Gay-Straight Allies: New Horizons for The LGBTQ Community
It was recently reported that none other than Prince William of Great Britain was being considered for an award for being a straight ally. Dial back a few decades and that would have been a real impossibility, let alone the ensuing hypothetical scandal. The fact that this happened without any brouhaha demonstrates the strides that have been made in legitimizing and to an extent, normalizing LGBTQ communities. Nevertheless, I feel that we must closely examine the notion of straight allies and what it means to the community. Are they real allies or fifth columnists? Worse still, is the LGBTQ community being subtly exploited by straight men in order to get street cred and good PR? I appreciate the fact that there will be a spectrum of perspectives on this, not least because we all have different relationships with straight people. Are gay-straight allies good or bad?
Who Are These Straight Allies Anyway?
The first point of contention is who can be legitimately be deemed a straight ally. Are they restricted to non-homophobic straight people or do they include any gender/sexuality categorization that has fought for LGBTQ rights? There is a big difference between tolerance, acceptance and unconditional positive regard. There are many people who are not particularly offended by LGBTQ people but in the same token will never lift a finger to assist the community in any way, let alone advocate for its rights. Are these people entitled to be honored as straight allies? Then we also have those homophobes who are nevertheless appalled at the harsh treatment that is routinely meted out to LGBTQ communities. Should we deem these people straight allies, even if they do not like the LGBTQ community?
Another, even more complex, category is that of the situational ally. They are able to assist (or appear to assist) when it is convenient or advantageous to them. However, when push comes to shove; their latent homophobia is on full display. Some would argue that situational allies are cowards and exploiters of the worst kind. That is why some members of the LGBTQ community prefer to engage with outright cultural vandals (note the log cabin republicans) rather than become the puppets of egotistical liberals (think Hollywood and the moral entrepreneurs who have taken political correctness to a whole new level).
Learning to Trust Straight People After Being Betrayed Time and Time Again
I have a theory that our complex relationship with straight allies comes from our history of being the brunt of the joke that is human rights, particularly in the so called developed world. I can tell you that LGBTQ people are better accepted in some Asian communities than the most liberal parts of Scandinavian Europe and good old USA. We also do not like to be on the receiving end of a pity party or worse still; a charitable walk. We can tell when someone is feigning interest in LGBTQ issues. My friends have an “in-joke” that the first sign of a homophobe is when they say “not that there’s anything wrong with that”. This normally accompanies a cutting insult to a gay person or the community as a whole.
My deepest worry is that we might be playing right into the hands of the straight hegemony by saying that straight is right. That means that we are unable to fight for our rights without the need for a straight hero. It is the same thing that happened with the Civil Rights movement in the USA where African Americans got no headway until they recruited white liberal men and women to their cause. By accepting straight allies to lead us, aren’t we implicitly acknowledging that we are unable to independently run our own affairs?
Back to Reality and The Future
There are those that believe we must be pragmatic and realistic in our struggles as LGBTQ people. The word is run by straight white men for straight white men. According to this school of thought; we must either fall in line or become an irrelevance. Painful as it might be, I have now come to believe that there is some truth in this view. Although the community has made many strides towards achieving acceptance, it is always on the terms that are set and approved by straight people. At first we were the entertaining camp comedy lot then we become the threatening predators. Finally; we became the snake in the pot: they cannot get rid of us, but are still afraid of what we are capable of doing.
It is also important to acknowledge that the average proportion of a given population that is within the LGBTQ category rarely exceeds 10%. That is not even counting the closeted ones who often do not participate in the struggle for emancipation, preferring instead to ally themselves with the oppressor in order to avoid suspicion (think of the number of closeted Republicans whose outings are a thing of legend). All that it means that the community is numerically at a disadvantage. In other words; we need straight allies in order to bolster our meagre figures.
By the same token, the straight allies represent a kind of ransom in a situation of social blackmail. You either play ball or they will abandon the sinking ship. The price that we have paid as LGBTQ people is to try and act as straight as possible; sometimes despite our own natural inclinations. That is precisely why “gay queens” remain one of the most despised members of the LGBTQ family. I actually wrote an article about this titled “Show the Queens Some Love: Exploring the phenomena of anti-effeminate attitudes in gay culture”. Perhaps this is yet another example of why the straight allies are not as benign as we would like to believe.
The “Don’t Frighten the Horses” Argument
It has been suggested that the straight community is genuinely terrified of what a militant LGBTQ community might do. The comical extreme is the notion that gay men will go on a raping and pillaging rampage ala Sodom and Gomorrah as soon as they are given any leeway. Therefore; the argument suggests that it is far safer to introduce the “gay lifestyle” gradually. You put out some rights and then rescind a few of what you have already granted so that you have an incremental approach go getting rights. This will mean that the straight community has a chance to acclimatize to the LGBTQ community before being thrown in at the deep end.
In that sense the straight allies serve as a guinea pig. Their presence within the gay community is a sign that we are all not some sex man heathens who are intent on terrorizing the world around us. Of course it is all so patronizing and stigmatizing but unfortunately that is the world within which we live. The straight allies get the credit for having successfully negotiated the jaws of the lions (or lionesses depending on how you see it) before coming out intact at the other end. Hence the gay-straight alliances act as a launch pad for even more interaction with the LGBTQ community.
Examples of Good Practice
It is not all trouble in paradise. There have been some wonderful alliances that have started the process of breaking stigma and misunderstanding between and amongst various communities. A case in point is the Gay-Straight Alliance which has been critical in fighting homophobia in schools. Young children are perhaps the most difficult crowd to please when it comes to minority rights because they are not yet socialized into conventions of tolerance that are at the heart of Western civilization.
The gay-straight allies or alliance is therefore one of the most important tools for socializing and re-socializing young people so that they can reject homophobic attitudes. It is done at the behest of the students themselves so that it does not appear as if the LGBTQ community is imposing itself. We cannot forget the work of Jeanne Manford who was the mother of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). This was the pioneer work that showed a different approach to gay rights advocacy. Its gradualism overcame the instinctive fear of the societal institutions (religion, politics, education, medicine etc.) which had already pre-pathologized the gay lifestyle.
A Possible Way Forward
I am not advocating for frightening gay-straight allies away or otherwise rejecting them. They are actual or even potential partners whom we should win to the cause. My plea is that we should try to set the rules of engagement in such a way as not to lose the unique identity and pride of the LGBTQ community. In practice that means reinforcing the possibilities of positive regard for members as well as the development of healthy relationship for people who may be allies, cisgender or even homophiles. In effect, we will be challenging the heteronormative paradigm which tends to idealize the straight lifestyle whilst “othering” any other alternatives. Likewise, we should challenge any attempts to fetishize our community as being a novelty for moral entrepreneurs who are looking for the next fad fix.