Wednesday night Piers Morgan had author and trans activist Janet Mock on his show, for the second night in a row. Her first time on the show didn't go so well, according to Mock and her fans. During his interview with her, Morgan acted like many people do when face-to-face with a trans person; fascinated and more concerned with genitalia than anything else. The before genitalia, the after, the way former lovers reacted to the genitalia, and so on. Mock was understandably upset, and took to Twitter to express her frustration.
None of this is surprising. It's sad, but not surprising. When given the choice to see a transgender person as a person, or as parts, many people unfortunately choose the latter.
Even though Piers is a vocal gay marriage supporter, and self-identified ally, he's still human. He still makes mistakes. He's still someone who, out of either curiosity, ignorance or rudeness, makes missteps when talking to someone transgender.
Only instead of treating Tuesday night's show as a learning opportunity, and having Mock on Wednesday to apologize to her and let her express what exactly it was that was upsetting, Morgan went on the attack. He accused Mock of, "slurr[ing], distort[ing] and ridicul[ing] someone who supports the issue 100 percent."
He took the position a lot of allies do when they're challenged -- the defensive position. Instead of apologizing he instead attacked, and accused Mock of being a bully. I see this happen all the time among my fellow allies, and I'm sure I've done it myself. Which is why I think that the incident with Piers Morgan is a great opportunity for myself and other allies to be reminded of a few important things.
1) This Affects You, But It's Not About You
As a Christian ally, I have absolutely been affected by my decision to stand behind my LGBT brothers and sisters. Saying you don't think two men getting married is a sin greatly reduces your credibility in the church. Even allies outside the church risk losing friends, family or even employment by speaking up against discrimination. It's not fair then when some say that allies risk nothing by standing up for LGBT rights. They do. But -- that still doesn't mean we're risking the same thing. One of the benefits of being an ally is choice. I chose to be an ally. No one chooses to be gay or transgender. I can change my mind, and walk away at any time. LGBT people cannot. Being an ally affects me, but it isn't about me, because no matter what happens to me I still have all the rights that my LGBT brothers and sisters are fighting for.
2) If You Offend an LGBT Person, You Should Apologize
One of my biggest frustrations with my fellow allies is how hard it is for so many of them to apologize when they mess up. Like I said before, no one is perfect. Did you make a joke you thought was funny about "the gays loving you" and someone got offended? Say you're sorry. Why wouldn't you? Why would you instead get offended yourself? Here's the thing -- allies have no idea, none, what it's like to be a sexual or gender minority. We just don't. So we can't say to someone who is, "I didn't mean to offend you" and think that settles it. They were offended. They deserve an apology.
I have seen huge, awful, unnecessary rifts occur in groups with the same goal, all because one person wouldn't simply say, "I'm sorry." I mean, why not apologize? What does it cost you?
3) Language and Word Choice Matter
When I was editing my book on being an ally, I texted an LGBT activist friend of mine and asked if it was OK to use the word "transvestite" to describe a person dressed in women's clothes who I had met during my first visit to a gay bar. At the time I met this person, I was a sheltered church teen who had no idea what word to use to describe the lovely six-foot tall woman who held my drink while I peed. Now I know she was a drag queen. But I didn't then. My friend gently told me that my word choice was wrong, and I changed it. Me not having the experience or knowledge to know how to correctly describe a person unlike any other I had seen was not wrong. If I want to call myself an ally though, it's my job to make sure I use the correct terms and words to describe people as they want to be described. It's not about "being PC," it's about giving respect. An ally should have no problem using whatever term someone wants to use to describe themselves. Because...
4) Being an Ally Means Continuously Learning
Part of being an ally is enjoying the benefits of privilege. When you're a part of the majority it's easy to get complacent about what's going on among the minority. It can be so easy to assume you know everything, and that, because your heart's in the right place, you are protected from criticism. This isn't true though. As allies, we have to constantly be learning about what we're standing up for. We also should never stop learning from whom we're aligning ourselves with -- if the people we're allies for correct us, it's our job to listen and learn.
For example: If I'm marching for trans equality and call the person next to me "she," when they prefer the pronoun "ze," I should not get offended or annoyed. I have no idea why that person might not want to be referred to as "she," but I can ask. I can try to learn. And if that person doesn't want to talk about it, that's ze's right. Being an ally isn't about being comfortable or praised for doing the right thing.
5) We Should Be Lifting Up LGBT Voices, Not Drowning Them Out
There is nothing wrong with a white, straight rapper singing a song about why he supports marriage equality. There is nothing wrong with him winning awards for this song, or getting attention for it. But there is something wrong when all of the attention and focus goes to a prominent ally speaking up for LGBT rights, instead of the multitudes of LGBT artists singing/rapping about the same thing.
This is the hardest part about being an ally, the part that I probably fail at the most -- forgetting that we should be using our voices to lift up the LGBT people who want to speak, NOT speaking for them. Yes, we can talk together, and yes, we can speak up. But we should always, always be careful to make sure we're not talking for anyone who can speak for themselves. We should also be mindful of who are audience is -- we're not supposed to be speaking for the oppressed, but speaking to the oppressors. The oppressors of course, being our peers.