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I’ve been a public high school English teacher for the past nine years. When my students meet me in September, I know they are forming opinions based on the evidence in front of them: Is this teacher trustworthy? Is this teacher worthy of respect? Is this teacher fair and willing to listen to me? This year, for the first time, I draped a rainbow flag behind my desk next to pictures of my wife and son. I am a straight ally to the LGBT movement, and I’ve come to realize that silent support is not enough. I have to state my support openly—both verbally and nonverbally—to give the movement more currency in mainstream thought.
The response to my classroom's rainbow flag has been positive; one of my LGBT students told me that she felt comfortable in my room as a direct result.
I grew up in a conservative community where LGBT kids were invisible; they didn’t come out of the closet until they were in college. As a teenager, my attitudes towards the LGBT community were not hateful, but they were ignorant due to my lack of exposure. My impressions of gay people were based on what I saw on television; at the time, the representation ranged from simplified to insulting.
Nothing humanizes a minority group more than close interaction with that group on a one-to-one basis. A straight ally, by his or her involvement and advocacy, takes LGBT issues outside the realm of “gay issues,” and makes those issues more mainstream and public. The most powerful social movements have always arisen from the oppressed, who make themselves visible, put themselves in front of cameras and journalists, sacrifice, and demand action. And allies, once they are awoken to inequities, have the responsibility to use their privilege and power productively—to magnify the visibility of those issues, to protest them, and codify equality into law. The best allies are unselfish. They recognize that the comfortable, preferential treatment they benefit from is not ideal. They recognize that representation of minority groups, in the highest places of power, is essential to a decent, fair society.
The LGBT community bears no responsibility to appease and compromise with the straight community; we bear collective responsibility to address the inequities which affect them. They are not always immediately evident; the struggle for equality goes deeper than mere “tolerance.” Even in accepting households, LGBT people can be met with quiet disdain. Parents might not mind having a "gay kid," but get prickly if other imagined lines are crossed, like being too "flamboyant" or gender non-conforming. As a straight ally, the best way to learn about these subtleties is through open communication with LGBT people.
Gay bars like Pulse are safe spaces, not because of the spaces themselves, but because of the people who occupy them. They are where LGBT people can socialize without worrying about stares, remarks, contempt, or violence. The Orlando shooting emphasized the continuing importance of these spaces, and an ally can reinforce those spaces by becoming an extension of them. Or, even better, allies can work to make every space safe, which cuts to the heart of the central problem.
“Thoughts and prayers” are empty gestures. Attend a meeting. Go to a rally. Say something or write something. And listen before you speak. Rather than tossing your hot take into a volatile situation, listen to the people who have been dealing with these issues, personally and intimately, for longer than you have. You’re being let into a space that was created apart from you, and you need to respect its purpose and sanctity.
Being a straight ally means that you’re going to makes mistakes. Recently, I used the wrong pronoun to refer to someone, and that person was offended. My gut reaction was defensiveness, but as uncomfortable as I was, his discomfort was greater; it wouldn't be right to make the situation about me. A willingness to tread into uncomfortable territory is a large part of learning about evolving issues meaningfully. It’s better to fumble your interactions than avoid them entirely. Some might suspect your motivations. Some might think you’re doing it for attention. Some might call you a disingenuous SJW. Suck it up. You’ll get over it. Those are small potatoes in comparison to the bigger issues that you’re advocating for.
The outpouring of support and sympathy for the Orlando tragedy is widespread and mainstream. And no wonder; it’s easy to be inclusive and say the right thing when the lines between right and wrong, good and evil, are so clearly defined. But long after the dead are buried, family members have grieved, and pundits have milked this story for political capital, the discriminatory attitudes which propagated this tragedy will still be there, residing in the darkest parts of our nation’s psyche and in the branches of our federal, state, and local governments.
Be an ally even after Pride season. Be an ally during inconvenient times. Support and vote for progressive initiatives, long after the news cycle moves on to something new. Because to LGBT people, the struggle for equality is more than a Facebook status update. It’s more than a picture of solidarity on a Twitter profile. It’s their lives, and they deserve a dignity that the majority of us take for granted.