Jed Hartman has an interesting post up titled “Privilege and allies” in which he links to a number of useful articles about how to be a good ally to marginalized and oppressed groups. This is good stuff. There’s a depressing tendency of people on the left to claim to support all sorts of oppressed groups, but to not actually think much about what that support means, and how they might have to change their behavior and thinking to make it real.
On the other hand, it is also possible to go over the top with the ally thing. As I have said before, and will probably have to say again, an “ally” is not someone who defers to you in all things. An ally is someone who joins with you to pursue a mutual goal, because you both have an interest in achieving that goal. The theory is that by working together you will have a better chance of reaching the goal.
The reason I am reminded of this is yet another blow-up about mis-representation of trans people in the media. Via Monica Roberts I am led to this open letter by a trans activist group to TV producer Ryan Murphy. I should note here that I have never seen an episode of Nip/Tuck, or indeed anything else that Mr. Murphy has produced, so I am not competent to judge the substance of the complaint. What stopped me short was this sentence:
We expect this from people who are ignorant of our community, but Ryan, as a gay man who purports to be an ally of everyone in the LGBT community, (and I would hope that includes transsexual women as well, not just gay men of privilege), you are held to a higher standard of behavior.
Now obviously it is disappointing when someone that you thought was an ally does something that offends you. But should you hold such people to a higher standard of behavior than people who you recognize as enemies?
The LGBT community is a rainbow alliance of groups with very different interests. Gay men and lesbians are potentially two warring communities on opposite sides of the gender war. LGB people are primarily about sexual orientation and T people about gender identity, which are two very different things. Even within the trans community people have dramatically different views of what it means to be trans. Of course there is common ground as well, but it is not surprising that parts of this alliance do not always pull in the same direction, and sometimes come into conflict. In addition, people screw up, often because they don’t have a good understanding of the concerns of their supposed allies. How you deal with that is important.
Let’s think about this in military terms for a minute. When the enemy fires at you you shrug and say, “oh, it is them again”, and return fire in kind. But if someone in the allied army camped next to you fires on you, even if it was only by mistake, because you hold them to a higher standard of behavior you immediately order an all out attack. Meanwhile your enemies sit back and smirk.
So let’s be smart about this, people. Sure, allies sometime do stupid things. When they do, talk to them about it, and explain why you thought it was stupid. Be prepared also to be told that, for that ally, it was an important thing to do. You expect your allies to respect your needs, and you should respect theirs too. That’s especially true in a coalition of oppressed minorities. Because if you don’t do this, if you insist on holding your allies to a higher standard of behavior and attack them far more viciously than you attack the enemy, you’ll soon end up with no allies at all.