Here’s what a good LGBTQ ally looks like

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Unlike Taylor Swift, the best supporters rarely take the spotlight.

There are two kinds of “allies”: those who lift up the queer community, and those who seem most concerned with lifting up themselves. When Taylor Swift dropped her music video for “You Need to Calm Down” earlier this week, she set the LGBTQ community ablaze. While some saw the rainbow-colored, cake-fighting, gay tea party as bringing queer visibility to the masses, others saw another pop star playing around with queer imagery without talking much about LGBTQ people’s actual lives.

As Vox’s Rebecca Jennings points out, while Swift’s song looks like a “powerful example of allyship” on the surface — and does include a call to sign a petition in support of the Equality Act — her queer-signaling outfit, slew of LGBTQ celebrity cameos, and outdated parodies of homophobes are all examples of safe messaging during Pride Month. In a world where corporations like Budweiser proudly “fly the flag for bi pride” and Converse sells the trans flag on a pair of $80 Chucks, Swift is just another figure donning rainbow garb to sell queer people something unnecessary so she can turn a profit.

As a queer trans woman who has covered LGBTQ politics for five years, I would argue that such behavior isn’t empowering to the LGBTQ community; it’s objectifying. Teen Vogue’s politics news editor Lucy Diavolo — also the co-founder of the Trans-Feminine Alliance of Chicago, a discussion group for transgender women and gender-nonconforming people who identify as transfeminine — stresses to Vox that advertisers are obsessed with “rainbows, glitter, and unicorns as marketing props,” which feel like disingenuous depictions of a community that still lives on society’s fringes.

“As a queer trans woman, my life is often misery. So when I see corporations or big-name artists trying to tap into some sanitized version of my identity that’s only about the fun parts, I feel alienated and that huge parts of my experience are erased,” Diavolo tells Vox. “Being queer is about joy, but that joy is often tempered by a great deal of pain; it is through that bitterness that the sweetness is that much sweeter.”

Pride is a celebration rooted in “radical queer liberation” and “fighting back against the various forces that want to erase or exterminate queer lives,” Diavolo says. In its most rebellious form, our community’s celebrations are also protests that challenge the way straight, cisgender allies think about sex and gender. Queerness rejects heteronormativity, or “the idea that binary gender identity and heterosexual orientation” are “the norm” for humanity.

So being a good LGBTQ ally isn’t so much about slapping rainbow branding onto a product as it is amplifying queer life experiences.

A good ally offers financial support

One of the best ways to ensure an LGBTQ person’s livelihood is through direct financial support. A 2016 survey from Prudential Financial finds that LGBTQ respondents experience an income gap “linked to both gender identity and sexual orientation,” with men making more than women but gay men and lesbians receiving, on average, less than their straight counterparts. With income disparity at play, queer people need help just to make ends meet. Whether that’s supporting a marginalized person’s crowdfund to move out from an unhealthy housing situation or donating money to a queer activist group, money can make or break queer people’s stability.

“I think for anyone, direct financial support for LGBTQ people — especially black and brown trans women — is the number one way to support this community’s most marginalized members,” Diavolo says. “Hashtags like #TransCrowdfund are an essential resource if you’re not plugged into networks already sharing fundraiser links.”

homeless person
Oli Scarff/Getty Images News

This is especially true for LGBTQ youth. The Ali Forney Center, a queer youth crisis center in New York, reports that more than 80 percent of its clients are kicked out of their homes, with the rest running away from “abuse, neglect, or a combination of rejection and abuse.” Many of these young queer people are further marginalized: 90 percent lack insurance, 20 percent are HIV-positive, 75 percent have a history with the police, and “about half” are from outside New York state or from other countries altogether. Youth living in rural areas experience even higher rates of bullying, discrimination, and bigoted language at school based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, according to an April study from the nonprofit thank tank the Movement Advancement Project.

“LGBT youth also face disproportionate rates of homelessness, and in rural areas, a lack of services providers with competency serving LGBT youth means this homelessness may be more difficult to recognize and redress,” MAP notes.

Crowdfunding is one of the most popular ways to directly support LGBTQ people. Rainbow Campaign hosts campaigns by LGBTQ folks, and thousands of initiatives for queer financial support can be found on GoFundMe. Searching the phrase “transgender,” for instance, brings up more than 6,000 results.

Uplift the most marginalized in the community

A good LGBTQ ally understands how to lift up not just queer voices but black queer voices, queer sex workers’ voices, and impoverished trans people’s voices, among other identities. Yet the biggest companies, corporations, and celebrities rarely acknowledge their struggles. Instead, we get YouTube adopting a rainbow profile picture while it defends homophobic slurs on its platform, and Joe Biden stopping by Stonewall on the same day he praised the segregation era’s “civility.” When those in power say one thing and do another, fighting for the most marginalized queer people’s rights falls back onto the community’s shoulders.

“I think it’s best to show up and celebrate those who [are] typically most marginalized within queer spaces and media, e.g., trans and gender-nonconforming people, people of color, sex workers, poor and undocumented people,” José Sanchez, a Queer Caucus and Organizing Committee member of the Central Brooklyn Democratic Socialists of America branch, tells Vox. “Looking at the rise of Pete Buttigieg and the popularity of cultural figures like Ellen DeGeneres, I think a lot of people lose sight of the fact that people of color are more likely to identify as queer than whites, and that we suffer disproportionately and systematically from poverty, unemployment, and other economic issues.”

A sign reads, “I love my transgender child!”

As part of Briana Silberberg’s work as a professional community organizer with the New York City Anti-Violence Project, she helps connect marginalized people to advocacy ventures, provides tools to help mobilize queer and HIV-affected communities, and works with projects on “LGBTQ+ advocacy and issues in the realm of LGBTQ+ lives,” like decriminalizing sex work. Silberberg, who is a Swift fan, believes “You Need to Calm Down” depicts bigots as overzealous haters who need to “calm down” in order to stop “[attacking] queer folks.” She argues that the song’s framing “obfuscates a lot of the most important issues queer folks live with every day,” because a good ally needs to find ways to “address people’s material needs” and outright help with “the sorts of issues that are paramount in queer lives.”

“In the current moment, this would mean things like talking about the epidemic of black trans women being murdered, about how the criminalization of sex work targets trans and queer people, about the all-too-routine issues of poverty and homelessness affecting queer people,” Silberberg tells Vox. “Short of talking about queer issues this way is entirely insufficient for being a queer ally. Anyone who pays lip service to something that sounds nice but is meaningless, like that queer people have a right to exist or something, is avoiding actually supporting the lives of queer people.”

Understand the adversity LGBTQ people face

Queer people are people: To be a good ally, it’s important to understand how LGBTQ people’s gender identity and sexuality exist in relation to other social issues. The queer community has a long history with sex work, including but not limited to survival sex, or when someone will “trade sex for basic needs, such as food, shelter, and clothing,” gay men’s health crisis advocacy specialist Kaleb Dornheim, who uses they/them pronouns, explains to Vox. They also face an overwhelming amount of workplace discrimination: The Williams Institute reports that lesbian, gay, and bisexual employees are more likely to report being fired from a job or denied a position compared to their straight counterparts.

This is particularly true in rural areas. While queer people in major American cities “benefit from a panoply of legal protections” at both the state and local level, these protections are often lacking in rural “red states,” according to Lambda Legal staff attorney Taylor Brown.

“There are 30 states that lack comprehensive sexual orientation and gender identity (‘SOGI’) protections in state law for their citizens. In some of these states, LGBTQ people can be fired, denied housing, denied services, and face a whole host of other discrimination, without legal recourse,” Brown told Vox. “The ability to live free from discrimination based on SOGI should not be dependent on where you live. It should be inherent for all people in this country.”

LGBTQ rights activists at the March Against Hatred in St. Petersburg, Russia, November 2014
Valya Egorshin/NurPhoto via Getty Images

LGBTQ people — especially those who are of color, who are gender-nonconforming, or who have participated in sex work — are also more likely to be antagonized by police. Lambda Legal’s “Protected and Served?” report notes that among 73 percent of respondents who had direct contact with police, 32 percent of those who experienced hostile attitudes were respondents of color, and 32 percent were also transgender and/or gender nonconforming. Black and Latinx survey respondents were also “much more likely” than other races to be physically searched by police.

Dornheim stresses that the queer community’s organizers should be “calling out racist police raids/tactics” that “criminalize” sex workers of color, particularly black sex workers, along with focusing on how “police target folks of color, queer and trans folks, and sex workers on the streets.” Allies outside the LGBTQ community also have an important role to play by focusing on the various intersections between the LGBTQ community, sex work, policing, labor rights, immigration discrimination, and housing rights, among many other issues.

“Allies can also be turning out to rallies, marches, turning out to their capital and city hall to talk with representatives to demand support around bills that center sex workers and all the other intersections that I’ve mentioned,” Dornheim said. “You can be contacting the coalitions and organizations that work directly with sex workers and co-sponsor their events, or invite their organizations to your space to explain different issues and services to your members.”

For example, allies can reach out to the Global Network of Sex Work Projects or check out the resources on Liara’s List for more information on sex workers’ rights. For workplace discrimination, Lambda Legal lists LGBTQ citizens’ rights and events to attend. For violence against LGBTQ people, the Southern Poverty Law Center hosts an extensive history on homophobic and transphobic rhetoric, and the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs’ reports track violence targeting the queer community.

Make room for LGBTQ people to exist

Being a good LGBTQ ally also means supporting the community’s artists, hosting panels for queer sex educators, or providing a meet-and-greet space for the most marginalized identities. In an age when lesbian bars are dying and gay bars are forced to cope with gentrification by “[amping] up the camp factor,” as Eater’s Amanda Kludt writes, making room for the LGBTQ community to physically meet up is a radical statement allies need to get behind.

A queer couple
South_agency/Getty Images

Joan Dark, who uses they/them pronouns, handles events management at Bluestockings, a “collectively owned” bookstore and activist center based in Manhattan. Dark works to organize inclusive events for marginalized people, and they strive to help make sure Bluestockings is “as much of a safer space as possible” by “removing” and “denying” those who are anti-trans or anti-sex worker, as well as hosting trainings for things like deescalation, self-defense, and Narcan training, which can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.

“For a lot of us, monetary support is what’s most immediately important, buying books and zines by queer and trans authors to help educate yourself and contribute to the well-being of writers who need their work to sell so that they can keep making a living,” Dark told Vox.

However, rural queer Americans “experience a greater distance” from fellow LGBTQ people, organizations, and resources than their urban counterparts do, according to MAP’s “Where We Call Home” report. The report suggests governments and queer rights organizations should “invest in resources that can increase connection and decrease isolation,” including high-speed and affordable internet, and create directories to “identify existing resources, providers, and other rural-based spaces that support and affirm LGBT people.” Funding for community resources and “libraries, local community centers, mobile health clinics” that are LGBTQ-inclusive can also play a major role in supporting America’s rural queer population.

”[Funders and allies should support] state and local groups already doing advocacy work in rural areas, and invest in these organizations so they [can expand] their efforts and services,” MAP states. “In many cases, the type of work that ‘needs to be done’ in rural areas is already underway by local residents, but without the financial or logistical means to support their efforts.”

Do more than just show up for Pride

The 1969 Stonewall riots were a form of active resistance against oppressive treatment by the New York City Police Department. But in 2019, Pride parades feel like gigantic block parties sponsored by Mastercard, Microsoft, and TD Bank. Straight men and women head into town in their rainbow gear, get drunk, avoid the contemporary queer neighborhoods, and head back home — all while being guarded by an enormous police presence.

Gabriel Garcia-Vera joins with others to show support for LGBTQ couples in Miami, Florida.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Gabriel Garcia-Vera joins with others to show support for LGBTQ couples in Miami.

But even before Stonewall, the LGBTQ community fought for its right to exist in a world primarily built for straight people. In the 1950s, the “Homophile Movement” stressed that gay and lesbian Americans weren’t social deviants but an oppressed class, as queer historian Jeffry J. Iovannone writes for Th-Ink Queerly. In its wake, “working-class gay bar cultures” emerged in “mid-sized cities,” which paved the way for queer solidarity after the Stonewall riots.

June 1969 is an important turning point in LGBTQ history because it fostered a new approach to queer organizing that was “more direct and confrontational,” as Iovannone notes. But focusing too heavily on Stonewall turns it into a historical queer awakening that began in New York City, as opposed to a major event that led to further calls for LGBTQ liberation across the US. In other words, hyperfixating on Stonewall as a coming-out celebration runs the risk of depoliticizing the whole point of the riots in the first place.

“When we situate Stonewall as the genesis, the point of origin, of the modern Gay Rights Movement, we exclude the impact of labor movements, the Black Civil Rights Movement, the anti-Vietnam war movement, youth counterculture, and the broader sexual revolution on gay liberation,” Iovannone warns. “Centering Stonewall has typically resulted in an understanding of the Gay Rights Movement that is white-male centered and exclusionary to lesbians, queer people of color, trans and gender nonconforming people, and working-class queers.”

Pride is more than just Stonewall, and it’s certainly more than just a couple of floats. It is a call for freedom from an oppressive society that targets LGBTQ people’s lives. While same-sex marriage is the law of the land and queer rights are becoming more mainstream, the fight isn’t over; many of the problems that queer people dealt with in 1969, such as discrimination against trans sex workers, are problems that haunt the community in 2019. Sure, Pride Month should be celebratory, but it should always center the queer community’s resilience, its struggle to survive, and the issues that impact all of its members — and do so all year long.

“Please don’t just think about this stuff during Pride Month,” Diavolo says. “June is intended to mark a key moment when a lot of ambient outrage at injustice coalesced, unleashing a wave of radical organizing that helped spawn the modern LGBTQ movement as we know it. Half a century later, we all need to be reminded that many of those injustices and much of that outrage are still all too real.”

In the end, being a good queer ally starts with stepping back and listening to the people you want to help. LGBTQ people know best how to liberate themselves. By truly centering their voices, non-queer folks can provide a form of allyship much more radical than “sunshine on the street at the parade” and choosing to “be GLAAD” instead of “mad,” as Swift says. Showing up where asked — whether to testify against the Trump administration’s transphobic policies or to bring awareness to Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s treatment of queer detainees — is the kind of support that has the power to promote real, lasting change.

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