I am an ally to…because…

by Elizabeth Sawka

Assistant Opinion Editor

Last week Unity hosted the first ever Ally Week, which was a social media campaign celebrating allies at Canisius.  Griffs featured on Unity’s social media held up signs that said who they were an ally to and why.  This campaign was absolutely beautiful because it gave students and staff a chance to put a face to the accepting atmosphere on campus.  My personal favorites were “I’m an ally to Unity because I’m also fabulous!” and “we are allies to all students because everyone deserves a safe space to express themselves.”  

Lots of Griffs wrote that they were an ally to “everyone,” which surprised me.  I anticipated lots of Griffs writing they were an ally to “transgender people” or “the asexual community” or another specific group, but I was pleased to see that many people were making a clear attempt to be inclusive allies.   It seems that Griffs wanted to show that they did not prioritize certain orientations over others, as is so often seen in media, which often portrays diversity as a white, cisgender, gay man.  It’s wonderful that we’re able to see television shows and movies portraying stories of gay men, but that shouldn’t be the only story told.  

Ally Week celebrated diversity and also reminded Griffs that you don’t have to be straight to be an ally.  The word ally comes from the Latin word “alligare” which means “bind together.”  Being an ally means that you are figuratively and/or literally standing in solidarity with someone who is not awarded the same rights as you.  Allies use their voices to speak for marginalized communities.  As a straight, cisgender woman, I am an ally to gender and sexuality minorities.  A bisexual, cisgender woman can be an ally to the transgender community.  

If you’re ready to stand in solidarity with someone, it’s important that you use your voice as an ally effectively without distracting from the voices that you’re advocating for.  I remember a number of years ago when a member of the Duck Dynasty cast made homophobic comments, my straight ally friends and I were extremely upset—and with good reason.  What he said was offensive and inappropriate, but I also distinctly remember a gay friend of mine telling us “yes, it was offensive, but is anyone really surprised?” He obviously took offense to the comment, but he also had the perspective that this was a notoriously conservative person speaking.  My friend was a lot less angry than we were, so even though it made sense for us to be angry, it was important that we kept in mind we couldn’t react without listening to the group the Dynasty man was talking about.

This moment stayed with me because it was a time where I learned how to use my voice as an ally.  The person I was trying to be an ally to pointed out that while the comment was upsetting, comments like these are a part of life.  We wanted to be angry on his behalf, but he wasn’t nearly as angry as us because the Duck Dynasty cast member’s homophobia was something he anticipated.

Sometimes allies have really good intentions with their reactions—they want to make a change, so they speak out about a moment of injustice, but the most important thing an ally can do is listen.  Allies can and should use their voices can be a powerful weapon; however, it should be informed. Allies should be asking questions of the groups they want to be an ally to because the biggest part of being a good ally is recognizing the difference between understanding and empathizing.  As the Vice President of Unity, people assume I’m not straight all the time.  Sometimes people act uncomfortable around me because of it, but I haven’t experienced how it feels to be treated differently because of how I actually identify.  Experiencing discrimination because of a false assumption isn’t necessarily better than discrimination for an assumption that happens to be correct, but it’s different and it’s important for allies to acknowledge that.

This summer, gay marriage was legalized in the United States, and #LoveWins was all over my social media. I was filled with extreme pride the day gay marriage was legalized, especially because I know my children won’t grow up in a world where gay marriage was illegal just like I never knew a time where interracial marriage was illegal.  This is an important piece of history, but it’s important that we do not forget that marriage laws were not the only legal or social injustice faced by gender and sexuality minorities.  The best way to find out is very simple—ask for stories about their experience if you want to be their ally.  Members of the community are the ones who decide what rights they want to fight for first.  It is their rights after all.  

If the recent scandal at the University of Missouri tells us anything, it’s that we are fortunate to attend an undergraduate institution that celebrates diversity in a real and concrete way.  If Griffs want to be allies to everyone, and I really believe that they do, then we need to remember to listen.  Being an ally does not mean that a social injustice is about you, and certainly the fight for equality can continue on without you.  Strength comes from knowing when to use your voice and when to remain silent.  A good ally does not presume an experience, but rather listens and learns.  

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