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What Does It Mean To Be An Ally?

Image of a person's thumbs and index fingers making a heart with a pride rainbow overlaid.

June is Pride Month. Our first Pride blog post is focused on what it means to be an ally. The best time to become an ally is anytime. It may be Pride Month, but allyship is not a one month per year endeavor. We hope that, as LGBTQ+ voices are elevated this month, you will use this post as a jumping-off point to begin your allyship.

Being an ally is not always easy. Many who proclaim themselves to be allies are not aware of the work involved. Many more shy away from opportunities to walk the walk. This is not meant to sound harsh or judgmental, but it’s important to understand exactly what being an ally entails.

It’s not simply about going to Pride Festival once a year. Being an ally is a commitment to looking inwards to examine and unlearn our own biases. Sometimes it means facing uncomfortable truths about ourselves and having difficult conversations. But it must be done.

Being an ally is about supporting your LGBTQ+ friends, peers, coworkers, colleagues, and family. It requires self-reflection, an openness to criticism, and an understanding that our voices are not the priority.

In short, it can be tough. But we have the luxury and privilege of voluntarily taking on that hardship. The truth is that we can cease to be allies whenever we choose, or step outside of that identity whenever convenient. But for our LGBTQ+ peers, that simply isn’t an option.

So, What Is An Ally?

There are many ways to define ally, depending on who you ask or where you look. All are valid; it can be quite loosely defined. However, there are plenty of characteristics of allyship that many agree on.

First and foremost, being an ally means standing in support of those who experience discrimination. It is a personal commitment to fighting oppression that does not directly affect you. Being an ally doesn’t mean you fully understand the oppression that certain groups face. It simply means you are shouldering the struggle to fight it as if it were your own.

Of course, while that definition may make sense conceptually, it can be difficult to imagine what it looks like in practice, especially when beginning your journey of allyship.

An Ally Is Someone Who…

  • Educates themselves about different identities and experiences,
  • Challenges one’s own discomfort and prejudices,
  • Learns and practices the skills of being an ally,
  • Takes action to create interpersonal, societal, and institutional change.

That sounds like a lot, and it is. Allyship is a commitment to growth and change, which takes time. It’s okay if some parts are difficult or take awhile. True personal growth and change can be difficult, but it is worth the effort to unlearn our biases as best we can so we can do our part to better society.

Growing into your new role of allyship may require you to practice some new skills. Again, we give this list of things allies do, but it can still be hard to understand what it all entails. In the beginning of your journey towards allyship, there are some critical skills to practice so you can appropriately support your LGBTQ+ peers.

What Skills Should I Practice As An Ally?

Here are some Dos and Don’ts of allyship. You can find a full list and more here.

  • Practice listening to understand.
  • Be aware of your implicit biases — we all have them.
  • Learn how to listen to and accept criticism with grace — we all make mistakes, and it’s vital that we simply own them and change accordingly.
  • Use your privilege to amplify historically suppressed voices.
  • Research and learn about the history of the struggle in which you are participating.
  • Expect to be taught or shown. There are many resources, such as this one and others linked at the bottom of this post, that can help you get started.
  • Behave as if you know better.
  • Compare your own struggles to those of your LGBTQ+ peers — we all face our own problems, but being an ally is about centering the conversation on the struggles you are committing to fight.
  • Be a performative ally — it’s not about gathering “woke” points; it’s about committing to change and growth.
  • Be defensive — we all have biases to unlearn and when we are called out, it’s best to understand and make the necessary efforts to unlearn our biases.

Considerations For Your South Asian LGBTQ+ Peers

The unfortunate reality is that South Asia has simply not caught up to modern times in regard to treatment of LGBTQ+ people. The laws of South Asian nations reflect the general attitudes. Same-sex sexual activity is only legal in Bangladesh (but is illegal for men), India (since 2018), Bhutan (since 2021), and Nepal (since 2007).

A few countries (Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka) recognize a third gender, hijra, though the actual treatment of hijra people is far from positive. India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka are the only countries with anti-discrimination laws that protect LGBTQ+.

Same-sex marriage is not legal anywhere in South Asia, though it has been proposed and is under review in India, Nepal, and Bhutan.

Obviously, these laws and the progress yet to be made are not reflective of all people in South Asia. However, LGBTQ+ people still face stigma, harassment, and discrimination all over South Asia despite the varying degrees of protection that have been given in certain countries. Those attitudes unfortunately carry over into South Asian diaspora all over the world.

While LGBTQ+ acceptance is slowly but surely increasing in the United States, South Asian queers living in the US are still often subjected to intolerance from their community. There’s a reason SEWA’s SAQL program is the first of its kind in the Midwest.

Our community has a long way to go in terms of acceptance. So as an ally, it’s important to remember that your South Asian LGBTQ+ peers may well be facing issues that are unique to the South Asian community. Furthermore, it’s unique to their own heritage within South Asia — the Nepalese LGBTQ+ community faces issues that are different from the Indian, Pakistani, or Bangladeshi communities, and so on.

Some are of course lucky to have an open-minded and accepting family, but the reality is that many do not. This is when it is important to listen to understand, and to do research on your own time to understand the nuance as best you can.

The Best Time To Be An Ally Is Now

To recap, allyship is a commitment to lifelong introspection and growth. It’s a pledge to support your LGBTQ+ peers, friends, coworkers, colleagues, and family. Being an ally means taking on the struggle as your own, but always ceding the spotlight to those you are supporting.

Remember that being an ally is not about us. It’s about support, solidarity, empathy, and action, all the time. Being an ally is not confined to LGBTQ+ events, or when you’re with LGBTQ+ folks. It’s calling out your friends when they make homophobic jokes, practicing a classmate’s pronouns without expecting recognition for it, and making an effort to better understand every day. It’s about committing to help spread the ripples of change throughout society.

We all can be allies. Learning to be an ally and striving to always be a better ally than yesterday is a never-ending mission that will make you a better, more empathetic person. It can be difficult, but it must be done.

If you are interested in learning more about the South Asian queer experience, consider joining SAQL+, our companion group to SAQL that includes allies.

Check out SEWA-AIFW’s LGBTQ+ programming here.

Join our upcoming Desi Pride Parade! Click for details.

Click here to read our SAQL/SAQL+ blog post to learn more.

Read about LGBTQ+ terms from South Asian Sexual & Mental Health Alliance.

Read 10 Ways to Be an Ally & a Friend from GLAAD.

Visit the Guide to Allyship here.

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