The luminous Kerry Washington delivered a wise and provocative speech this past week when she accepted the GLAAD Vanguard Award for her work as an ally of the LGBT community. In her speech she spoke of how minority groups feel compelled to compete with each other rather than work together. As an ally, she advocates that we all "fight the good fight" for each other.
Ms. Washington is not solely a friend to those people whose identities intersect with her own. She supports people in the LGBT community who are African-American women like her, yes, but she also fights for the "other others," people in the LGBT community who are not like her -- for example, gay white men like me.
This got me thinking: This woman is fighting for me and my rights, but what am I doing for her? There are many of us in the LGBT community who want allies, but do we extend ourselves to help the other others, those people who are seemingly most unlike ourselves? Now that we as a community are gaining strength and more equality, it is time for us to become vocal and visible allies to other communities.
GLAAD has a simple list of "10 Ways to Be an Ally & a Friend," intended for those who want to support the LGBT community but are not part of it. Are members of the LGBT community willing to use this same rubric to be allies to "other others"?
With Ms. Washington as an inspiration, I have slightly reworked the GLAAD list. I share it here with the LGBT community and challenge us to apply these goals to people who are unlike us:
- Be a listener.
- Be open-minded.
- Be willing to talk.
- Be inclusive.
- Don't make assumptions about other people.
- Insensitive comments and jokes about others are harmful. Let your friends, family and co-workers know that you find them offensive.
- Confront your own prejudices, even if it is uncomfortable to do so.
- Defend your friends against discrimination.
- Believe that all people should be treated with dignity and respect.
- If you see people being misrepresented or mistreated, report it.
Being an ally does not require that you organize rallies or donate millions of dollars. If you follow the list above, your support can be subtler. It is the accumulation of small, quiet acts by many people that will change the pervasive climate of discrimination.
What forms might these actions take? As a gay, white man, I could:
- Say something when a driver illegally parks in a spot designated for the handicapped.
- Speak up when someone makes a "retard" joke.
- Stop myself from assuming a Muslim friend knows everything about Islam.
- Refrain from mocking a slow driver who is elderly.
- Write my congressperson when racial injustice takes place in my state.
- Use words like "congressperson" instead of "congressman."
I can do these things not only because I want to support LGBT people who are differently abled or African-American or senior citizens. I should do these things to support all people who face injustice or discrimination, whether their lives are similar to mine or not.
Small acts require a minimum of effort. The harder work is to confront one's own prejudices. To be true allies to others, we first have to take a hard look at ourselves. Just because we face discrimination, we in the LGBT community are not immune to being prejudiced ourselves.
Ms. Washington reminds us, "We must be allies ... because to be represented is to be humanized, and as long as anyone, anywhere, is made to feel less human, our very definition of humanity is at stake, and we are all vulnerable."
Fighting for others is fighting for ourselves. Simple as that.
Thanks, Ms. Washington, for the wake-up call.