Recently my 14-year-old brought a bright yellow pamphlet home from school, a handout from her school’s gay-straight alliance. The pamphlet was called “Coming Out as a Supporter.” Josie and her friends found it hilarious. Who the heck would need to “come out” as an ally? They giggled at the the booklet’s hushed and somber language:
For a lot of people, learning that someone they know and care about is LGBT can open a range of emotions, from confused to concerned, awkward to honored. It may be hard to know how to react, leaving you with questions about what to say, how to talk about being LGBT and wanting to know what you can do … this guide is designed to help build understanding and comfort.
Comfort? Josie and her friends saw the act of handing out the pamphlet as a vaguely embarrassing attempt by members of the club (who are almost all straight, cisgender younger girls talking at great length about how they’re allies) to feel noble and heroic. So, she and her pals rewrote the text: “When I was about 5 years old, I noticed I was somewhat different from the other children. I seemed to experience something I later identified as empathy. I was an ally. This realization terrified me.”
Was their commentary snotty? Yes. Was it a reflection of the perspective of kids living in an atypically tolerant, heterogeneous community—a progressive public school in downtown New York City in 2016, with many out and gender-nonconforming kids, where the hallways run pink with Manic Panic and where homophobia and transphobia are as frowned upon as a fondness for Nickleback? Also yes.
But underneath all that, there’s a serious question: How can the rest of us—some of whom may not even know words like “cisgender” and “intersex,” or who can’t remember the difference between “pansexual” and “polysexual” despite being yelled at about this repeatedly by our spawn—be helpful allies to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer community? How can we assist without making it All About Us? Here’s some advice from a bunch of experts who are not snarky 14-year-olds.
1. Post-Orlando, call your LGBTQ friends and family. Just say hi. Make sure they’re OK. Reaffirm that you love them. “I’ve been struck by how much it has mattered for my straight friends to reach out and see how I’m doing,” said Idit Klein, executive director of Keshet (an organization that works for full LGBTQ inclusion in Jewish life), in an interview this week. “And I’ve noticed when people who are dear to me have not. A tragedy of such horrific proportions hits in a really raw way, in a way that the day-to-day indignities do not.”
2. Understand that “condemning violence” is not enough. “Condemning violence” is the equivalent of “hopes and prayers.” Yes, it’s important to express horror and sadness, but we have to do more. And we need to see our own role, as straight and/or cisgender (which means the opposite of transgender) people, in creating an environment that lets hate flourish. Your tsk-tsk’ing means little when you’re part of an organization that opposes marriage equality and supports ongoing discrimination. As Klein put it in a recent op-ed, “An assurance of solidarity must move beyond compassion for loss of life to affirming the dignity of those who are alive.” Being an ally means not waiting until our friends and family are dead before we decide to stand with them.
3. Speak up. When your friends, fellow congregants, or family members express a sentiment that LGBTQ people are bad, weird, or less-than, do not be a bystander. Call them on it. As Jews, we sometimes want to see ourselves as perpetual victims, but as straight people whose gender identities match the bodies we were born with, we are part of a system that hurts and demeans others. Guess what: We are the oppressor. Me and you, fellow cis-het person! Klein quotes Abraham Joshua Heschel: “In a free society where terrible wrongs exist, few are guilty, but all are responsible.” Own it.
4. Commend people for the steps they take toward justice … but urge them to go further. “Anyone who wants to be our ally needs to be ready to walk with us the whole way,” Rabbi David Dunn Bauer, director of social justice programming at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, told me this week. “Every gesture is meaningful, but single gestures aren’t enough. For example, going to a gay bar is great, but are you also supporting same-sex marriage? Are you for the full recognition of trans and gender-nonconforming people in your community? Are you speaking out loudly and definitively against conversion therapy? Are you stopping people from perpetuating negative images and insulting language about queer people?”
5. Learn LGBTQ history. After the Orlando massacre, an anonymous older woman in Baltimore began tweeting her thoughts for the younger generation, starting with: “I’m an aging dyke, so I’m just going to get this out of my system: Kids, y’all 35 and under, this wasn’t supposed to happen to you.” The series of tweets went viral. A powerful history of the movement in very few words, it is a must-read and a must-discuss with your children—yes, even the little ones—and parents. It concludes: “RIP, my nieces and nephews and sons and daughters in Orlando. I’m so sorry we didn’t protect you.” (I’m crying again, and I’ve read this a dozen times now.) We Jews like talking about our role in civil rights history. This is another historic battle we all need to be fighting.
6. Keep reminding yourself that allies are supporters; let LGBTQ people lead. “If there’s a gay-straight alliance with no openly LGBTQ kids,” Klein said, “bring in trained speakers as volunteers to tell their stories. Screen films. As a straight ally, you are there for the purpose of standing in solidarity and working to enhance LGBTQ people’s cause, but you can’t put your own experience at the center.” Shuls should be bringing in LGBTQ speakers and asking how to be more welcoming to LGBTQ members. “Look around at Jewish conferences,” suggested Bauer. “Are queer voices represented? At Jewish schools, ask if there are there queer people on faculty. Is space being made for queer families and kids? One aspect of the fight is to stand up for non-traditional household and family constructs.”
7. Know that language matters. Call people what they want to be called. When I was 27, I asked people to stop calling me “Margie,” the nickname I’d gone by since birth. I thought it sounded cutesy and babyish, and I wanted to be “Marjorie.” Lo and behold, almost every person I care about has respected my decision. So, why is accommodating other people’s names and pronouns any different? “If you’re unsure, just say, ‘What pronouns do you use?’ ” suggested Hannah Simpson, a Jewish trans advocate, in an interview. Refusing to use someone’s name of choice, or the pronouns they themselves use, is mean. Language is a tool for human connection. “An important part of being an ally is realizing is that you have the privilege of not thinking about things that people who are gay or trans have to think about all the time,” Simpson said. “Cisgender people don’t need to think, ‘I’m cisgender!’ But you are.” Also, please don’t say “transgendered.” “You don’t say someone is lesbianned,” Simpson said drily. “It’s not something that happens to us, it’s who we are. It’s part of the normal variation of humanity.” If you screw up—and hey, we all do—apologize and correct yourself. Bauer recalled: “Once when I was speaking, I said ‘mothers and fathers,’ and thought a) David, you’re queer and b) you know that not every family has a mother and a father! So I stopped. I said, ‘I’m sorry. That was the wrong thing to say. We have parents. We have people who take care of us.’ ” He concluded: “Be willing to hit the rewind button publicly.”
8. Maybe stop thinking so much in binaries. “There are as many genders as there are political parties, but two of them make a lot of noise and overshadow the rest,” Simpson said with a little laugh. To continue that metaphor, if a person is neither a Republican nor a Democrat, they’re not necessarily “confused” or “undecided.” Maybe they’re a Libertarian or an Independent! Telling someone who doesn’t identify with traditional categories that they just haven’t figured things out yet is insulting. “If you’re in the middle, you’re not less,” Simpson said. “Boundaries are artificial and arbitrary in many ways. We have many denominations of Judaism and many flavors of Christianity. Binaries don’t explain the entire story.”
9. Realize that religious intolerance is still intolerance. “There’s a canard that speaking up for LGBTQ rights is a form of oppression of people who are religious homophobes,” Bauer said. “We have to stop giving that argument the time of day.” Instead of snarling at haters on Facebook, my own favored strategy, he suggested demonstrating respect for religious homophobes’ humanity. “We respect their being created, as we all are, b’tzelem Elohim [in God’s image],” he said, “But that doesn’t mean we tolerate hate speech.” How should I have responded to that “But the Torah says” guy on Facebook I went off on? “You could have said, ‘Hey, Shmuly, when you said that the Torah calls homosexuality an abomination, while the blood was still wet on the ground, that was not derech eretz: a decent way of being,” Bauer suggested. But he also noted, “As far as I’m concerned, our pain over seeing our people murdered trumps someone else’s pain over not living in a world that conforms to their religious views.”
10. Remember: Well-behaved women (and queers) rarely make history. “Those of us [LGBTQ people] who have survived—who haven’t been murdered or beaten—have done so by occasionally retreating,” Bauer pointed out. “We’ve survived by letting people speak abusively. We’ve survived by not holding hands in public. But we can only gain ground by being militant. Look at ACT UP and the Stonewall Riots to see what can happen with forthright protest.” And in the wake of Orlando, and of increasing attacks on trans women of color, “We’re now learning the limited usefulness of the tactical retreat,” Bauer said. “When we retreat, killers still pursue us. So we have to stand up for ourselves and call out not just the violent gun-toters but the people who passively permit homophobia.”
11. Don’t expect a cookie for being an ally. As Josie and her friends note, simply embracing someone else’s humanity isn’t worthy of applause. Many LGBTQ activists are somewhat bewildered by the “allies flag,” which shows a rainbow with an “A” superimposed on it. Uh, why do we need our own damn flag? Are we worried that if we wave a rainbow flag, someone may (gasp) think we’re queer? Or do we want a special straight-savior salute for supporting The Other? Furthermore, it is tiresome when allies rant and sob and suck all the emotional energy out of a room. Stop being a drama queen. People who are actually living the struggle, people who are actually marginalized, should not be expected to expend their valuable energy to reassure or forgive you.
I’ll give Idit Klein the last word, as this weekend’s Pride celebrations and rainbows and balloons clash with grief and loss. “We celebrate, and we fight on,” she said. “It’s half-full, and it’s half-empty. It’s a half-changed world.”
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Marjorie Ingall is the author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.