The Role of Allies

So today on Tumblr there was a big hooplah over this image. A man posted it on his personal blog and someone commented saying that he was silencing female voices, taking away a safe space, and talking about experiences he will never have. People have reacted strongly on both sides of this, with some saying that the original poster is being silenced and invalidated and that we should trust and accept allies, and others saying that all those jumping to his defense are doing it just because he’s a man, that it’s impossible to silence those who have privilege and that he shouldn’t speak about his experiences because they’re not relevant and they distract from the real problems. I’m not going to get into all of it here because it’s not entirely relevant, but it did bring up something that I think is important:

What is the role of allies?

While I am by no means an expert on questions of allies, I’m just going to throw out my thoughts, and I’d love to hear responses. I have a couple experiences of allies:

1. Being a woman who is part of the feminist movement and interacting with allies of the movement

2. Being an ally to the GLBT movement and interacting with those who identify as other than straight

I’ve had very different experiences in these two capacities. As a woman, I frickin’ love allies. While there are some men out there who come in and expect brownie points and love, who expect to dominate the conversation, etc., the vast majority just want to help and are willing to listen. But as a woman, I also want to know what other people’s experiences are. Gender binaries hurt everyone, and one of the ways to move past sexism is to get those who have privilege to understand this. Men’s experiences are paramount to that. We should not berate someone simply for being a man because we assume that he will not understand the experiences. In some cases, yes, an ally does make a mistake, they do mansplain, they do talk over women or say “what about the MEN?”. In those cases we should rationally tell them what we think the problem is. Opportunities for discussion are the places where we will make the most progress. Opportunities for attack are the places where we lose the most ground. So I do believe that we should call out allies when they make mistakes, but we should do it in a rational manner, in a way that asks WHY they did what they did and HOW they can understand who it hurt and why. As a feminist, that is my experience of allies.

I think I agree most thoroughly with ladyatheist (watch out, there’s a bit of swearing):

“Ok, look, when it comes to discussions of equality of any sort, allies are important. No matter what you think, we can’t solve the problems of the country/world all alone. We need allies. Whether you like it or not, allies are very, very important. In the same way we want allies to listen to us and understand the struggles we go through, we also need to listen to them.

We need to understand what the majority of the country/world/society thinks about minorities. (By minorities, I do not only mean racial minorities. I’m talking about all types of minorities.) If we want to have a productive conversation and get rid of the animosity, we ALL need to shut the fuck up, pull our heads out of our asses and LISTEN to each other!

I have no problem at all with allies telling me their experiences with race/class/sexism, whatever the problem is. I value their opinion. It allows me to better understand why certain people may not understand what I say. Now, if said “ally” tries to tell me what I should and should not be doing, then we have a problem. Other than that, we’re fine.

I guess my whole point in this rambling diatribe is to say that we should all just shut the fuck up sometimes and listen.”

However I’d also like to address my experiences as a GLBT ally. I am hardly the most involved in the movement, but I have tried to become involved in my on-campus GSA. Every time I’ve been there, I have felt as if I was unwanted because I identify as straight. I understand that in this case there is a question of safe spaces: many GLBT people want to be overwhelmingly gay in their GSA because it is where they feel safe to completely embody that. But as someone who wants to help, it did make me feel as if I had nothing to contribute, so I stopped showing up. Maybe that’s my own problem: maybe I should have tried harder. But movements should realize that when they alienate allies…THEY ALIENATE ALLIES. They’re driving away people who can build their movement. I’m not sure how that helps anyone. And it certainly made me less interested in exploring how GLBT issues relate to feminist issues and race issues and skeptic issues and all the other problems that need to be addressed in concert, which again hurts people. It makes me less interested in showing up to rallies and in writing letters: is this a privileged person getting butthurt because they have one experience of what NOT having privilege is like? Quite possibly. But I do think that movements need to be pragmatic to some extent. Ideally a privileged person could look at that existence and see that they should get over themselves. But they won’t. And a movement needs allies in order to succeed. So it seems that simply pragmatically the GLBT people that I know would be better off if they had been more welcoming (even if we shouldn’t HAVE to put that responsibility on them).

So my personal opinion is that in order to have equality on any level, we need to recognize all experiences. If we tell allies to go off to their own corner and do ally work there, or to only pay attention to someone else’s experiences and beliefs, then we will never gain a nuanced picture of reality that has a whole spectrum of people who are all acceptable. In order to gain equality, we need to recognize everyone’s right to speak and right to their experiences.


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Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at


  1. November 29, 2011 at 2:03 pm —

    Yes, yes and yes! Although in the case of feminism, I would go even further: That man isn’t an “ally” to feminism, he is simply a feminist. As is anyone who agrees with the basic principle of equality. I think feminists who ignore the fact that sexism also hurts men (not as much, not in the same way, but it hurts them) do feminism as a whole a big disservice. The only way to get everyone on board for the agenda is convincing them that it benefits EVERYONE.

    In the case of GLBT it’s more difficult, since if you don’t identify as any of those it’s hard to call yourself anything but an “ally”. Personally I feel pretty queer but I always feel like a tourist at Stockholm Pride and frankly that makes me less inclined to fight for those issues. But I very much understand the need for a “safe space” and such. It’s complicated!

  2. November 30, 2011 at 5:23 am —

    I think there is a definite difference between a guy bringing attention to how patriarchy affects them and a guy moaning about how his privilege is being taken away. This fits into the former category, and people are funny to think it is the latter. I don’t get that.

    I guess (as Felicia already said) you don’t have guy feminist allies, you have feminists, but the same is not true for LGBT. I agree with what Felicia says about this.

  3. December 5, 2011 at 10:34 pm —

    Spitting on people whose privilege means they don’t have to take your side but who choose to because they believe in your message seems like a good way to end up alone and kill your movement.

  4. December 6, 2011 at 1:12 pm —

    Well… one of the things with LGBT spaces and allies is that… well, it’s not just about feeling safe to fully embody your identity. It’s feeling safe to discuss everything. It’s feeling like everyone else in the room already understands where you’re coming from. It’s having a space where you can feel at home and part of a community, where EVERYWHERE ELSE you always feel alien and other and different. Gay bars exist because every other bar is a straight bar. LGBT pride parades are necessary because there are constant straight pride parades… we call them traffic.

    Most of us absolutely do support and accept straight and cis allies. But sometimes we need spaces that are our own. Spaces where we can share things that we may not comfortable sharing elsewhere. Spaces where we don’t need to *explain* everything all the time. Do you know what I mean?

    I am extremely grateful that the few trans support spaces I go to have a policy of not including cis people… not even SOs… it provides a very real sense of safety. I know that no one is going to accidentally misgender me, or accidentally compromise my privacy. Everyone knows the issues already, because they’re dealing with them themselves. And most of all, it gives me a space where i can talk about certain things (sometimes embarrassing, sometimes private, sometimes angry, etc.) that I would NEVER talk about in the presence of cis people.

    So sometimes, when a policy or just sensibility in a queer space is less than welcoming to straight or cis people, it’s not out of animosity or because we don’t appreciate the support. It’s just because we NEED a few spaces we can call our own, and talk about queer stuff with other queers.

    Sort of like although you may want male allies to feminism, it would be understandable to not want men in a women’s domestic violence shelter. Due to a particular context, that can make the environment feel unsafe to some of the women there.

    Although… did GSA in this case stand for Gay Student Alliance or Gay-Straight Alliance? If the latter, it should definitely be a welcoming space for allies, since that’s sort of the point. :p

    • December 6, 2011 at 1:26 pm —

      I 100% understand all of these points, and I think that’s why I think it’s an issue we need to talk about. In my personal experience, the organization was a gay-straight alliance (technically it’s called Gay, lesbian or whatever, but the idea is that it’s supposed to be an activist group that includes all sexual identities). I agree that safe spaces are important, but I think it would help everyone if we were explicit about what is a safe space and what isn’t so that we don’t get a group that ALLOWS allies, but then treats them like they’re infringing on a safe space.

      I always think being explicit and communicating helps :)

  5. December 11, 2011 at 12:46 pm —

    I completely agree that this is an issue that needs to be addressed. There is nothing wrong with wanting to have a safe space within which you feel you can talk about your personal experiences with similar others. There is something wrong, however, if you advertise a space as accepting of all people and then ostracize certain groups.

    Personally, I attended two different colleges and tried to join their gay straight alliances as an ally. Both groups made me feel like I didn’t belong and like they didn’t want me there. One group even went so far as to implement a new rule requiring a permission slip from my parents to attend (I was 17 and attending the college), with full knowledge that my parents are bigoted and would never give me permission. Looking back, I realized I could have gone to the student association because this sort of thing is not allowed, but who wants to be a part of a group who goes so far as to try to ban you from attending purely based on age and orientation?

    These experiences did not change my views on equality in any way, but they did keep me from being a stronger proactive advocate. This sort of mentality is a huge barrier to understanding and equality.

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