I am rather fond of the fun bundle of humanity that are the queer* community’s allies: those who align themselves with supporting queer* rights and greater respect for queer* individuals, whether or not they are queer*. In my mind, all allies, including those that display solidarity in a visible way, can be an incredibly important part of larger efforts towards supporting queer* individuals and the community as a whole. However, it would seem some people feel somewhat differently.
There are people within the queer* community who take issue with the way some allies show their support for queer* rights. This might include such heinous acts of displaying ally stickers on objects, or becoming human glitter bombs and marching in pride parades. The argument goes that this type of ally dips their toe into queer* community culture where convenient, fashionable or safe to do so, but takes little time to talk to their queer* friends or family about their experiences. They also have the privilege to opt-out of the queer* experience when the going gets tough. This leaves them incapable of truly understanding what being queer* is like, or what the community needs, rendering their actions almost hollow and meaningless.
But perhaps we should pause before we hop up on this rather rickety high horse of moral outrage that’s trotted out at every seemingly momentous scandal of the day. I think we should take a moment to take stock of some of the knee-jerk assumptions we make about the motivations and activities of this visible ally.
Firstly, as a community, I think we may be quick to assume that by displaying merchandise like an ally sticker, this is the only thing such allies are doing as a tokenistic gesture. Frankly, we have no idea about the other ways they engage with the queer* community, beyond a glance. Many allies do attend marches, speak with queer* friends and family, mentor and counsel those in need. They help lobby governments, vote in a way that helps improve lives of queer* members of the community and engage people who may not support the queer* community in a way that gets through to them – without placing the burden on queer people themselves. The allies that I have been fortunate enough to spend time with have genuinely cared about supporting members of the queer* community, and are not acting as allies just to somehow be seen to support the progressive issue of the day. Further, there are members of the ally community – for example, through the ally training program at the ANU – who are queer*. You can be an ally and part of the queer* community too – an ally is to be there to support people, from the inside and out.
While it is central to talk to your queer* friends and colleagues, and a single piece of merchandise may seem a poor attempt at engagement, this is exactly what putting an ally sticker somewhere visible can invite people to do. It communicates that this is a safe place to be yourself and have a conversation if need be. I think whether you are out as queer* or not, if you are unsure of whether the environment you are in is safe, seeing an ally sticker is a reminder that people support you. It also allows individuals who are not out to know who could help them, without having just to drive in, tell someone and hope for the best. While just displaying merchandise won’t change things overnight, it is the start, not the end. Change takes time – especially change in how society perceives and treats a minority – and is achieved through conversation and human connection.
The argument that allies who are not queer* cannot understand or truly know what being queer* is like is neither here nor there. While yes, they may not be able to comprehend what you are going through, they can empathise, support and stand beside you. On this point, the queer* community is not some paragon of virtue when it comes to intersectionality. We have our issues of racism, classism and sexism, to name but a few, and may not support others when they need it, or in a way that’s appropriate. Queer* people experiencing intersecting oppressions need the support of those in other communities they belong to. To put it bluntly, while as a minority, we should never accept tokenism over real action, we need the support of the wider community to push for meaningful equality. Allies of all identities play a key role in making this happen.
Ultimately, I think that however simplistic or rough-and-tumble the effort, that when people try to display support and solidarity, this is a good thing. They are human, and they are doing their best. They may not understand what living as queer* is like, but that is fine – there is a lot to be said for people who support causes that do not directly impact them, but which they nonetheless support because it is the right thing to do. I would much rather live in a world where people do things they feel are right, however imperfectly, than do nothing at all out of fear that their efforts may not be good enough.