Thursday, March 23, 2017

On Rallies And Allies (.......again)

I haven't written here in a while (for a wide variety of reasons), so it's fitting that I would write about something super uncomfortable, which is allies.  Again.  See, allies are a particularly uncomfortable subject for me, but for slightly different reasons than the usual controversies.  I have, just as many queer people do, gotten caught up in the act of ally-bashing, an activity I generally am pretty neutral about due to the catharsis it brings and the fact that, yes, there are a lot of garbage allies out there.  But the reasons people ally-bash often make me uncomfortable for reasons I'd like to go over today, now that it's topical and all.

Despite what it may look like, very few queer or trans people realistically "hate" allies.  Rather, there is a wide spectrum of ways we view allies, and we often take different stances based on the particular ally and just how frustrated we are that day.  There are queer people who are all about allies and who would hack our communities to bits for ally inclusion, there are those for whom despisal of allies is extreme to the point of being a competitive sport for them, and there are a myriad of points between those that a queer or trans person could fall upon on any given day.  There is also a lot of borderline-performative ally hate which is done because, again, it's cathartic when you're surrounded by garbage allies.

I'm somewhere in-between, as I often seethe over ally behaviors but also believe that a lot of queer and trans folk hold allies to an unfair standard, one that in some respects actually punishes allies who have been allies for the longest without recognizing that some of the worst ally behaviors aren't even limited to allies at all.  In addition, the standard we hold allies to also has the potential to harm queer and trans people.

So my roommates and I went to a trans rally over the weekend which brought a lot of this to light for me.  See, I'd been in the awkward position of both seriously looking forward to this rally (as I don't do enough in-person trans related things) and cringing because due to generational and philosophical differences I am prone to feeling serious alienation at things like this.  I'd even brought earbuds just in case there was a bad enough speech for me to need them, but luckily I didn't.  It went way better than expected, and I'm very proud that trans youth were able to put this together.

(We also were in the background on TV, which decided to
genericize the whole thing as an "LGBT Rally."  Sigh.)
That said, it did remind me of the issue with allies, because there were a couple of... well, issues with allies.  First, there was a sign held by the mother of a trans person that had a tomato on it, captioned "Born a Fruit, Identifies as a Vegetable."  Cringe.  I mean, seriously, criiiinge.  I'd seen the sign at the rally and cringed, only to find somebody on Twitter who I've never even met (I don't think) post a picture of it that incidentally had my roommates in it (I can only hope nobody mistakenly thinks they were involved with this sign).  The thing about it was that not only was this a cringey sign, a lot of people were unclear over whether or not this was even a supporter, to which I said in no uncertain terms she was, and based on everything I know about her she's overall a good ally who actually does real, tangible things for the local community.  But she was carrying something that made anybody who didn't know this about her think "Wait... is that a protester? In the middle of the crowd?"

So yes, I've been having a lot of fun trashing that terrible sign, but as far as this being an example of the inherent horribleness of allies, I think we need to look at this differently than we have been, because something I think is missing from a lot of ally-related discourse is the fact that they learn more from us than we think they do.  Like, it made me cringe seeing an ally hold this, but I almost swear I've seen this joke before, and it was probably some goofy comment made by a trans person and not an entitled attempt at wit by a cis person.  Seriously.  I've been around.  I've seen a lot of attempts at supportive humor within our community that in retrospect were terrible, so thinking it's a cis thing is factually incorrect.

The point is, I think our gauge for allies is set to assume they should know better about mistakes and flubs that most of us have also made.  This was driven home by the metaphoric smack to the gut that occurred when a trans person took the mic and immediately misgendered another trans person.  And this isn't uncommon... when I first came out there was only one other out trans person who almost immediately started using labels and other language that marked me as a straight woman (and ally) even though I repeatedly explained that this was not true, that I was a gay trans man.  Trans people screwing up each others' pronouns, orientations, and using wildly inappropriate language to talk about each other is not uncommon.  A trans woman who has been transitioning for over two years should definitely know better than to publicly misgender a trans boy on a damn stage, and a trans man should know better than to call a gay trans man a Kinsey Zero, but we spend an awful lot more time trashing allies for far less.

Which reminds me of another contributing factor:  As I've mentioned before, probably on many occasions, since I've been transitioning longer than most of the people I hang out with, some of my language is dated, and whether or not I change it (regarding myself, not others, of course) is based entirely on my own preference.  Sometimes I agree that the older way isn't great and change accordingly.  Sometimes I disagree and stubbornly refuse to change, complete with detailed analysis of why I hate the "new" way.  I stopped using certain slurs to describe myself, but still use terms like "FTM" and "born female."  There are still others I couldn't care less about, for instance I would call myself a "trans man" but am ambivalent when people write "transman," something that would have been considered normal not that long ago but which has since fallen out of favor.  We, as trans and queer people, do not have one universal list of acceptable vocabulary, acceptable things to joke about, acceptable metaphors.  All of these shift based on age, the general time period we started transitioning, region, gender, race, etc.

This is the same for trans folks as it is for queer folks in general.  A good overall example is the amount of ire people have for folks who think the A in LGBTQIA is for "ally," something I wrote about before.  It's not uncommon for people to act like even thinking the A is for "ally" is a misinterpretation by over-entitled cishet allies without even considering that maybe this was added by queer people or at least reinforced by us.

This is also a good example of how holding allies to a too-high standard punishes those who have been around the longest, because many of us forget that the language we use and what constitutes appropriate behavior in our spaces is something that didn't emerge from the discourse-womb fully formed, it developed over time.  So there are allies out there--just as there are queer and trans people--who learned these things differently because they were different five, ten, fifteen, or more years ago, and not all of them-slash-us are in the position to learn these things very quickly.  Not everybody uses Tumblr, lives on a college campus, reads a lot of blogs, or feels safe in LGBT groups.  The more my own language and conventions change or stubbornly stay the same the more I understand that believing this to be entitlement or whatever other labels people slap on allies just isn't the whole story.

On an important aside, I have grown to look at allies as "potential future queer people."  This is a perception I've developed over the years as more and more of my "cishet ally" friends turn out not to be so cishet after all, who either used the "ally" label to explore queerness in a way they were unable to before or who just incidentally learned a thing about themselves through exposure to queer people.  Trans people, especially, can easily be confused for cishet allies if we pass well enough.  So I'm not only trying to look at allies through the aforementioned benefit-of-the-doubt lens, I am trying to mitigate the fact that our treatment of allies may inadvertently be giving a closeted or questioning person an intensely alienating experience that could drive them away from community they need, over something that is quite often rather silly.

It's really important to recognize why so many queer and trans folks have an ally problem... there are a lot of behaviors we see concentrated in people who use the ally label that are harmful to us, require we use extra energy we need to survive day to day, are patronizing, and prevent us from feeling safe in our own spaces.  I would never say you shouldn't call that out, be angry about it, or pussy foot around it over some ally feelings.  And I do not have a problem with people using their own spaces to vent about garbage allies... I could go on for days about horrible behavior from allies and won't shame you for doing the same.  But we need to be accurate in that assessment, too, and realize that sometimes it's not entitled ally behavior, but the same regional and educational differences queer and trans people experience.