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Jennifer O’Brien Ph.D.
Jennifer O’Brien Ph.D.

5 Tips for Being a Good Ally

Allies are vital to supporting the LGBTQ community

Do you have a friend or loved one who recently came out? Perhaps you just learned that your coworker identifies as gay. Or your child has discovered that they believe they are trans. For those who are unfamiliar with the LGBTQ community, it can be challenging to know how to be a positive source of support for someone in the community who you are close to, or even how to use appropriate language or terms.

Part of what can contribute to that anxiety is the fact that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people have fundamentally different experiences than their straight and cisgender counterparts who are in turn not exposed to the same forms of discrimination as sexual and gender minorities. For instance, heterosexual people do not typically go through a "coming out" period in which they must acknowledge their sexual orientation to others in their life. This can be an incredibly stressful and frustrating process, and thus difficult for one who has never had to come out to understand entirely. It is important to remember however, that one can still offer support to someone who has had vastly different experiences, so long as that person is willing to acknowledge those differences openly. In other words, identifying within the LGBTQ spectrum it is not a prerequisite to being a positive source of support to someone within the LGBTQ community.

An ally is someone who chooses to commit themselves to acting in ways that help support the people of the LGBTQ community, regardless of their own identity or beliefs. Allies come in many forms, and they are an important resource that can help not only support, but use their position of privilege to work to reduce suffering and discrimination.

For anyone who wants to act as an ally, it can seem daunting to know how to be there for LGBTQ loved ones in a way that creates a sense of safety and trust. Indeed- it's not always common sense! The most important thing is that you are intentional in your efforts. All too often, people choose to intentionally not act as allies. In my work with LGBTQ people, I have seen the many devastating consequences for individuals that can come about when loved ones act in ways that are insensitive, unsupportive, and discriminatory.

If there are people in your life who you want to support, but feel unsure of where to start, here are a few useful tips for making sure you’re acting as an ally- and not as an additional source of stress and discrimination. Keep in mind, the fact that you are even looking for these resources means that you are already beginning the process!

Cole Hutson/Upsplash
Source: Cole Hutson/Upsplash

1. Listen with an open mind. To create a safe space, it is critical to be on the lookout for any assumptions you might be making within a given interaction. It's okay if your beliefs don't match up 100%. If you want to truly support someone, this means that you are not trying to get them to change but instead to develop their own understanding of themselves- which can be very daunting if they feel that they will be rejected or put down for who they are.

Focus on listening to the other person, and using empathy to understand their perspective instead of making judgments about what they say. This can help build trust and let the other person know that you want to understand their point of view, despite any differences in your backgrounds or experiences. And if there is something that you don't understand, just ask instead of assuming.

2. Believe their narrative. Each person’s story is completely different. There are many stereotypes about the experiences of LGBTQ people, and it can be harmful if you try to fit the other person’s story into preconceived categories of experience. This can also help you to best understand who they are and how they have come to understand their identity. So as you are listening, it is important as a good ally to affirm the person’s story- meaning that you do not question but validate what they are describing at face value. We never know what someone else has gone through unless they tell us!

3. Use preferred pronouns/names/terms appropriately. This is important in particular for trans or gender non-conforming/non-binary people who go by a different name than when you met them. If you learn that they prefer a different pronoun than what you have used before, you should make every effort to respect their wishes. And if you slip up or forget to use their preferred pronoun, it’s okay- you’re only human! This can be a challenge at first, especially if you have known the person for a long time- but generally people appreciate when they know that you are trying to get it right.

This also goes for other terms that your loved ones use. Use the language that they use to describe their identity or perhaps their relationship. If your son introduces his boyfriend to you, this means that it is appropriate for you to also call this person his boyfriend, unless he asks otherwise. This affirms to your loved one that you are acknowledging their identity.

4. Be an advocate. This can mean anything from speaking up on their behalf, attending pro-LGBTQ organizations/rallies, or advocating for law or policy changes. Being an advocate is about taking any form of action against discrimination or hatred toward the community. Maybe you hear others talk negatively or use stereotypical/discriminatory language about the person. Or someone intentionally uses the wrong pronoun or name to describe them. Use this as an opportunity to provide support even when the person is not present, for instance, by using their preferred terms, or speaking out when you see an injustice. Attend organizations, pride parades, post pro-LGBTQ articles, and use your position of privilege in a way that helps the community.

5. Connect them with resources. If you know that your loved one is struggling in any way, or needs help that you don’t feel you can provide- point them in the right direction by looking up local LGBTQ organizations, support networks, crisis lines, or mental health resources. You don’t have to take it all on yourself, and sometimes the most important thing you can do as an ally is connect them with the right resources so they can get the support they need.

For more resources, visit PFLAG’s guide for common questions and answers here.

About the Author
Jennifer O’Brien Ph.D.

Jennifer O’Brien, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist at MIT Medical. She received her Ph.D. from American University.

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