How to be an ally

September 22, 2012 § 3 Comments

I’ve been trying to write this post for a long time – since I began to be asked the question on an increasingly regular basis, about two years ago. It feels easy to answer in a noisy pub, or a over a cup of coffee – with lots of waving of hands and ‘you know’s – and not so easy to put down on virtual paper. There are already several good guides out there to the specifics of being a trans ally – but, maybe, there’s still space for the more foundational elements to be addressed.


It was only when I was forced to answer others’ questions about being an ally that I really started to analyse the assumptions I had about that role – my inhabiting of it in regard to others, and of them to me. The multiple planes on which being an ally plays out: gender, sex, race, class, disability, illness, sexuality, religion, appearance etc. The interactions it covers: political, social, interpersonal, academic. How is being an ally like being a friend, and how is it like being family? Or neither, or sometimes both?


Three “rules” struck me as fundamental to how I understood myself to be allied to others, and how I expected others to behave towards me as allies. Listen, research, challenge. I think you could do far worse.



And by ‘listen’ I mean, of course, really listen. Acknowledging someone’s words and really understanding them are two different things. So much misery caused by people assuming their own life experiences to be universal, and extrapolating everyone else’s from theirs without even bothering to ask. Activism needs empathy to succeed – but how can empathy start without sitting down, shutting up and taking someone else’s story in?


I think that nearly all of us are guilty of assuming too much sometimes – frequently towards others nominally included in the same groups as we are. I remember how surprised I was when I first met trans men who gladly kept their breasts – it had never occurred to me that that would be a possibility. All other body configurations, yes – but because of my own intense dysphoria around that area (without even being a man) – well, I’d been lazy enough to stop questioning. Thankfully, not lazy enough to stop listening. It’s not only easy but, frequently, fascinating. Everyone – listen more.



I know that some people maintain a hard line about the limitations of research vs. lived experience. I’m not one of those people. Frankly, the extraordinary ability of books, visual art, film, music and blogging to convey lived experience in the most visceral way possible fills me with wonder and hope. Again – research is not only a duty, but a joy. Taking on the responsibility of spending a certain amount of time each day learning about other people’s lives is a glorious thing. Terrifying and heart-rending, but glorious. All just a google away. For trans resources in particular, try here, here and here.



For myself, I believe that an ally challenges the world in three ways. First, and most importantly, they challenge themselves. Constantly. The way they were raised, the lies they were fed, the biases and sophistries lurking in every corner. Secondly – they challenge others who share their privileges. If they’re white they don’t let racism go uncheck. If they’re cis then they take the time to explain why a transphobic joke is harmful. They use the advantage they were randomly assigned to crack the system open. Thirdly – and I know that not everyone will agree with me here – I believe that a true ally can challenge the movement they’re involved in. Not ‘challenge’ as in insult, or stumble in blindly, or bring up some ridiculously simple and offensive idea that nearly every member of said movement has heard countless times before. But to offer the challenge of new ways of thinking, of acting, of strategy? That’s too valuable to turn down. To really be an ally you have to put your whole identity, your whole heart, on the line – and if you’ve done that then I believe you get to add your voice to the discussion. We’re so sick of hearing the clueless claim that their ‘objective’ outsider status gives them unique insight into oppression – understandably. But it saddens me when cis friends and family tell me that they’re worried to share their thoughts on trans issues – useful, helpful thoughts – in case it’s seen as appropriative. The fight for equality seems too important to risk missing a single good idea – and I think that allies can have some very good ideas.


So – three thoughts. And not particularly deep ones. A beginning, rather than anything definitive – and, in that vein – how would you be an ally? How would you want someone to be an ally of yours?


§ 3 Responses to How to be an ally

  • Anji says:

    I think the biggest thing an ally can do, for me, is to accept being told they’ve done something wrong. Just today I challenged someone who considers themself an ally on something, and they immediately went on the defensive about their behaviour. Instead of refusing to accept they’ve done something wrong, or trying to come up with excuses for their actions, the answer to “this harms me/my community” should be “I am sorry; how could this be approached in a better manner?”

  • feministplus says:

    Thanks for these thoughts. I was particularly challenged (haha) by your suggestion that allies can challenge existing movements. I think you’re probably right in the abstract, but it would be an idea that I would hesitate to endorse in any other setting than with highly trusted friends who are already awesome allies, one-to-one or in a small group. I have seen far too many “allies” who begin with that idea, who first approach the community they’re trying to help already thinking that they can bring shiny new insights to the table. Without having done literally years of listening and dismantling their own privilege, the result I’ve seen far too often is their oppressing and silencing people they claim to be helping; in particular (as Anji says) they often get defensive if challenged, or even if they just don’t get enough attention and support for their presence or ideas.

    I think the first step of radical ally politics is to recognise that, by definition, allies hold more power than the people they’re trying to help. So allies first need to focus on dismantling this power, and then we might be able to do something useful. Shameless self-promotion: I wrote about this here

    • cnlester says:

      Oooh – very interesting post – thanks for the self-promotion!

      That’s why challenging comes after listening and research. And why ‘sit down, shut up and listen’ is the most important thing of all 😉 x

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