Saturday, January 31, 2015

Actually, Yes, The "A" Is For Ally

Before I begin, a quick note: This essay is not in support of the "A is for Ally!" version of the LGBTQIA acronym.  I, in fact, want to abolish the whole idea of the LGBT acronym, which inherently cannot support all queer identities while simultaneously being used to try legitimizing the appropriation of "queer" by cishet people.  But I'm getting frustrated by the following statements being thrown around that the A has never, ever, ever meant "ally," usually punctuated with some insistence that whoever commented that it did mean "ally" should totally have known better for some reason.

You're right in saying that allies should not be given space in this way.  But you're wrong if you think they never are or never have been.  And refusing to acknowledge this leads to a lot of problems.  What follows are some important things to note about why the acronym is what it is and why the "A is for asexual and never, ever ally" thing isn't.

1. The acronym always changes and it's ludicrous to expect everyone to have learned it the same way.

It was only in the '90s people started regularly adding a "T" to "LGBT."  Since then people have regularly campaigned to get other letters added in order to facilitate inclusiveness (or appropriation), most commonly the Q (for questioning or queer), the I (for intersex), and the A (for ally or asexual).  This has resulted in some ridiculously lengthy and irritating-to-pronounce-or-read acronyms like LGSBTTQQIAAPP which is literally a real one from a campus group I went to a conference with once back in like 2007.

Notably, the replacement of "ally" with "asexual" is recent in the vast majority of cases.  In fact, I didn't see A for asexual for years, and when I did start seeing it it was usually alongside "ally."  That doesn't mean that it didn't exist, obviously, but this is the way most people who became active around the time I did or earlier will have learned it.  And it's just fucking ridiculous how many members of this community snap on people over conventions that aren't even universally used today let alone ten fucking years ago.

In fact, "A as in Ally" is still how some people are learning it, because...

2. The acronym varies between groups and communities.

What letters and what they stand for vary widely based on the interests of the group you're working with and the region that group is based in.  The group above that used LGSBTTQQIAAPP was adding letters left and right because the group itself wanted to be inclusive and sensitive to all their members.  Whether or not the I for intersex is included will depend on whether or not local intersex people consider themselves a part of the community.  Some groups only go with LGBT either because they're only targeted on those four identities or assume the rest are implied, still others stubbornly refuse to add the T, even in name, due to separatism and/or outright transphobia.

With this in mind, it's easy to see why many groups still add an A for ally... many groups are over-accommodating of cishet allies in their spaces.  And this happens for a variety of reasons.  Plenty of groups are desperately afraid of losing their allies.  In some cases this is totally irrational because allies don't add anything useful to, say, a queer social group.  But in other cases it might make sense... at one of my alma maters, for instance, the actual queer and trans community is spread thin and getting rid of all of the allies would result in a group too small to keep its status as an official campus organization.  Groups like this--and many that aren't--are very interested in attracting and retaining straight cis allies, and one of the ways they do that is by carving out space centering them.  This is just one instance of that.

3. It's really hard for a lot of queer people to tell allies "no" during their endless quests for validation.

It's preposterous that any queer and/or trans group should be bending its policies or culture merely to furnish straight cis peoples' comfort.  A true ally does not need to be in the acronym, does not need groups to call attention to straight peoples' role in some alliance, does not ask for validation or space.  The reality is that most cishet folks are not true allies.  They are there craving validation.  They are uncomfortable when things aren't about them.  Their feelings are hurt very easily when they are not validated and when their "concerns" are ignored.

They are also powerful, whether they are aware of it or not.

What I mean is that the mere presence of a straight person in queer space or a cis person in trans space--whether closed, safer space or not--changes the entire dynamic of that group.  In most cases this means queer people are constantly altering their behavior and speech, backtracking on their genuine sentiments, and including cishet allies in irrelevant contexts in order to avoid alienating them or hurting their feelings.  Alternatively, it can mean a group is extra critical of allies in attendance, such as the group in this irritating HuffPost piece in which a straight ally asks a fucking ridiculous, offensive question and refuses to return after he's called out on it.

Think about that article for a minute.  A straight guy goes to a queer group, says something outrageously offensive, some shitty grating thing queer people hear time and time again as if it's some original pearl of wisdom every goddamn time, and people don't write thinkpieces about how the straight guy shouldn't have said those things, only about how we need to stop being so "mean" to people who invade our space.

For me personally, a lot of any undue accommodation I give to straight or cis people has to do with what I call the "whine effect."  There are things I don't have the energy to talk about with straight people and/or cis people anymore, not because they say nothing egregiously offensive, but because I'm just so goddamn sick of hearing them whine about how hard it is for them that I buckle.

One of the things straight cis people like whining about?  Lack of representation in spaces that aren't theirs.  They want a fucking letter, they want a fucking flag, they want a fucking caucus at a queer event, they want the right to be called "queer" when they're obviously not, they want, they want, they whine, they want.

With all that going on it's only a matter of time before people start accommodating just to avoid hearing the constant shrill whine of allies wanting attention.  And so you get groups calling themselves LGBTA... lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and ally.

Again, like I've been saying, it doesn't make it right, but we still need to take these things into context.  To fix the problem of entitled ally behavior in our communities we need to understand how it's been accommodated and nurtured throughout the years without assuming it's just a matter of misinformation that people believe the A is for Ally.  It's not.

4. Who gets represented in the acronym isn't exactly curated by radicals and inclusivists.

It staggers me that so many people think it's always been that way everywhere and for all time, because quite frankly many of these groups have been put together by people who are anywhere from suspicious to downright bigoted against asexual people.

The first group I did any real work with used "ally," not "asexual," for many years.  I remember distinctly the first time I met somebody who self-identified as asexual, and it was in the context of him trying to convince the leadership of this group to include asexuality in its program.  At the time this was met with severe resistance by people who proclaimed in no uncertain terms that asexuality was not what they were fighting for.

It's ridiculous and wrong but it's still fact.  The A did not mean "asexual."  Asexuality wasn't even on peoples' radar when the A was added.  And it wouldn't be for almost a decade.

I don't want to give the impression that I think it's totally cool that every other organization and public figure out there is interpreting the A in LGBTA as "ally."  It shouldn't be in there.  Allies don't need that accommodation because they as straight people get it everywhere else.  We can't fight against that, though, by pretending that ally-centering behavior in queer spaces has somehow magically never happened.  And one of these issues is that, yes, the A has stood for "ally" much more often than it has stood for "asexual."