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Stay Curious, Allies: A Letter from Silicon Valley

The following article was written as part of a dialogue we’re having in our workplace about allyship. The author, Peter, is a chair of Queernies, Earnest’s resource group for LGBTQ employees. We hope our conversation will help further the conversation in Silicon Valley and beyond. Happy Pride!

Dear Queernie,

I need some advice about a gay coworker. I consider myself an ally to the LGBTQ community, and I’ve worked hard to figure out how to be a good one.

At my last job, my gay coworkers wanted me to speak up when I saw something homophobic. They encouraged me to ask questions when I was curious about gay issues. They were warm and receptive, taking me out to gay bars and talking about their boyfriends with me. I felt invited into their community.

At my new job, I sit next to a colleague who happens to be gay. I’ve tried to be an ally to him exactly like I was to my old coworkers. In particular, I ask him questions about being gay when I’m confused, and publicly show my support for him. I thought he would appreciate it.

To my surprise, my questions really bother him. He gives terse answers, and changes the subject. What’s more, when I spoke out to show my solidarity with the LGBTQ community after a hate crime, he seemed to avoid me afterwards. I decided to ask him about it. He said that he felt like my speech had hurt the gay community by “making the tragedy about myself”.

We haven’t spoken a lot since then. In the meantime, I’ve observed that his only friends at work are other LGBTQ colleagues. He seems to avoid straight people.

Allyship should be a two way street. I want to support him, but he’s being a jerk. I feel unfairly accused, disrespected, and excluded. I also feel frustrated that after I put so much energy at my last job into learning how to be an ally, my new co-worker is acting like my allyship annoys him. It feels like I’m going to be criticized no matter what I do. If that’s the case, why should I even try to be an ally?

Best,

Frustrated in San Francisco

******************

Hi Frustrated,

I hear your exasperation, and I get it. The behavior you’re describing—the silence, the exclusion, the accusation, the apparent escalation—would make anyone feel awful. When you say you’ve worked hard to figure out how to be an ally, I believe you.

Let’s put some fundamentals in place. You, as a human being, deserve respect. You have a right to set boundaries in your personal relationships. If your colleague mistreats you, you do not owe him your friendship. You have a right to disagree with him, and you have a right to disengage with him. It’s perfectly possible that he’s a terrible human being.

That being said, you’re moving from being frustrated in a difficult relationship, to interpreting that difficulty as malice, to questioning the very necessity of allyship at all. Those are radical steps. Before passing judgment on your coworker, let alone abandoning allyship, I’d encourage you to slow down, and ask a few important questions:

1) Why is he acting this way?

Consider the clues: You’re at work. You’re quite early in your relationship with him. You’ve initiated each interaction with him. Many of these interactions have been direct questions about his sexual orientation. He clearly feels uncomfortable telling you what he thinks.

(I’m assuming the questions you’re asking aren’t puerile or voyeuristic ones. If a new colleague asked you your own questions, would you blush? If so, you’re getting way too intimate. But let’s suppose for the time being that your questions are about policy or culture, rather than his own personal life.)

Now, put yourself in his shoes. Can you think of a reason why he would clam up when asked questions from a colleague he barely knows about LGBTQ life?

For context: many, many LGBTQ people feel anxious about discussing queer life with straight allies. And for good reason—it’s risky.

The most obvious risk, of course, comes from homophobia. It’s everywhere, even in the heart of Silicon Valley. In being open with our identities, we risk not only social alienation, but physical violence. We never know when something innocuous will trigger a massive overreaction, even from self-described allies. By leading the relationship with those probing questions, you’re asking him to work out complicated mental arithmetic, parsing out what he can and can’t say in ways that may directly affect his safety before he knows you very well.

If you’re being kind and gentle, your coworker probably knows you don’t threaten him in that way. He knows that allies like yourself are well-intentioned, and would not wish any harm on LGBTQ people.

Yet, a subtler risk arises in speaking our minds freely. LGBTQ people learn through hard-won experience that aspiring allies often stake their allyship on receiving something in return—friendship, education, details about their personal lives, the “cool” of being associated with queerness, etc. Sometimes, we want to give it. Sometimes, we don’t.

For at least the last 50 years, we’ve been fiercely arguing amongst ourselves about how to respond to these expectations. Many of us, like your previous gay colleagues, see these expectations as the basic reciprocity needed for any good relationship, and therefore a perfectly fair trade; they’re happy to share with you. The amiable, the patient, the generous, and the natural diplomats amongst us may not give a second thought to giving you whatever you feel you’re owed for your allyship.

Of our more-accommodating brethren, many simply won’t have the personal bandwidth to reciprocate all the time. It’s genuine work to teach or to build a friendship; social grace to welcome into a community; intelligence to discern what is safe and not safe to share. (This is especially true in the wake of an LGBTQ hate crime.) If nothing else, these gifts require time to give. Not all have it to spare, particularly if a foundation of trust hasn’t been well-established yet.

But suppose your colleague has time and emotional real estate available. There’s yet another wrinkle to consider: he may be making a principled choice to challenge you.

Many LGBTQ Americans fear that if we shield allies from the full truth of our circumstances, we will make it impossible to achieve full equality. This group sees peaceful but defiant confrontation as the key to building public awareness and political will. To them, the greatest obstacle to LGBTQ progress lies not in outright bigotry, but rather in the pleas coming from well-meaning people for patience and politeness in the face of suffering. How are we supposed to make any progress, this group asks, when we’re constantly working to make sure allies are comfortable? How are we supposed to speak the truth politely, when there’s nothing polite about the truth?

(Of course, the reality is that even when we think it’s against our best interests to be accommodating, we often feel we don’t have much of a choice. We need the allyship too much. We know that if we deny this gift to eager allies, they may vanish, taking with them crucial political support for LGBTQ protections, and in turn, our health, families, and safety.)

So: we’re now up to four reasonable counter-explanations for your colleague’s behavior. He could be embarrassed and upset by overly intimate questions. He could fear homophobic reactions from you or your workplace. He could lack the personal bandwidth to reciprocate your efforts. Or, he could be choosing to confront you with an uncomfortable reality, seeing it as necessary to achieve full, lasting equality.

Which of these is the answer for your colleague? You can’t know for sure until you get to know him better. In all likelihood, one or more of these factors is involved. The situation is probably more complicated than him just being a jerk.

All of which brings us to the second question you should ask yourself:

2) Why do you want to be an ally?

I encourage you to notice that despite your good intentions, you’re on the verge of validating your colleague’s cynicism. In giving you honest feedback about your post-hate-crime speech, he took a risk. He told you his actual opinion. In so doing, he triggered some pretty strong defenses in you, to the point that you’re questioning whether or not to be an ally at all.

At your old job, allyship felt like friendship. But allyship isn’t friendship. Friendship is about love; allyship is about progress. As such, the test for a good allyship is not an absence of tension. The test is how much is achieved towards common goals.

Those goals are serious ones. Remember: homelessness, poverty, HIV/AIDS, employer discrimination, and hate crimes disproportionately harm LGBTQ people. Allyship begins in recognizing a moral obligation to act on this state of affairs.

“At its core, allyship is an attitude of genuine curiosity.”

At its core, allyship is an attitude of genuine curiosity about what all LGBTQ individuals need–and then, of being open to whatever they tell you, even when it’s difficult to hear.

Put your colleague in the harshest light. Suppose that your questions have been respectful, that it’s obvious to him that it’s physically safe to talk to you at work, and that he has the emotional energy to do so; suppose that his decision to challenge you doesn’t come from a place of reason and experience, but of impulse and disrespect—in other words, that he’s really being nasty to you.

Do his actions then count as evidence that LGBTQ Americans don’t deserve what they seek? Do they make the widespread threats to our safety, employment, health care, and prosperity any less morally repugnant, or deserving of your attention?

Zoom out, and you’ll see that LGBTQ America is a microcosm of America as a whole. You’ll find every race, gender, socioeconomic class, personality type, and moral character here. You’ll certainly find people whom you don’t like. Each and every one of us still deserves the full rights and freedoms of straight Americans.

What’s more: a diverse community means diverse ideas. So, while we fiercely agree on the need for respect and equality, we’re going to keep arguing about pretty much everything else, including allyship.

As long as we don’t have internal consensus, you can expect to hear some very contradictory messages about what to do. Some of those messages may be very challenging to hear.

Rather than giving up when you run across these challenges, I encourage you to prepare yourself for them. Try thinking of your allyship as an adaptive attitude that expands with each new kind of person that you meet, rather than a set of specific things to say or rules to follow.

When you encounter critique, learn how to take it seriously, without taking it personally. When you receive conflicting directions, try your best; if you fail, grant yourself patience and compassion to learn. And if a friendship isn’t possible with a given LGBTQ person, give them their space. You’ll lay the groundwork for a different, more supportive, and stronger relationship with them.

You’re clearly an earnest, curious person doing a lot of right things. Just follow that curiosity a little further. We need you.

All the best,

Peter

 

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