Allies to the LGBT+ community have been instrumental in the fight for rights – as they have been in every minority’s struggle. The August 1963 March on Washington, in which Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I have a dream speech”, saw some 250,000 people demand civil rights for African Americans, around 95,000 of those protesters were white. While the loudest and most important voices of that protest were those of the African Americans, the white allies helped relay their message across white America.
Allies can be an important bridge between communities, by empathising with the struggles of one minority and expressing the need for change to the majority. Nothing can truly be accomplished in any form of society until the need for change is acknowledged by most of the people.
In 1988, Margaret Thatcher’s government introduced a law banning teachers from “promoting” homosexuality in schools. The law prohibited teachers from discussing even the possibility of same-sex relationships with their students. Councils were forbidden from having gay literature or films stocked in libraries. The existence of the LGBT+ community was erased from the youth of Britain.
"Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay," Thatcher said.
"All of those children are being cheated of a sound start in life. Yes, cheated."
"Allies can be an important bridge between communities, by empathising with the struggles of one minority and expressing the need for change to the majority."
“The pernicious influence of the clause unquestionably played a huge role in legitimising hate,” wrote Joe Sommerlad for the Independent. “(It was) reinforcing playground homophobia and bullying, demonising LGBT+ children and ensuring many stayed imprisoned in the closet for fear of social reprisals or disapproval.”
Lisa Power, one of the founders of the LGBT+ advocacy group Stonewall, says the organisation was born in reaction to these laws. They mistakenly thought the LGBT+ community could fight this new wave of homophobia on their own, without the help of straight allies. They quickly saw how futile the fight was without that allyship.
Matthew Todd, writing for the Guardian, argues that straight allies were vital in turning the tides of social progress. “It’s clear LGBT people making their voices heard made the biggest impact on the progression of equality, but straight allies were crucial, too.” Many straight people helped change the public perception of queer people during this time, from TV producers who introduced gay characters, to agony aunt Claire Rayner demanding “we need to change this fucking stupid law.” Even political support from across the aisle helped, Conservative MP Edwina Currie tabled the 1994 age of consent amendment, helping shift her party’s views on homosexuality.
Straight allies are still crucial in the fight today. In 2017, straight men across the Netherlands publicly held hands to protest an uptick in homophonic violence, which culminated with a group of men violently attacking a gay couple who were holding hands. Alexander Pechtold, leader of the Democrats 66 party held hands with his colleague Wouter Koolmees and walked through Amsterdam. “In the Netherlands we think it is quite normal to express who you are,” he said. “It’s important that we show this week that it’s absolutely normal.”
US Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Tammy Duckworth frequently stick out their neck for LGBT+ rights, recently rebuking the President’s proposed transgender ban. Gillibrand wrote: “This morning transgender service members put on their uniform and showed up for their military duties to be told by their Commander in Chief via Twitter that he doesn’t want them in ‘any capacity’. These service members are willing to die for their country, and this is an insult to their brave and honourable service.”
While Duckworth wrote: “When my Black Hawk helicopter was shot down in Iraq, I didn’t care the American troops risking their lives to help save me were gay, straight, transgender or anything else. All that mattered was they didn’t leave be behind. If you are willing to risk your life for our country and you can do the job, you should be able to serve – no matter you gender identity, sexual orientation or race. Anything else is discriminatory and counterproductive to our national security.”
The Senators’ impassioned pronouncements helped put the ban on an indefinite hold.
"Straight men across the Netherlands publicly held hands to protest an uptick in homophonic violence."
In the workplace, straight allies can be just as important. Stonewall writes that “Straight people have a critical role to play in creating gay-friendly workplaces… Their involvement – often precisely because they’re not gay themselves – can have a transformative effect on the culture of an organisation and the workplace experience of staff, both gay and straight.”
Suli Hampson, who works for Lloyds Banking Group, became an ally when a friend of hers came out to her in university. “He wanted to tell people so he could be his true self. I will never forget that conversation,” she said.
“I had a lightbulb moment of my own: I hadn’t fully appreciated that you don’t come out once, you come out every time you change jobs, location, groups of friends — I had not appreciated how draining that is for colleagues.”
Hampson joined the LGBT+ network at Lloyds to help her queer colleagues.
Karin Cook, group director of operations at Lloyds, redid the LGBT+ awareness guidelines for the company, guidelines “so that colleagues become familiar with key terminology, see role models and understand the complexities of gender identity.
“I was there myself, I saw how much people cared, how much people learnt and how committed everyone was and is to driving a more open and welcoming environment.”
Vicky Hayden, head of private sector membership programmes at the LGBT campaign group Stonewall, says the way ally networks run are varied: “Everyone’s way of being an ally is different: some want to be visible by attending Pride parades and wearing rainbow pin badges, while others might focus on stamping out homophobic, biphobic and transphobic comments in their workplace.”
She says either way the existence of these networks can be tremendously helpful. In countries such as Russia or India an allyship program can be “a better way to get traction than asking people to come out as part of an LGBT network group.”
Straight allies continue to be an important aspect of the LGBT+ community. They can be our siblings, our parents, our friends, our co-workers. Whether it’s implementing a formal allyship program at work, or simply reaching out and forming a new friendship, these allies are crucial in bridging the gap between our community and rest of the world.
By Tim Gibson