Where I Was
I had always thought of myself as an inclusive and open-minded person. During my undergraduate studies, however, I began to realize how heteronormative my viewpoint was. What I knew about lesbian and gay communities was mostly based on stereotypes, and I did not know anything about people who were bisexual, transgender, questioning, queer, intersex or asexual. I was not taught (and had not educated myself) that people can identify at any point along the sexual orientation and gender identity spectrums or not at all. I simplistically thought that because I was supportive of marriage equality and I did not overtly discriminate, I was a good ally. I did not understand how much I needed to learn. I did not realize that inaction is also a choice, a choice that reinforces the structurally oppressive status quo.
I began the slow process of ridding myself of the myths I had learned and stereotypical thinking I engaged in through reading and seeking out resources, attending trainings and participating in workshops. There was not one moment that motivated me to make this change and engage in ally self-development. It was a gradual process, starting in 2009, that emerged from my liberal arts, interdisciplinary education in psychology and social-anthropology; my involvement in the college’s social justice center; relationships with LGBTQIA+ friends, housemates, peers, professors and co-workers; and interest in being a competent helping professional. Matthews and Adams present three methods for primary prevention of heterosexism: “(a) exposure to positive information about LGB individuals in classes or workshops, (b) contact with LGB individuals and (c) instituting nondiscrimination policies in work and school settings” (2009, p. 17). All three of these elements were present in my development as an ally. It was at this point when I started to realize how thoughtful my role as an ally must be. For example, when working to re-designate a bathroom at a large public university in the south, my first round of emails to gather support used the word “unisex.” A member of the LGBTQIA+ community pointed out “unisex” reinforces the gender binary. I quickly changed our language to “gender inclusive.” I am humbled by this example, and it reminds me that I and other allies can unintentionally oppress members of the community we are trying to advocate for, unless we are vigilant.
Where I Am Now
I now embrace that I must continually learn more about sexual orientation and gender minority communities and any community for whom I strive to be an ally and advocate. I learned that I will never arrive at the point where I am a fully anti-racist and anti-heterosexist white ally. There will always be more to learn. When I think I have arrived, that is my cue to double down on my self-education. Instead of feeling intimidated by this, I feel inspired.
I am learning so much from one of my mentors, Tangela Roberts, PhD, and the research we are conducting on LGBTQIA+ community centers and services provided to queer youth of color. Our research motivates me to learn more, to understand further and to work to gain more knowledge and a better perspective as an ally. I realize I still commit microaggressions and reinforce the status quo. However, I have learned to take my defensive energy and turn it into action. This learning has informed my own research on white, young adults’ understanding of structural racism in the U.S. These two lines of research both challenge systemic and structural barriers and are both impacted by the ideology of heteronormative white supremacy. This also allows me to draw connections to the ways in which the disability rights and the women’s rights movement are connected in the struggle for equality. I am now learning to look deeper and to see intersectionality in places I had not seen it before.
As I continue to learn and grow as an anti-racist and anti-heterosexist white ally, I am sharing what I learn with my peers, my family and my own networks. As an ally, my power comes from who I can reach, talk to and educate about topics related to sexual orientation and gender diversity. It is my responsibility and onus to use my heterosexual and white privileges to reach people who have been historically hard to reach and might otherwise be closed to investigating their privileges.
Matthews, C. R., & Adams, E. M. (2009). Using a social justice approach to prevent the mental health consequences of heterosexism. The Journal of Primary Prevention, 30, 11–26. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10935-008-0166-4
Zari Koelbel Carpenter (she/her) is a first-year counseling psychology doctoral student at Western Michigan University.