How Not to Be an Ally: 5 Reminders for Christian Clergy Working for Equality

  1. You don’t understand.

This is not meant in a hostile way. It’s just a reminder. If you are not LGBTQ, you have not lived the reality of being LGBTQ. You may empathize, but that’s different than being LGBTQ. Here’s a parallel. I’m not African-American. I may work tirelessly against racism, and do my best to understand the African-American experience, but I will never fully understand what it is to grow up as anything other than white in this country.

You may be the best ally in the world, with all the LGBTQ friends you could hope for, but until you are the 13 year old kid who gets beat up for being gay, or the 22 year old who has to leave their church, or the 40 year old who is denied a marriage license, or the 50 year old who can’t afford top surgery, or the 65 year old who can’t collect a partner’s Social Security, you will never understand exactly what it is to be LGBTQ.

2. You will sometimes pay a price for doing the right thing. We pay a price everyday.

Yes, it’s true. Your support of us will sometimes cost you. You might not get the big steeple church. You might not be able to serve as a church official. You might even end up in jail from time to time. The blessing is that these will be occasional situations for you. They are daily realities for us. When something like this happens, it will feel tragic. But for perspective, put it in the context of the greater, even more tragic, reality of the inequalities in our country.

There’s a story about this. John Lewis once was working with a group of white clergy who were going to be arrested for civil disobedience in the Civil Rights movement. His job was to bail them out immediately upon arrest. The ministers would then be heroically received. Except he didn’t bail them out. He decided to wait a while. He wanted them to truly understand their privilege and the fact that their jail cell was temporary. The jail cell of racism never opened. Remember that what you are doing is right. Maybe even brave. But it’s not heroic. Virtue is its own reward.

3. Let us define ourselves.

Please don’t put your labels on our reality. Two women who are together are not necessarily a “lesbian couple”. A man who has sex with another man may not identify as gay. Someone who is gender non-conforming might identify as trans. Or they might not. We might proudly claim words you don’t feel comfortable using: queer, butch, femme, etc. Those words come from our struggle and our reality. When you say, “oh, don’t call yourself that” we hear it as “I am not comfortable with you”. When you call our marriage a “union” we hear “separate but equal”. Words matter, and letting those who are not as privileged as you choose their own words matters more.

Here’s another example: When you lead worship, do you ever divide the voices up into the “men” and the “women”? Recently I attended a church with an active outreach to the LGBT community, and a few trans members, some of whom were still not out about the fact they were considering transitioning. When we were asked to sing along gender binary lines, some of them were put on the spot in a highly uncomfortable way. Try not to box us in using your understanding of sex and gender. Talk to us. We’ll tell you what works.

4. Whenever possible, listen…don’t talk.

Which leads me to my next point: listen. We have spent much of our life not being able to speak our truth. Now that we can, please let us do it. That’s not to say that we don’t want to dialogue with you or listen to your journey about how you became an ally. It’s just saying that we are often the best ones to speak to our realities.

Recently I was sitting at a table with clergy members, all of whom were allies. One ally was talking about what LGBTQ’s wanted around gay marriage (mainly just civil benefits). Not only did I not agree with him, but most LGBTQ people would not. Another ally graciously interrupted and pointed out that since there was a LGBTQ person at the table, perhaps that person could speak to what marriage meant to us better than an ally. It was a great moment of grace that doesn’t happen nearly enough.

5. Remember we are not a monolithic group

There are so many different identities in the LGBTQ alphabet. There’s a beauty in that diversity that doesn’t come out when one person is chosen to represent us all. A gay man does not understand what it means to be a lesbian. A lesbian does not understand what it is to be trans (unless they are trans themselves). A trans person doesn’t understand what it is to be bi (again, unless they are themselves). Each group has specific concerns and realities. Resist the urge to lump us together as one.

Likewise, remember that we don’t always have the same ideas on how the LGBT community should achieve our goals. Many clergy allies proudly show me their HRC t-shirts and equal stickers, for instance. I really appreciate the fact they are trying to visibly show their support, but I wonder if they realize that many LGBT people, particularly trans folks, would rather gnaw off their right arms than give to HRC? Other LGBTQ folks love them. But ask us who, and what, we would support, and why. It will tell you more about our community.

Finally, remember we love you. Every civil rights movement needs allies, and we are grateful for you. I only mention these things because there are times when well-meaning allies can become roadblocks on the path to the full equality of LGBTQ people. They’re principles I try to put in practice when I advocate for groups that I am not a member of, and they’ve served me well. I hope they might serve you as well. Until all children of God are equal, peace be with you.

14 thoughts on “How Not to Be an Ally: 5 Reminders for Christian Clergy Working for Equality

  1. I love, love, love this and agree with all of it. I might add to #4 that planning is a nice component to add to listening. I have heard from college students who were the only nonwhite person in the room that they were put in the position of just such a moment of “grace” as you described, and were less excited to be put on the spot about providing “the perspective” of Asians or African-Americans. If you are an ally, yes, invite commentary from members of the group you’re discussing — but don’t use your power (if you have it) over the discussion to put one member on the spot without knowing if that person will be OK with it.

  2. Here is one way to read this:
    1) You aren’t wise enough to understand
    2) It is harder for me than you
    3) I’ll define this conversation (see 1)
    4) Shut up
    5) It is complicated (see 1)

    Maybe I missed the point. I am not trying to be snarky.

  3. Your point is well taken, anonymous. And in a way, you aren’t wrong on some counts (no snark intended here either). The reality is that no, you aren’t wise enough to understand my LGBTQ reality if you haven’t also lived it. That’s not an insult, it is simply a fact. It IS however insulting if you attempt to assume that you know what it’s like.

    Without knowing your demographics, I can’t speak thoroughly to number 2. But it is harder to be part of a minority group than a majority group. And while there are shared elements of experience among minority populations, there aren’t necessarily “universal truths” (see number 5).

    We should ALWAYS let people define their own identities. Period. You are entitled to dialogue, and even opinion. As a femme (and one half of a butch/femme couple), I’ve had more than my share of conversations with people who struggle with butch and femme identity. But at the end of the conversation, it still wasn’t up to them to define my identity.

    Again, you are entitled to opinions, thoughts, and feelings. But if you are attempting to walk in someone else’s shoes or really empathize with their experience, you should listen far more than you talk.

    It IS complicated. I’m a queer. I’m not a lesbian. The latter assumption gets made all of the time. I deliberately don’t identify as a lesbian. I’m a femme. That is my gender identity (even though it is often invisible). I’m not really a fan of the HRC. And yet, more often than not people (particularly outside of the LGBTQ community) read me as a “lesbian woman”, because they lump us all into the same groups. It’s complicated, and returning to number 3 above, it’s up to us to identify ourselves.

    Also, this will be my last response to you unless you are willing to put a name on your post and stand up for your words. Rev. Heath and other commenters here have done that. We’d appreciate it if you would too!

  4. Emily, this is a wonderful post and reminder to Christian clergy and heterosexuals like myself who believe in LBGTQ equality and that being lesbian, bi, gay, trans, etc., is not a sin. I will take your post to heart and already I’m discerning how I’ve done exactly the things you mentioned and how to be more helpful and supportive in a way that doesn’t presume, offend or focus attention on myself. Thank you for your ministry and all that you do to share God’s love and be a prophetic voice in this broken world. I’ll definitely be reading your blog more often (btw, so cool that you are on the Huffington Post :-))

    One specific thought or point on this post. I think most people make an assumption about LBGTQ’s rights as it relates to politics. The civil rights issues of LBGTQ transcends politics and is a human rights/morality/ethical/religious issue. It’s often assumed that if you are for equality, you are liberal/Democrat and if you are against it, you are conservative/Republican. But, as we see again and again in various news reports, this is not the case. There are many LBTQ who are Republican or conservative. There are gay people who don’t like President Obama simply because of his handling of the economy or love Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck (although I can’t imagine why :-)) because of their views on health care. Anyway, saying gay people are all liberals is like saying that all blacks or women are Democrats. And by the same token, there are other heterosexual Christians from conservative theological churches/denominations who believe in gay rights and that being gay is not a sin…while there are also LBGTQ who are conservative theologically when it comes to salvation issues.

    Anyway…thank you again for reminding us that when we make assumptions, we make an ass out of ourselves.

    • So appreciate the notation on political views. As a queer femme who is ragingly liberally in some ways and much more conservative than many of my friends in others, I get exhausted at the assumptions that I “must be this” or “must be that”. Although I’m that LGBTQ folks who vote for anti-equality candidates confuse the HECK outta me. 😉

  5. Well done! We most importantly need our straight allies to preach and speak on our behalf with wisdom and authority. I find too often they are afraid to do so because of the risks of being accused of abusing authority by one side or the other. I find congregants with money and power attempt to assume control of both clergy and the dialog. I do not envy clergy. I find them creating busy work and distractions to avoid the topics that threaten “schism.” They must feel safe enough to ask their questions and to listen for answers to questions they didn’t think to ask and make generous amounts of time for it. We need the same dignity.

  6. A breath of Common Sense! Thanks.
    P.S. I am a big fan of letting the choir sort itself out by preferred vocal range, not gender, categories. signed, “Alto II / Tenor I”

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