We All Need Allies

As published in City Xtra Magazine, September 2014 issue:

There are times in our lives when we all wish we had an unwavering ally. Someone who will not only be there to help battle the gravest of injustice but also when we have a bad day at work or a fight with our partner or when we are battling deep depression. I remember being picked on a lot as a kid – I was smaller than the other children and lived in a poorer neighborhood. Another girl from class would constantly follow me home, call me names and threaten to kick my ass. One afternoon, I finally had enough and decided to confront the issue. But, just as she was about to land the first punch, one of the other boys in our class stepped in between us and demanded the girl stop picking on me.

Steve was one of the more popular kids and his family had money, so I was surprised that it was he who spoke up. After all, privilege is a fickle thing and Steve risked alienation by his peers to stand up for someone perceived to be undeserving of their friendship.  As we grew up together and attended the same high school, Steve remained my advocate. When other boys disrespected or degraded their female counterparts, he quickly corrected their behavior but never expected anything in return from those of us he defended.  Whether he knew it or not, I considered Steve an ally. His actions affirmed that I was valuable.

My example pales in comparison to the fight for freedom and justice when people’s lives are on the line, but it highlights why having allies can make everyday life more bearable. Before the HRO was passed in Atlantic Beach this past week, I witnessed people eager to treat our LGBT family as “sub-human”, based on their idea of faith. Yet, many allies, myself included, stepped forward to say enough is enough – no one has the right to treat anyone as less than or separate from.  That same day, actor Robin Williams committed suicide, at age 63, after suffering from severe depression. In a line from the movie World’s Greatest Dad, Williams is remembered saying, “I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone, it’s not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people that make you feel alone.”

Social isolation and feelings of hopelessness are leading risk factors for suicide attempts in the United States. When comparing heterosexual males and females with their gay and lesbian counterparts, one study found that gay men were 6-times more likely than heterosexual males to attempt suicide and the lesbians were 2-times more likely than heterosexual females.[1] Little research has been done about transgender individuals, but one study reported 30.1% of adult and youth transgender individuals having ever attempted suicide.[2]  Religion, or religious doctrine is a leading cause for suicide in the LGBT community.[1]  As I listened to the comments from those who spoke against the need for non-discrimination protections for the LGBT community, most came from religious doctrine.

When I hear phrases like, “So you’re an ally, do you want a cookie?”, I think back to Steve and wonder how it would have transformed our relationship had I pushed him away. Rather, what would life have been like if he hadn’t stepped in between the other girl and me after school that afternoon? With so few friends, I am not sure I could have afforded to make enemies. If you have ever been isolated, it’s hard to discern who to trust and who is looking for social collateral, simply by attaching their name to the latest cause

This is what allies do…at least, this is what we try to do. We try to step in and ask others to behave better, without cause for fanfare. Sometimes, we falter or say the wrong thing, but in the end, we really do just others to be treated fairly.

[1] Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Resource Sheet: Facts on Suicide. American Association of Suicidology. 2009-2010 data. http://www.suicidology.org/c/document_library/get_file?folderId=262&name=DLFE-595.pdf

[2] Transgender health: findings from two needs assessment studies in Philadelphia. Kenagy GP. Health Soc Work. 2005 Feb;30(1):19-26. PMID: 15847234