Becoming a Better Ally: Reflections from ACPA 2015

Although a great deal of literature calls attention to the lived experience of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and questioning (GLBTQIQ) community, very little attention has been given to the lived experience of allies and providing practical applications of examining uncomfortable growth areas in one’s allyship.  Upon return from ACPA’s 2015 Convention in Tampa, FL, I reflect upon my learning during the 2014 Convention in Indianapolis and the proverbial “gut check” I underwent regarding my allyship to the GLBTQIQ community.

I was bullied throughout high school.  My “crime” was that I loved acting.  I excelled in theatre.  I was athletic but I was not an athlete.  Big difference.  For this, and several other reasons, I was picked on.  Bullied.  Harassed.  This made me feel scared.  Intimidated.  Lesser than.  I was pushed into lockers and harassed in the cafeteria.  I was called a faggot.  My only recourse at the time – or so I thought – was to convince everyone that I was not gay.  In fact, I was tireless in my pursuit to prove my heterosexuality to others and make the overall bullying stop.  I was unsuccessful on both counts.  Sadly, my personal bullying example is not an isolated incident.

According to a recent study, 1 in 5 college-aged students is a victim of bullying (“Gay Bullying Statistics,” 2014).  Likewise, the same study reported that, “9 out of 10 [GLBTQIQ students] have reported being bullied at school within the past year because of their sexual orientation” (para. 4).  While my bullying experience due to my perceived sexual orientation is certainly not the same lived experience as someone in the GLBTQIQ community, my encounter has given me a greater sense of empathy and framed my motivation toward allyship.

There were times in high school when attention was diverted away from me and others became the brunt of the jokes.  I would like to think that I was silent during the rude jokes.  The truth is, sadly, I probably laughed nervously.  It was easier because, for one moment, the tirade was not directed at me.  I was out of the crosshairs.  In retrospect, while I was not malicious in my behavior, I certainly was not a very good ally.  I was slow to share my painful experiences with adults.  Besides my parents, I wondered to whom I could look for support.  Again, my experience is not unlike many of today’s students as they are often reluctant to report bullying behavior to persons of authority.  Specifically, many GLBTQIQ students cite a failure to report due to a perceived failure of action on the part of professionals (“Gay Bullying Statistics,” 2014).  As higher education professionals and allies, this notion should terrify, then call, us to action.

Controversy and confusion surrounding the word “ally” has existed for quite some time.  For example, allyship has appeared, periodically, counterproductive for the communities with which one is aligned.  Specifically, who names someone as an “ally”?  Allies are frequently individuals who hold the dominant identity and, therefore, by naming ourselves, are actually again re-asserting our unearned power and privilege.  These power dynamics continue to play out despite often-good intentions.  Likewise, being an ally is a call to action, not a period of stasis.  Yet, individuals may use the term without grasping a full understanding of the immense responsibility associated with it.  Mychal Denzel Smith (2013) noted,

The problem lies in people who make it a point to let everyone know they are an ‘ally’ to a movement, whether they’re actually doing the work required of them or not.  More often than not, they’re just seeking credit for being a good person. (para. 3)

I came to realize that each of these concerns, at different points in my allyship journey, required in-depth examination.

The days of being bullied are in my distant past, but they are far from my distant memory.  I harken back to these experiences because they were the beginning of my allyship to the GLBTQIQ community.  I used these negative experiences as a catalyst for action.  As a seasoned student affairs administrator and new tenure-track faculty member, I espouse social justice but I often wonder how well I really live it.  I would find out at ACPA’s 2014 Annual Convention in Indianapolis, IN.  Before I made my way into the large convention hall for the opening session, I noticed a large sign adjacent to the registration table advertising the location of an all-gender restroom.  Near this location was a table advertising the Standing Committee for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Awareness.  I picked up a rainbow sticker and affixed it to my nametag.  Then I noticed a sticker that read “My preferred pronouns are _______.”  I wrote “Him, His, He” on a sticker and attached it to my nametag.  “What a powerful and empowering gesture,” I thought.

Once inside the convention hall, I found my seat but was faced with the need to attend to my bodily functions: I needed to use the bathroom.  As I exited the massive hall toward the restroom, I found myself face to face with the sign once more: All-Gender Restroom.  In my mind the sign suddenly started to flash as brightly as a marquee on Broadway.  I realized that, for as often as I advocated social justice, conducted trainings on gender identity, and lived my life as an “engaged” ally, this would be my first time using an all-gender bathroom.  This unnerved me.  It challenged my own biases and assumptions about what was comfortable and normal.

I had an internal dialogue with myself and I wondered if I caught anyone’s attention.  Why is this man staring at a bathroom door?!? I wondered why this was suddenly a challenge for me.  Why was I comfortable wearing rainbow stickers and a gender pronouns badge but this task suddenly seemed daunting and overwhelming?  This was a moment when I thoughtfully – critically – needed to take a hard look at whether I was “doing the work.”  Smith (2013) spoke to the danger that exists when an ally’s words and actions do not align, commenting,

This isn’t to say that the work that’s supposed to be done by ‘allies’ isn’t meaningful, but the word itself has started to become meaningless…As much as social justice movements need people, if those people aren’t committed…and willing to push themselves out of their comfort zones, they serve little purpose beyond the superficial. (para. 5)

I realized in this instance, and in many past instances of my social justice advocacy, I was not fully committed and willing to push myself out of my comfort zone.  My inaction added up to nothing more than meaningless rhetoric.  Still, I took a deep breath and walked through the door.

I’m not quite certain what I expected to see.  It was a bathroom.  A normal, everyday, run-of-the-mill bathroom.  I began to relax.  As my anxiety subsided, I made a promise to myself that, when available throughout the conference, I would intentionally use an all-gender bathroom.  Three bathrooms had been identified for all-gender use throughout the length of the Convention.  The next morning, with the comforts and the safety of my hotel bathroom aside, I quickly found that all-gender restrooms were few and far between for the size of the conference.  This realization caused me to be more deliberate about finding them rather than assuming there were bathrooms around every corner.  I could no longer quickly run out in the middle of a workshop to use the restroom.  My lived privilege quickly became apparent.

Transgender students face this dilemma all too often.  “Should I use the bathroom with the pants-wearing stick figure or the dress-wearing stick figure?”  For me the choice is obvious – the men’s restroom – and fits with my preferred gender pronouns.  But for students that don’t necessarily prescribe to the socially constructed gender binary, or identify with a gender that is misaligned with their biological sex, the decision is not as clear.  Members of the trans- community face discrimination and harassment as well as threats of arrest each day as they look for a safe place to use the restroom.  A recent article on Inside Higher Ed reported that a transgender student at a community college was detained by security officers and escorted off campus after she used the women’s bathroom (Jaschik, 2014).  A handout at the Annual Convention explained the purpose of the all-gender restrooms in the second paragraph: “Everyone has the right to meet their basic needs in a safe environment, without feeling threatened or intimidated.  All-gender restrooms provide an opportunity for our community members to enter a restroom without being questioned if they are in ‘the right place.’”

As allies in the GLBTQIQ community, we must walk the proverbial talk.  How might educators combat bullying and show their unwavering support and inclusivity of all students, but, most notably, the GLBTQIQ community?  Creating a positive campus culture starts with modeling inclusive behavior.  Be vocal regarding how to report bullying and exclusionary behavior.  Lend your voice so that others may find theirs.  Employ active listening techniques and model inclusive, empathic, and respectful behavior to students in all settings.

For me, this means taking risks, embracing my anxiety, and acting outside of my comfort zone.  Staring at the bathroom door, at that moment, I made a promise with myself to make some changes when I arrived home after the Convention had concluded.  I would no longer be a passive ally.  I show my support of the trans- community by using all-gender restrooms any time I encounter one, including at this year’s Convention in Tampa.  I supportively challenge people that harass individuals suspected of living outside the socially-constructed gender binary.  I use learning tools such as the “gender pronouns” exercise when I teach my courses on student development.  I ask all of my students their preferred name rather than assume it is the name on my class roster.  I work toward an “inclusion agenda” – which includes creating more all-gender restrooms – as part of my institution’s strategic plan.

GLBTQIQ concerns are not isolated to one particular group on campus, nor should they be the responsibility of one particular functional area.  The conversation of engaged allyship must reach all members of the campus community.  I encourage student affairs professionals to affirm all aspects of our students’ identities and advocate justice for all members of the campus community.  I invite staff to create welcoming and inclusive spaces.  I challenge faculty to transform pedagogy to cultivate more inclusive language during class.

As hindsight is 20/20, I would like to go back to high school and talk to my former self.  I would tell that scared little boy that he is just fine the way he is.  I would tell him that people care deeply about him.  Maybe I need to do more so that my students know that I care deeply about them; that they are fine just the way they are.  I wrestle with the concept that perhaps I am not as good of an ally as I once thought.  While this notion initially terrified me, it also, strangely, empowered me.  It permitted me to accept my own gender and sexual identity development and critically look at my life through a different lens.  I have learned a great deal about myself through this experience.  While a large part of being an ally constitutes acting outside of my comfort zone in order to widen my worldview, there is an equally important component that is less about “me as ally” and more about me using my power and privilege to advocate for the communities of which I am attempting to align.

My initial discomfort using an all-gender restroom propelled me to rethink my allyship and reaffirmed my responsibility as a social justice advocate.  Mia McKenzie (2013) echoed this sentiment, “‘Ally’ cannot be a label that someone stamps onto you—or…that you stamp on to yourself—so you can then go around claiming it as some kind of identity.  It’s not an identity.  It’s a practice.  It’s an active thing that must be done over and over again, in the largest and smallest ways, every day” (2013, para. 4).  This experience reminded me that my allyship is a journey.

Discussion Questions

1.     How might educators combat bullying and provide their unwavering support and inclusivity of all students, but, most notably, the GLBTQIQ community?

2.     How might we affirm and celebrate the multiple aspects of our students’ identity?

3.     What does an inclusive campus culture look like, and what strategies might we utilize to create such a campus culture?

Note

The author acknowledges that the use of GLBTQIQ as an initialism is not an entirely-inclusive term, realizing that there are individuals with a spectrum of additional identities that go unnamed in the article.  The choice in language was not meant to be exclusionary; rather, it was chosen as an umbrella term to provide context for the reader.

References

BullyingStatistics.org. (2015). Gay bullying statistics. Retrieved from http://www.bullyingstatistics.org/content/gay-bullying-statistics.html

Jaschik, S. (2014, April 2). Questioned for being transgendered. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/04/02/debate-central-%09piedmont-over transgender-student-rights

McKenzie, M. (2013, September 30). No more “allies.” Retrieved from http://www.blackgirldangerous.org/2013/09/no-more-allies

Smith, M. D. (2013, October 1). The case against “allies.” Retrieved from http://feministing.com/2013/10/01/the-case-against-allies/

Standing Committee for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Awareness. (2014) All-gender restrooms. [Brochure].

About the Author

Matthew R. Shupp is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Counseling and College Student Personnel and Co-Chair of the GLBT Concerns Committee at Shippensburg University.

Please e-mail inquiries to Matthew R. Shupp.

Disclaimer

The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

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