Posted by: A | 9 June 2012

On Allies and Trust

When I was about 10, the first of several anti-gay rights referenda ended up on the Oregon ballot. Having grown up in a very sheltered (though not actually conservative, despite the sound of this) family, I had no idea what the words ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, or ‘homosexual’ meant, but they were around me so much that fall that I felt I should know and was embarrassed to ask. I finally got the answer in a class-wide discussion that lasted for an entire morning. But I learned a much more valuable lesson that day too…

That morning was one of two occasions in three years that I can remember my much beloved upper elementary teacher completely failing to stay neutral on a highly politicized topic, though even at the time I could tell she was trying her darndest. In the course of that conversation, I not only learned what the word ‘gay’ meant, but I learned that my teacher had gay friends whom she cared about deeply. The idea of same-sex relationships was definitely new and weird to me, though, and I couldn’t quite convince myself to feel comfortable with it at the time. (Little did I know…) Since I had (and have) a great deal of respect for that teacher, I also couldn’t quite bring myself to support a law that would hurt people she cared about, so I came to the conclusion that seemed completely obvious to me at the time: I hope I never meet a gay person, because I would feel really uncomfortable, but how dare anyone try to take other people’s rights away just because those people are strange. [1]

That conversation made an intense impact on me, and I thought about it a lot over the next few years. The following year, at my new school, we started organizing a rally against the next anti-gay rights measure to be put on the Oregon ballot. The rally never happened, for a whole lot of reasons, but it got me thinking a lot too. The entire time we were working on this rally, it never occurred to me that any of the older students or teachers working on it might have a personal investment on not having that measure pass. That bill would pretty much have made gay teachers illegal, and it was only a few years later that I realized it could have cost some of my teachers their careers. But at the time, I just assumed that they had the same fairly obvious reason for supporting gay rights that I had: I have no idea how anyone could want or have a same-sex relationship, but restricting people’s rights just because they are gay is essentially saying “my experience of the world is more valid than your experience of the world.”[2]

That lesson has been absolutely crucial for me in being an ally to Emily over the last six years. I literally have no way to relate to the part of Emily that tells her she’s a woman despite her XY body. In Whipping Girl (one of my favourite books on transgender issues ever), Julia Serano explains that we have three ways of experiencing our gender: we have the gender of our physical body, the gender that other people give us (this is some combination of how we express ourselves and the gender other people see when they meet us), and our own internal sense of gender, which is not the same as either of these. As a cis woman, I only consciously experience my gender in two ways: my body, and the way other people perceive me. I am completely blind to any internal conception of my own gender. That doesn’t prove a darn thing about whether or not I have an internal conception of my own gender (and at this point, I’m convinced I do). It’s just that, since it never conflicts with the other two aspects of my gender, it is transparent to me.

But that means I have to be willing to accept Emily’s experience of having three (at least) aspects to her gender as valid, even though I can’t relate to her experience. If I weren’t willing to do that, I’d probably be convinced that her sense of gender, like everyone else’s, was learned from the way people treated her as a child, and that the belief that she was actually a woman was some sort of weird delusion. Of course, if I believed that, we probably wouldn’t be getting married…

P.S. When I learned that lesson about trusting other people’s experiences, I thought it was utterly obvious. It’s only been since I grew up that I realized just how few people have actually figured that out. What a tragedy.

[1] Dear gay friends who just read this: I’ve grown up a lot in the last 20 years. I was 10. Cut me some slack!

[2] It seems to me that this rhetoric has changed quite a bit in the two decades or so since all of this happened. At the time, the anti-gay rights folks were inclined to deny gay people even the basic dignity of having genuinely loving relationships, implying that they were only interested in promiscuous sex and were probably perverted in other ways too. Now that the political debate has turned towards gay marriage, what I hear more often is not a denial that gay people have genuine, loving, valid relationships, but that those relationships are somehow less valuable or moral than straight relationships and therefore should not be given the same legal status. Of course, if you spend a lot of time listening to the conservative echo chamber, that might not be the case, but…



  1. It seems to me that one of the first points of Ally 101 should be something like “Believe and respect people about their lived experience”. This goes for allyship in general, not just for trans* people.

  2. “[1] Dear gay friends who just read this: I’ve grown up a lot in the last 20 years. I was 10”

    I am HORRIBLY OFFENDED that a 10-year-old is subject to social conditioning! (just kidding.)

    Seriously, I can’t see someone biting your head off about this unless they’ve lost perspective on children. It may be sad that you grew up with heteronormative assumptions, but it’s certainly understandable. So did I; mostly, this held me back from realizing that I’m gay (or queer, more accurately).

    • I don’t seriously expect anyone to be offended by said opinion. I’ve met some people who will read *anything* that sounds even slightly un-PC and jump on it without reading the surrounding context. Of course, those people are unlikely to read the footnote either.

      • Oh. And they’re friends of yours? 😦
        (suddenly wondering if I have friends like that too; I don’t think so)

  3. I think you may have a blueprint for the stages you go through to become an ally to anyone:
    1. You make me uncomfortable.
    2. On principle I don’t want to stop you from being yourself, but I’m not convinced that you and/or your experiences are legitimate.
    3. I am listening to you and I see you as authentic, which allows us form a relationship as two whole people with both differences and similarities.

    • Kinda makes sense though it’s probably not the same every time. Still, I would break #3 up into more pieces, and possibly add to it, when it comes to allyship:
      3. You’re just like me really! You deserve respect and I shouldn’t treat you any differently from anyone else.
      4. You deserve respect but you’re not just like me in every way, and I should treat you as well as anyone else, but maybe not always the same. (e.g. being conscious of triggers for trans women)
      5. People shouldn’t be uncomfortable around you or treat you badly because of your identity, and I will work to support you and change their minds. I want to be a good friend to you!

      And for political allyship:
      6. People shouldn’t be uncomfortable around people like you or treat them badly because of your shared identity, and I will work to support you and others, and change the minds of those who don’t get that. Because it’s the right thing to do!

      Or something like that.

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