These days, with most Americans facing tough economic situations, equal rights advocates are talking a great deal about solidarity, linked fate, and our shared purpose in achieving equality and a life free from discrimination for all Americans. In the LGBT context, it's Ally Week, and it's a good time to think about why each and every one of us needs to be an agent of change for the rights of LGBT people, even as so many urgent issues fight for our attention.
As a straight Indian-American woman who grew up in a first-generation immigrant family, I learned early on that the people who love you most can be so tied to their traditions and so nervous about how others will see you that it can take them time to let you be who you want to be. For me, this meant growing up in an incredibly sheltered environment, with much concern that my sister and I would take up the "easy sexuality" my family believed was allowed by most American parents, thereby bringing shame on ourselves, our families and the small Indian community we had.
Growing up in Texas, I did not know any self-identified gay people. The first images I remember of the gay community related to news reports about Kaposi's Sarcoma, erroneously dubbed "the gay cancer," and the evolving medical mystery of AIDS in the early 1980s. Most memorable was the hateful commentary that came along with it. My first real interaction with a part of the LGBT experience of those times -- if not with gay people who were actually out -- was in college, as one of my closest friends, from a conservative religious and cowboy-swagger background, struggled with his sexual orientation, and eventually did come out. So like many straight Americans, I learned about people of differing sexual orientations from participating firsthand in the efforts of a loved one to figure out his place in the world.
In my first job out of college, I worked at a pro-choice organization, where we engaged in legislative advocacy in coalition with LGBT groups. It was intuitively apparent to me that the struggles for people of all genders to advocate for and own their sexuality were closely linked. This combination of personal and work experiences taught me that LGBT equality is about all of us, regardless of our own sexual orientation or gender identity, and that made me an ally. For those of us who advocate for social change, we must take that alliance to work with us every day in order to be effective, because LGBT equality is closely tied to every issue we work on. This became even more clear for me when later, as a lawyer representing persons experiencing domestic violence, I represented many LGBT clients -- in fact, it was my work with my LGBT clients that pushed me to articulate in new ways the dynamics of domestic violence and the role played by power when gender was taken out of the equation. This was also my first experience working on issues around the criminalization of sexuality.
I eventually started a legal project that worked for the human rights of sex workers, where I worked with many LGBT clients, organizations, advocates and organizers around the intersection of sexuality, the criminal justice system and the immigration system. Anyone who is concerned about equal rights needs to become more familiar with and take a stand against the kind of relentless policing that happens with LGBT homeless youth who often have no safe public space, or the profiling that happens to trans women walking down the street who are arrested on prostitution-related charges for no reason other than misinformed stereotypes, or the way domestic violence cases between same-sex couples get treated as less important and serious than those of straight couples.
It is crucial that straight allies learn more about these aspects of LGBT concerns, and make the connections to whatever it is that feels most personal to us, whether it is economic equality, gender-based violence or immigration. We can all come together to demand accountability and equality under our different legal systems -- criminal, immigration, family, property -- for all of us, regardless of our sexual orientation or gender identity.
For more information about Ally Week, visit allyweek.org.