Dear Straight Allies: Stop Talking and Start Listening — and Then Take Action
Many of you know my dear friend Piper Rose. She's an active leader in the LGBTQ community in Denver and far beyond, a larger-than-life, unconditionally loving person who works every day to create safer spaces for her fellow humans. A few months ago, she told me she was planning a dance party — a queer dance party meant to act specifically as a safe space where members of the LGBTQ community could come together.
As a person who advocates for safe spaces — places where people can commune and socialize around art, music and performance without fear of being marginalized, persecuted, threatened or harmed for being themselves — I was excited for the dance party. Safe spaces are always needed; Denver doesn't have enough of them. As she was planning the party, Piper mentioned that it would probably be a queer-only space, meaning that people like me — straight people — would not be invited.
At first I was upset. What did she mean that I wouldn't be welcome in a safe space? Me? The person who has been an ally since before she knew what being an ally meant? A woman who co-created Titwrench, an experimental music and art festival built on the idea of bringing marginalized and underrepresented artists to the stage? The teenage girl who took her then-four-year-old sister to a vigil for Matthew Shepard in the hopes of showing her how important it is to support and fight for our LGBTQ friends and family? Me? I wasn't going to be welcome in a queer safe space? This is unfair, I thought. To be honest, I was pissed.
A few days passed and my ego calmed down, and I had a big revelation: a safe space for queer folx is not for you or about you, Bree. And that's okay. It's not only okay, it is reality — the reality that even as a straight person who gets to freely navigate the world in many capacities, there are some instances when I won't be invited. There's a difference between being unwelcome and not being invited; I've always been welcomed by my queer friends, but sometimes I'm not invited to spaces devoted to them. The modern social world, for the most part, has been created for the comfort of straight people, so it can be hard for us to grasp the concept of mindful exclusion.
As the news rolled in Sunday morning about the horrific, hate-induced massacre of so many incredible humans in Orlando, I felt lost and angry and sad. I cried and texted my friends, checking in with loved ones who were on my mind as I tried to figure out just what to say on social media. Sometimes we are calculated in our pursuit of conversation when it comes to shared experiences; other times we are a mess, tossing our feelings, raw and unfiltered, onto the virtual page. On Sunday, the latter was the case for everyone I knew. We were trying to wrap our heads around the reality that dozens of innocent people were murdered in the safe space of Pulse nightclub: Nothing felt like the right thing to say.
The first thing that came to my mind was George Michael's "Freedom! '90," one of my favorite songs of all time and a constant lesson through its lyrics about the fear and liberation in the notion of "coming out." On Facebook and Twitter, I posted the line "I won't let you down / so please don't give me up / because I would really, really love to stick around" and some of my own words about how I was feeling. I watched as friends coming from the same place of shock and grief posted similar updates about the tragedy and their feelings as they navigated the onslaught of information coming in from Florida. Soon, my mind circled back to my conversation with Piper about the role of the straight ally. After a few hours of outrage and anguish, I noticed a shift in posts: The soapboxing and "my experience" social-media stance of fellow straight allies had begun.
Fellow straight people need to understand is this: We can support and grieve with our friends and family in the LGBTQ community without speaking for them or taking their space. As humans, so much of how we understand the world is filtered through our own personal frame of reference — I would know, I write a column about this very thing every week. But speaking for a marginalized group of people you are not a part of only further alienates them. We can be united in causes without being the mouthpiece. Listening is one of the most powerful tools we straight allies can possess.
As an ally, there are so many things you can do to support the LGBTQ community that go beyond pontificating for equal rights on Facebook. Are you politically active? Do you know which politicians represent your city and state, and do you know their record on human rights issues and discriminatory policies and legislation? Do you vote? Do you frequent LGBTQ-owned businesses or boycott businesses that discriminate? Do you support and buy art from queer and trans artists? Do you call out coworkers, family members and friends when they use bigoted language? Do you work to educate your fellow straights on what it means to be an ally?
When atrocities like the hate crime at Pulse happen, it seems to be a green light for many of us straight allies to suddenly show our faces. We rainbow-ify our social-media profile pictures, post articles about supporting the equal rights of queer and transgender folx, and we then tend to unfurl our own experiences of being on the periphery LGBTQ life — the freeness we first felt in a gay bar, the "first gay friend" we made in high school, the realization that someone we loved identified as queer. These experiences are important because empathizing with each other comes from first aligning with each other. But as straight allies, we get to go home for the day, so to speak, when it comes to LGBTQ issues — we don't live the oppressive experience every day. We can, in a sense, be tourists of others' oppression.
So I wonder: Have we been on the front lines, fighting back against transphobic violence? Do we understand what it means to challenge the patriarchal power structure that oppresses all of us, but marginalized people the most? Why do so many of us treat serious political issues like the right of all people to use public restrooms as if it were a satirical punchline to one-up conservative bigots? Is sharing a meme on Facebook about equality all we have done in the past 365 days to ensure the safety, security, equity and the highest possible quality of life for our fellow LGBTQ humans? What are we really doing to support our queer and transgender loved ones?
On social media, it is easy to be the loudest person in the echo chamber. But when it comes to allyship, if you're doing a lot of talking for the LGBTQ community and not making any active moves toward the advancement of a safe and equitable society for all, your screams become silence and that silence can be deafening. Being a straight person who has decided to get out to a few Pride events this year isn't going to change what it means to be alone and queer, walking down the street at night, long after the parade is over and the Pride floats have moved on.
So, my fellow straight allies, I ask this: Before you post another story or meme or hot take on the Pulse massacre, take a step back and examine your own motives. Do you really need to be the moderator of a public conversation about the challenges the LGBTQ community is facing? Take the time to think about the necessity of your statements and the privileges you enjoy every day as a straight person. Ask your queer friends what they need. And please, continue to publicly grieve and show love and support for the LGBTQ folx in your life. Keep checking on them, keep listening and keep passing along their stories in their own voices. Fight alongside them and step back when they are speaking. We all still need each other. Just remember, this is not about you.
Now get out there and challenge the system, because a society that accepts bigotry and hatred as the norm is a society that is toxic and dangerous for everyone.
Be my voyeur (or better yet, let me stalk you) on Twitter: @cocodavies
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Denver art and theater scene.