Tuesday, August 5, 2014

What "Real" Allies Look Like

Originally posted to a private website.

My Love and I went to an Indian restaurant for dinner on Saturday. At this restaurant, though we love the food, we often found ourselves to be a sideshow, or worse, from customers (though the staff were always lovely). We were approaching the place expecting this to be the case.

This day was different.

We were pleasantly surprised to see other queers present: An older white butch, lesbians of color, trans folks, and so on mixed amongst the other folks. The place was packed.

But, it actually wasn't "my people" that changed me that day. It was a white normative woman with a kind voice and two kids. Now, I say normative knowing I could be wrong. Maybe she's a queer trans weirdo like us, but I tend to think my radar for these things is fairly good. It has to be for survival purposes.

As we approached the door, she was allowing her children to open it using the button one at a time. I smiled, but kept my distance. In general, het folks are intimidated by me, or weirded out, or just don't know what to do. She looked up at both of us and genuinely engaged me. "You can go ahead if you like. He is waiting his turn to hit the button- which is a big deal when you're two." She smiled and was talking to me like a human being, something I am not always accustomed to in public spaces.

"Let the ladies pass," she said to the two kids.

Yes, ladies. Being called ladies, while very insulting for many transmasculine folks, is kind of a complement for my partner and sometimes me, as long as it means I am safe. It means I am being seen in a way. But also, can often show that someone doesn't understand the diveristy in queerness and gender that I experience. It sends immediate shocks to my brain as well that choosing a restroom will be more difficult than I thought. But either way, I felt seen by this woman, not in danger.

I said "Ladies," and smiled at my Love. We continued into the restaurant and ended up seated next to this woman and two children.

We remarked frequently on what a kind mother she was, and how nice she was. She also engaged us a few other times (it was a crowded buffet). I felt, strange. This was unusual- being treated like a human seemingly effortlessly for this woman. Her interactions were not forced, fearful, or rude. I felt grateful, but still, you know, on guard as usual.

Then, something magical happened. At least for me. she walked over to the table and whispered, "Oh, and I'm sorry about earlier for referring to you two as ladies," we both stammered as we are used to assuring her it was ok, "You never know how people self-identify, so I apologize for that."

"Thank you." we said.

I was stunned. This woman engaged me and apologized (and not the kind where she pushed all her guilt on to me and took up space- a real apology) and treated me like a person. I felt like I was going to cry. I started thinking about how that kind of apology never would have occurred decades ago. It was this reminder that the queers that came before me had changed so much and had not only created a world where I was more safe from being beaten- but more likely to be seen as human.

My partner thanked her again as she left for the apology and she shrugged it off and said no problem.

Basically, I am writing this to say two things:

1. Sometimes what we work for actually does get out to people. Things do change. Places become safer.


2. An ally is not someone who gets things right all the time. An ally is not someone who knows exactly what to do in every situation (there are very masculine butches and dykes who really prefer she as a pronoun and transmasculine folks who may share physical features who prefer he). An ally is someone who treats those they are allied to like HUMAN BEINGS. Who can look them in the eye, interact with them, share space with them, and apologize or check in when something seems not right.

This woman was more of an ally in that moment than any hetero person who had studied queer theory and who would have perhaps known to refer to us as "folks" while simultaneously being afraid to look us in the eye or stand near us.

Sometimes it's just about being kind. And real. And human.

And giving us hope. And a place to feel safer out in the world for a moment.

So if that's you, thank you.

Addendum: This has gotten far more attention than I expected (on the private website.) There is something I want to add as I've been thinking more about this writing. This woman was also an ally because I felt like she carried this behavior elsewhere. I felt like she would teach it to her children. I felt as if she understood her privilege. I felt as if she had educated herself on queer, trans, and likely other issues. I felt that she would likely stick up for others when her straight friends made shitty comments or oppressive actions. I felt like she would stick up for me if I was in danger in that moment.

I do not want to create an idea that being an ally is simply being nice. Nor do I want to create the illusion that this means the fight is over. Being an ally is about understanding. It is about not usurping queer identity when it serves one's needs, then stomping on it when it doesn't. It is about fostering our visibility and allowing us to take up space more safely. It is about unlearning oppression we are taught from birth. It is about using our privilege to fight oppression and to create a better world for everyone. And actions like this woman's are a huge huge part of that.

Thank you, everyone, for the attention, loves, and shares.