April 30, 2016

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

- Martin Luther King, Jr.

Every February, information is shared about the importance of recognizing and celebrating Black History Month: why it’s celebrated, who is celebrated... and then, at the end of the shortest month of the year, it seems like the importance and recognition is lost for too many.

Meanwhile, every day, we witness acts of conscious and unconscious bias--not to mention acts of violence--targeting specific groups within the LGBTQ community. From hateful commentary attacking people based on their faith, to reprehensible acts of violence towards people of color and trans women: Each day, more and more, the lines that separate people by race, gender, sexuality, and even economic status, become more visible.

The need for unity around issues of race and against discrimination and exclusion is crucial, and while there have been some strides as a movement, there’s much more to be done. This year, you can move from awareness of issues and perhaps celebration of differences to real action that affects change.

PFLAG is the ally organization, and you can put into practice everything you know about being a good ally, and apply it to working in support of any person or group being marginalized or made to feel other. And while there is no “one way” to be an ally, PFLAG’s approach through the Straight for Equality program is a great place to start!

First and foremost, if you haven’t read guide to being a straight ally, a publication from the PFLAG National Straight for Equality project, now is the time. The fourth edition was recently released, and it is chock FULL of information that can be put into practice, not just to help people become allies to the LGBTQ community, but to help each of us be good allies to other communities as well.

Here are some starting points for all allies:

  • Be willing to learn. In guide to being a straight ally, it’s made clear that allies are people who recognize that, while they don’t know all that can be known about the issues or experiences of people to whom they want to be an ally, they do want to learn and understand more. So make it a point to learn.

    Black History Month is a perfect example of an opportunity to learn more about the history of the civil rights movement, and the issues still being faced today by people of color. For example, do you know why Black History Month is celebrated in February? That’s a great place to start! Visit the website of the founders--Association for the Study of African American Life and History, or the ASALH--to learn more about it.

  • Be willing to listen. When someone takes the time to share with you their lived experience, hear them. Really hear them. Instead of using it as an opportunity to explain why you’re not racist (sexist, ageist, ______ist), or to explain that you know “exactly” how they feel, use it as an opportunity to stop talking and start taking in information.

    And here is something important to bear in mind as you do: You are hearing the experience of one person, whose experience is not the experience of an entire group of people, nor is it that one person’s responsibility to speak out as a representative of a group to which they belong. A good ally bears this in mind, and simply uses what they learn of this unique experience to further inform what they are starting to learn.

  • Be willing to be uncomfortable. Sometimes, the hardest part of being an ally can be sitting in discomfort: whether it’s discomfort with new information, discomfort with hearing you may have made a mistake--in the present or in the past--in your ally attempts, or even discomfort in being an ally, with the privileges that sometimes come along with that designation.

    Yes, it’s hard to be uncomfortable, but it’s a wonderful opportunity to go within and explore where you stand and what you believe, to reflect and review. If you can sit within the discomfort, you’ll find that there’s an enormous amount of personal growth that can happen in that place.

  • Be willing to act. This is where your privilege as an ally can make a difference--it can still be challenging to stand up, but don’t let the challenge deter you.

    Whether it’s asking someone not to use inappropriate words, speaking with a friend about poorly thought out behaviour, making sure the needs of others are considered when making decisions, or speaking up when an inappropriate joke is shared, each of these can make a big difference.

So get started: Be the ally to others that you want others to be for you. But in doing so, raise the bar for yourself. Rather than following the Golden Rule and assume that others want to be treated like you do, go with the PLATINUM rule: Treat others the way THEY want to be treated. (That means you’ll have to ask and listen to find out!) In this way, slowly but surely, you won’t just be talking about the importance of intersectionality….you will start becoming the change you want to see in the world.