay, of course) to personally apologize. Was this the best way of handling the situation? Certainly not. Did they miss the mark on some things? Obviously. Was it better than having to publicly defend my community all by myself in a room full of seemingly hostile strangers? Absolutely.
Since that night, we’ve talked about the incident and how they could be more effective allies in the future, but what mattered in the moment was that they, as allies, opened their mouths and stood up for something that they intuitively understood was wrong. Our Amherst allies would do well to learn from their example by putting the desire to do the right thing above the desire to do the thing right.
The missing link, as I mentioned, is more practice at being an active bystander. So, if you hear someone saying something homophobic or transphobic, open your mouth and speak. If you don’t know enough to say something, start educating yourself now. If someone is already defending themselves, let them know that you’re right there beside them. You will undoubtedly mess up along the way, and even queer people make mistakes when talking about other queer people, but that’s the only way we teach each other the skills to actually make a difference when it really matters. If allies can make a stronger commitment to speaking up and speaking out, I know the queer community will meet them halfway.