Hey, Allies? You Can Make Mistakes Around Me. It's Okay.
I had a conversation this weekend that left me itching to write this post. It also left me a little scared to write it, because I know it’s going to ruffle some feathers. Not everyone is going to feel the same way, and I’m going to hear about it – perhaps quite harshly. But that’s exactly why I feel I need to write this post in the first place (OMG so meta!).
I won’t get into details about the conversation itself, to protect the anonymity of the person I had it with. But essentially, they were chastised for being a poor ally to the LGBTQ community because they expressed hurt over being aggressively called out – and then they were promptly eye-rolled at, told off, and unfriended.
This type of thing has happened to me, too. But first, a little backstory for those who are reading my blog for the first time: I’m a lesbian who is married to a trans woman and raising three kids, including a trans child. There’s a rainbow over our little suburban home 24/7, but you can only see it if you’re gay enough. (It’s a test. Since everyone’s wearing plaid these days, we needed a more precise detection system.)
Both my wife and child came out within the last three years. This means I’m a member of the greater LGBTQ community, and a close ally to the trans community (one of my trans friends jokingly calls me “honorary trans” because you can’t get much closer to the cause.)
But I’m also relatively new to being an active ally to the trans community. I’m still learning some of the deeper concepts, and because language is always evolving, I’m constantly working on getting it right. To complicate things further, as in many communities, there are disagreements within it about how to discuss certain topics and what narratives are valid. This makes sense, since community members are human beings with their own beliefs and personal stories.
But what all of this means is, I’m going to screw up. I just am. It’s inevitable. Thankfully, it doesn’t seem to happen all that often. I’m careful about the language I use because the last thing I want to do is hurt anyone. I’m also a writer, which helps on the communication front. But every now and then, I will epically botch something.
One time, when I failed miserably at explaining the difference between gender and sex to a troll who was trying to invalidate the existence of trans people, I was called out very publicly and harshly by a trans person. It wasn’t just an education in where I went wrong, it felt like an attack. I was told I was contributing to the death toll of trans people with my language. If the Obama administration could get it right, why couldn’t I? My mistake was several levels of fucked up. It went on, despite my apologies and my promise to learn and do better. I had never felt so ashamed as an ally.
I called my wife over and had her read what I said. She explained, in a kind way, where I went wrong in my language. But by that point, I was sobbing. Not because I made a mistake, but because I was so shaken by the response to my mistake. It was like being screamed at by your boss in front of all your coworkers, rather than called in for a private discussion.
Now, this is where people are going to group into two camps:
Camp 1: The oppressed party has every right to say what they need to say to the person who is oppressing them (which would be me, in this case, with the language I used.) They do not need to educate kindly, they do not need to be gentle with the person who screwed up. A true ally will develop a thick skin and learn to take the lumps because it’s not about them.
Camp 2: The oppressed party should remember the ally is a human being with actual feelings, and deal with them as such. Sure, they made a mistake, but how do you keep your allies if you treat them this way?
So, you’re either going to think I was wrong for being upset about being called out in that manner, or you’re going to be upset I was called out like that in the first place.
I’m not really upset by either at this point, because all that sadness lead me to the Ottawa Humane Society that week, where I adopted the Cutest. Kitten. On. Earth. as a form of therapy. (#worthit)
But if this has taught me anything, it’s that we don’t need two camps. We need to start camping together, instead of glaring at each other from across the field, trying to argue who’s right. There are valid points in both cases.
This experience got me thinking about allies, and how we treat them. Not because of what happened to me – honestly, I can take it and I have an adorable cat to show for it – but because of what happened after. When people saw what had transpired, I started to receive dozens of messages.
Some of these messages were from trans people, telling me they didn’t think I deserved the tongue lashing I had received (again, this goes to show how individuals make up a community.) But most were from folks I consider to be kind, compassionate, relatively privileged, straight, cisgender (AKA not trans) people - people with a fair amount of influence, as far as helping create change go - and the message from all of them was the same:
“What happened to you is exactly why I don’t speak out. I’m terrified of having the same thing happen to me. Because if an ally like you can be attacked like that, what chance do I have?“
Message after message, comment after comment, all the same. These kind, compassionate, relatively privileged, straight, cisgender people are not speaking out – not because they’re afraid of the bigots, but because they’re afraid of the communities they would otherwise support. That’s not good.
I didn’t write about this back then because it was still too raw. I didn’t want to come across as whiny and hurt, because the bigger hurt was done to the trans community that day. I messed up. And you know what? The person who called me on it did have every right to do it as they saw fit.
However, there are consequences to our actions. And the conversation I had this weekend reminded me of that.
If I didn’t have two trans people in my nuclear family, I likely would have gone silent after that day. If not for unconditional love, why would I speak out in support of a cause when the people in that cause might kick me when I get it wrong? What’s my incentive?
For many people, there is no incentive strong enough to keep going once that happens a few times. They’ll just go quiet. And then we lose allies.
So let me take off my trans ally hat and put on my lesbian hat for a minute so I can say this with complete authority to everyone I know and everyone reading this:
If you are a good person who makes a mistake around me when discussing sexual orientation, I will not attack you. I will gently correct you, but I will not chastise you. I will educate you, but I will do it with love. Always.
I will do this because I don’t want to scare off the people who wish to stand beside me. I don’t want you running in the opposite direction because I shamed you for doing a very human thing and making a mistake.
Yes, there will undoubtedly be times when it’s harder to be nice, particularly if people have made the same mistake you have countless times before you did. My energy might be running low that day, that week, or that year. But that’s not your fault, and I won’t make it your fault.
I also won’t suggest you educate yourself without providing you with at least a starting point or two. I see people say, “It’s not my job to educate you” a fair bit. Totally true. It’s not their job or my job. But I’ll give you some guidelines so you don’t go off into the scary, scary internet and find sites that will tell you the gay agenda controls children’s minds through radio waves emanating from Elton John’s basement. (It’s actually true, but I’m not allowed to talk about it.)
I want you walking beside my family. I want you here. I don’t want you to be uncomfortable or outright afraid around me. The last thing I need is for you to give up and decide you can’t do anything right, so what’s the point? That just breeds animosity rather than connection. It creates a divide between us. That’s the opposite of how to build an army of support.
I can’t guarantee that everyone else will treat you the same way. People walk their own paths, and some won’t consider kindness in their responses to be as important. But if you have questions, you can ask me. If you make a mistake, we’re still cool. I promise.
That’s how I want to be treated, and so that’s how I will treat you. Full stop.
Ok, back to the ally hat. I will continue to make mistakes. That’s a given. Thankfully, I have two great teachers in my own family and many wonderful trans friends to learn from. I’m fortunate that way.
We are all still learning, and there is far more to connect us than to divide us. I'll harness the power of that connection over creating a bigger divide any day.
Must go call Elton on the sparkle phone. We need to set up a North American commlink to increase signal strength.
I’m thinking Lady Gaga's house...