Being a Good Ally: Easier Said Than Done

On Sunday, I attended the NYC Pride Parade. It was my first time attending any sort of pride parade, and it was a fun and interesting experience. Throughout the past year, I’ve been learning more about the gender and sexuality spectrum and trying to enhance my own understanding of LGBTQ issues. What I’ve learned so far is that I actually don’t know much at all. Usually when talking about systems of oppression and privilege, I fall on the “let me tell you how it is for us folks” side and find myself having to educate others and watch others fumble, trying to grasp the reality of racism, sexism, and classism. Last week was the first time I had to confront my own privilege in regards to my sexuality and how I decide to express my gender. I didn’t know what was expected of me as an ally, what I was allowed to say or not say, and if I even understood all the issues on the table concerning LGBTQ people. It was a very uncomfortable but necessary experience as I usually am the first to call others out for their forms of privilege and am usually very unsympathetic toward their ignorance about the issues that most affect me.

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I asked my co-workers, many of whom identify as LGBTQ and gender nonconforming, if they were going to attend the pride parade, and they answered with a definitive “no”: that the parade had been hijacked in recent years by corporate interests, that there was too much emphasis on marriage equality and not enough on other more pertinent issues affecting LGBTQ people, that the pride parade has historically been transphobic, and that there were more local and effective grassroots ways to actually support LGBTQ issues. The critique surprised me. Wasn’t gay pride supposed to be the pinnacle of the LGBTQ movement? Their critique definitely shaded the way I experienced the parade. While I enjoyed it and definitely felt the pride and acknowledged that there needed to be a space to just be proud, I did see what my co-workers meant about corporate and political co-opting (Wal-Mart and the Mayor’s office were in attendance). I also found the parade to be somewhat apolitical. Not that being apolitical is always a bad thing, but coming from outside the LGBTQ movement, the gay pride parade was the only connection I had to understanding the gay rights movement, and I think this is true for the average, woefully uninformed, non-LGBTQ (and many LGBTQ identified) citizens (although I can’t really speak for everyone). For most non-LGBTQ people, just showing up to the parade at all probably felt to them like a great act of solidarity.

 It’s not.   pride2

After the parade, I had an extensive conversation with some other  Moxies about the parade and the gay rights movement as a whole. While we differed in many opinions, I left the conversation feeling like we’d all missed the point. None of us present in the conversation actually identified as LGBTQ nor had we truly ever been confronted with the extreme discrimination, violence, and marginalization that LGBTQ people face , but we still felt validated in our attempts to speak to experiences we’d never had and pass judgement on the actions of LGBTQ people who had or had not decided to march in the parade. Were they apolitical or too political? Did they not understand the most pressing issues of their own movement? Were they actually trying to represent a mainstream, white-washed version of LGBTQ people or were there a diverse enough group of individuals present? Which organizations should get to march in a pride parade? This critique all while sitting on our butts, doing absolutely nothing to further the cause of the LGBTQ movement.

I think as “radical” activists and good-intentioned allies, we fall into the same trap that most people including outspoken bigots do: believing we can actually define the parameters of someone else’s identity and pass judgment on how they choose to express it. As allies, we shouldn’t try to “radicalize” a movement that doesn’t belong to us in the first place. I think the hardest part is really allowing others to speak for themselves by giving them the mic so that their voices and not our own can be heard. I think we need to step back and ask ourselves if we are truly allies, showing up only when asked and to further the cause of the movement without rushing to define it for our own purposes, then deciding if it is worthy enough or “radical” enough for us.

Easier said than done, as I have learned this week.

 

A reflection on reflecting

When people find out I went to a Quaker high school, they often ask me what exactly makes it Quaker.  I’ve been asked if the fact that we wear “Pilgrim uniforms” makes it Quaker (which we don’t), or if it’s actually the fact that we only eat Quaker oatmeal (we have a fully stocked cafeteria, thank you).  But I always answer the question with the three defining aspects of my Friends education:

   
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  • The omnipresence of the Quaker testimonies (I had SPICES memorized by the second day of my first year attending school there) –  (Simplicity Peace Integrity Community Equality Stewardship, for those of you who don’t catch my drift [aka all of you])
  • The emphasis on stewardship and service (we had a service hours requirement, in addition to a “Day of Service” and a “Friends Multicultural Day” which involved helping out the community instead of sitting in a classroom—best days of the year)
  • Meeting for Worship

“What’s Meeting for Worship?” I would be asked next.  It’s a bit difficult to explain, and you kind of have to experience it for yourself to understand.  Basically, it’s a 45-minute block of time each week dedicated solely to taking a break from our busy lives to reflect on our current state of mind.  Right before the class before lunch every Thursday, the entire school convenes in a room and sits in silence until the “spirit” moves someone to speak.  They then stand up, share their thoughts with the community, and then sit back down.  Throughout the Meeting, this is probably repeated by about five to 10 other people.  At the end, you shake hands with the people around you, exit the room, and go about your day, feeling refreshed and centered.

I’ve always had a strained relationship with Meeting for Worship, which evolved throughout my time in high school.  The first time I ever shared was in fourth grade, when my friend and I read a poem about each of the SPICES (I’m telling you, it is absolutely necessary to memorize them ASAP).  I was made fun of by some boy afterwards for “actually sharing during Meeting for Worship—only nerds do that” so from then on, I vowed to stay silent.  I spent the rest of elementary school and middle school “reflecting” about boys or my homework, whispering with my friend next to me, or playing with the ponytails on my wrist.

By ninth grade, it became “cool” to sleep during Meeting for Worship.  And by 11th grade, I considered four hours a good night’s sleep, so Meeting for Worship became equivalent with naptime.  I even let myself stay up extra late on Wednesday nights since I knew could sleep in Meeting.  Sometimes, when I had a test later in the day, I snuck in flashcards.  Sometimes I “reflected” by studying for the test, but mostly, I was out cold.

It was an unwritten rule that everyone should share at least once before we graduated high school, and I, along with the 91 other kids in my grade, was determined to (my SPICES poem did not count).  It was amazing to hear the musings of all of my classmates throughout the year.  They varied from the common “high school meant so much to me, thank you,” to sharing fears about moving forward to college, and the occasional really deep, thoughtful, beautiful reflection on growing up.  I will never forget hearing my good friend share the most breathtaking story about how all four of her siblings had attended to our high school, and how it had finally hit her that this was it—she was going to college, breaking the family apart, and how torn it made her feel about moving on.  Writing about it wouldn’t do it justice; it was truly breathtaking.  I was inspired by it, and I wanted my final words shared at Meeting for Worship to mean as much to me as hers meant to her.

Yet I couldn’t do it, and it remains one of my biggest regrets to this day.

When it was my time to stand up, all I could muster was “uh I’d like to thank Penn Charter and all my friends for my time in high school it was great thank you it meant so much.”

I remember sitting back down and feeling immediately ashamed.  I always participated in discussions and debates during class—why couldn’t I bring myself to share during Meeting for Worship?  I was refreshed after my 20-minute nap; I had already gone through my flashcards before I stood up; if that made me prepared to share, where did my words go?

And then I realized: there were no words.  That nap and those flashcards would have helped tremendously during any discussion or debate—but not at all during Meeting, which was fueled by reflection.

And I think this has been happening sometimes on Moxie.  No, I don’t nap during or anything, but I do sometimes expect to come into conversations prepared with the equivalent of those flashcards: to share my viewpoint on issues with laid-out facts, as though I’m in a debate or taking a test.  It unfortunately took me until now to realize that Moxie, too, is fueled by reflection.

From now on, I will reflect.  I will deviate from what the “flashcards” tell me, and truly search deep inside for how I feel, maybe not necessarily what I think. I want to test myself, not treat the discussions as though they are tests.  Most of all, I want to challenge myself, and let myself be challenged by the eight other amazing girls on the program too (and Ada and Nicole).

After all, I don’t want to leave Moxie with the same sense of regret as I did during Meeting.