Op-Ed: What does it mean to be an ally?

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As I have become more educated over the course of my undergrad, I have found myself to be lacking in a few ways.

In my first year, I woefully underestimated the amount of work it would take to achieve the goals I had set out for myself. In my second year, I started to realize that my view of the world was heavily shaped by the culture I grew up in. 

For someone who grew up in a very homogenous community that had only a few people without white skin and even fewer who were vocal members of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community, this meant that I really had no idea how to treat people who were different from me. Luckily, university life has exposed me to many different people from numerous backgrounds. One such connection is a very close friend, Kieran, who I met through my wife’s social group. I’ll let Kieran introduce themself in a moment, but for now, I need to highlight just how much I owe them for expanding my horizons and forcing me to check my own prejudices.

Shortly after meeting Kieran, they came out as non-binary. Now, I am happy to report that I never felt any animosity towards them or anything like that; I was, however, apprehensive as I wasn’t sure how to handle a life change like this. Happily, I can confirm that in reality, all that changed is what I call them in conversation, which has never once been an issue.

What I’ve come to realize is that what I was apprehensive about was failing a close friend and making them feel invalidated in their identity. Now I can safely say that I want to be an ally to not only my close friend but every member of any marginalized group. 

But that begs the question: does my desire to be an ally just make me one by default? The short and simple answer is NO. Anyone who truly wants to be an ally, I feel already knows this– but nevertheless, I feel it important to highlight– you cannot ascribe yourself the title of “ally”. I know this may be a shocking revelation to some (though I’m hoping only a few), but good intentions only get you so far and in reality, it takes effort and dedication to be an ally. 

Now at this point, I feel it best to bring Kieran in directly and ask them a few questions as they happen to be a bit of an expert on the subject. 

Interview with Kieran, secretary of Chroma N.B

(Chroma N.B./Website)

Q: Tell me a bit about yourself.

A: My name is Kieran! My pronouns are they/he. I do a bit of writing, a bit of art, and I’ve been working in the non-profit sector focusing on marginalized identities (youth, newcomers, 2SLGBTQIA+ folks). I’m the founder and current secretary of Chroma.

Q: What is Chroma? What does the organization do?

A: Chroma: Pride, Inclusion, Equality Inc. is a non-profit organization awaiting charitable status. Our focus is on three main pillars (ACE): Advocacy, Community/Collaboration, Education. We currently hold monthly Creative Nights events exclusively for the rainbow community by the rainbow community. We are also gearing focus into educational workshops for businesses and organizations on sex, gender, identity, presentation, to help employers be more inclusive and welcoming spaces for the rainbow community. 

We also intend to have helpful guides and resources for the rainbow community, including transition and name-change help, referrals to counsellors, and aid in exploring gender. 

Q: Have you had any experiences with “allies” who have been helpful?

A: My group of friends have endlessly been allies to me since the start of my transition. Even when I first came out, they were there by my side and supporting me as I came out as bi, then pan, then nonbinary. Their support has been invaluable to me; I knew coming out to them, which was a scary process, would be met with love and acceptance. 

Q: Has anyone had good intentions but ended up being part of the problem?

A: Yes, and mainly, a lot of this has to do with the inability to change and evolve to new language. Even within the rainbow community itself, there are always times we can be better allies to one another. Intentions only take you so far; if what you say or do hurts someone, your intention to be a good ally doesn’t erase the hurt. 

Q: What can we do to be better allies? Are allies even necessary, or do they just end up doing more harm than good?

A: Listen. Always listen, and make room and space for people to speak on their experiences without judgement, without interjection. If that means you have to be uncomfortable, get used to being uncomfortable. Especially our BIPOC members of the queer community. 

Allies are necessary, but a person can’t claim to be an ally. It is awarded because the community has [made] you one. Without allies, being 2SLGBTQIA+ would not be normalized. We need people outside of the community to help us fight for our humanity. 

Q: If there was one thing you could have an “ally” never say/do again, what would that be?

A: My [friend] said… when faced with criticism, one person’s word is not law. For example, some folks don’t like the term “enby” because it’s infantilizing. I’m fine with it, but that doesn’t mean that just because I’m okay with that term, I then want my ally friends to go to another nonbinary person and use me as an example for why their hurtful words are okay. 

‘Queer’ is another word that I’m really happy for cishet folks to use. Someone else might still see it as a slur. When someone says not to use a certain term for them, don’t bring in a friend and family member who thinks it’s okay. 

Similarly, pitting members of the community against one another is another big issue, It happens; it needs to stop. 

Q: Is there anything I have missed? 

A: Many things, but I think this has been fairly thorough. You can’t claim yourself to be an ally without putting in the work, without earning it. And this applies to any marginalized community, not just rainbow folks. 

Equity and equality will not happen unless we break down these systemic barriers that have been put in place. 

Q: Do you have anything you would like me to add? 

A: I want to see Saint John become the inclusive, flourishing space it so clearly wants to be. I hope we can all keep working together for a brighter future. 

From myself and our team, thank you to everyone who’s been attending our events, reaching out, and for those who have offered us their suggestions and critiques. We all need to hold ourselves, and each other, accountable. 

Check us out on Facebook and Instagram (Chroma N.B.), and our website, chromanb.ca. We also have event cards at the public libraries for those without internet access. We have events for all ages. 

If you or someone you know is looking for help, resources, or information, please feel free to reach out to us by email. Same if you have any suggestions, questions, or concerns.

Closing thoughts

Now, I feel that Kieran was honestly very comprehensive, but I thought I would jump back in to add just a couple of final thoughts.

As stated earlier, the title of “ally” is one that is earned, and you CANNOT bestow it upon yourself. Furthermore, posting about your support on social media is all well and good but if it is not also backed up by concrete actions, then it is little more than virtue signalling. For the most part, the best thing we can do is to try and promote marginalized voices and keep our own voices out of the way.

If you really want to do your part, then start having tough conversations with the people in your lives that have problematic beliefs regarding marginalized peoples. The sad reality of our world is that marginalization is perpetuated by people who do not care to listen to people who do not look like them. If you truly want to be an ally to a person or group, try and take the onus of educating the ignorant off of the marginalized.