The first time my partner got kicked out of a public restroom, I didn’t think much of it. We had just moved from Baltimore to the DC suburbs and I just assumed that it was the less-metropolitan setting that made all the difference. The second time my partner got kicked out of a public restroom, we were at Union Market. As she was coming out of her stall, someone told her security was looking for her. Turns out, they only come when called, but we saw them clocking her from a distance, and they wisely realized it was none of their business. The third time my partner got kicked out of a public restroom was the limit. We were at the Capitol Hill Farmer’s Market, fulfilling the lesbian stereotype of buying locally and organic, with our canvas totes in hand. While waiting for my partner, I heard yelling and realized it was her yelling at…a stranger?
After I got her calmed down enough to explain, I sought out that stranger myself. An older woman clad in a baseball cap with an unfortunate neck flap, she helpfully reassured me it was all a mistake: she had only been explaining to my masculine-presenting partner that it was the women’s room- she was just being helpful. Insert eye roll here. Did I mention it was Pride Weekend?
I’ve had it with crappy allies. I see you there, the high school classmate who wouldn’t get changed with me in the locker room, now having a blast on social media: “#Pride2017 #WeAreFamily.” The former friend who helped with a wedding invite, then posted it online to promote her design business, ignoring my emails when I kindly asked her to stop publicly outing me for her own gain. And, in this story, the helpful stranger, reminding me that my bathroom business is her bathroom business, and the MPD officer I called about her harassment shaking her hand before he told me that it’s not a big deal to me. Noted.
I’m so sick of this, of feeling exploited or exoticized by drunk bachelorette parties at gay bars, or by people who use me as an ad-hoc spokesperson for all gays everywhere, or that my friendship is worthwhile because it’s a badge to have a lesbian friend, like I’m a collectible. All the while, I’m still discriminated against, treated unfairly, and degraded by both strangers and friends. And I’m so, so sick of being out in public and having to pee. Given the number of minority identities I see and hear around me, I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one.
I feel like everyone is an ally until I actually want something ― support, encouragement, understanding, respect. The truth is, being an ally is hard. Put your money where your mouth is. You may have to give up something, you may have to change yourself, and you may have to learn something to be an ally in this modern world. With that said, here are guidelines I wish we all could follow when we fall down in our roles as allies to members of marginalized communities, like my bathroom-monitoring new friend who wants me to know she has lots of gay friends.
Apologize: You are not a star. You do not have to come up with a publicist-inspired little speech on how you’re sorry your actions were taken out of context. You did wrong: now say you are sorry.
Listen: Do you want to keep making mistakes or do you want to learn something? Being defensive never got anyone anywhere.
Ask how to help: Many people have an idea what they want allies to look like. You are not psychic. Let them tell you. Otherwise:
Keep your mouth shut: If you are so lucky as to interact with someone who is willing to help educate you to be a better ally, this is your opportunity to learn, not unburden or prove yourself. Finally:
Adjust: The whole rest of your life is an opportunity to do better, and, if you follow these steps, you really can!
Don’t forget that you can need some ally instruction even if you have a minority identity. That goes for within-group minority identities (animosity within and between LGBT sub-groups is legendary) and outside-group minority identities (tell me again how being gay make you understand racism).
While I don’t think things will change overnight, there is one change everyone can make today: If you aren’t willing to follow the above guidelines, stop calling yourself an ally. Don’t worry: you still get to march in the parade, or at least post that you did on Instagram. You can be tolerant without being an ally, but ally is an action word, and if you aren’t willing to act in the face of oppression, then you’re no friend of mine.
Judith is a student of sexual and gender minority health and behavioral health and sometimes author who drinks too much seltzer water to deal with all this bathroom stress.