“Allyship Is a Verb” and Other Lessons on Becoming an LGBTQIA+ Ally
The Pride session by TELUS International Philippines zeroes in on what true allyship looks like
Whenever Pride Month comes around, there’s a game we like to play called “Spot the Performative Ally.” It might appear ironic: a marginalized sector calling for unity yet making inclusion tougher to get by. But given how easy it is to jump on the bandwagon, it helps to recognize that awashing everything in a rainbow gradient, calling it solidarity, then calling it a day, is just not it.
Even outside this context, performative allyship, the display of support with no follow-through by a group or person of privilege, can at best stall an advocacy (the BLM movement, workers’ rights) and at worst lend itself to oppression. Posing with a rainbow flag is to queer allyship, basically, as tweeting out a hashtag is to activism.
The goal, however, is not only to weed out the performative allies but to enable well-meaning individuals to become the real thing. At the latest learning session by TELUS International Philippines, we find out what it takes to do that, zeroing in on the intersection among SOGIE, Gender Sensitivity, and Allyship. In the talk called “Better Together,” speaker Janlee Dungca explains how SOGIE and Gender Sensitivity are only the beginning, the “gateway to really understanding the struggles, plights and triumphs of the LGBTQIA+.” And rising above the bare minimum of allyship requires the following.
Becoming an ally means coming to the table with the correct information.
With all the technicalities involved in talks about Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression, Dungca reminds us: You don’t have to know SOGIE like the back of your hand. What is key is to acknowledge the diversity of gender and sexuality and to understand their complexity.
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Becoming an ally requires just as much unlearning as it does learning.
“When it comes to SOGIE, it’s important to remember first and foremost that sex and gender are two different things,” shares Dungca. That the two are interchangeable is a common misconception and is often the root of gender identity debates. This is where the work of unraveling institutionalized disinformation lies, too.
“Sex is what is assigned at birth,” Dungca goes on to say. “Gender, on the other hand, is an identity people get a grasp on as they grow and get to know themselves better.” Regardless of influences by the environment, culture and societal exposure, gender, at the end of the day, is self-determined.
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It’s worth acknowledging the problem with “assigned gender.”
This is because it prescribes how people should be rather than acknowledges who they are. “There’s this expectation that each body will fit into one of two boxes only: male and female,” says Dungca. “When in fact, when we talk about sex, there’s also a spectrum in biology and physiology.”
She factors into the conversation the existence of intersex people, who have both male and female sexual characteristics. Intersex people make up about 2% of the global population (a sizeable 158 million), yet are also still pressured to conform to either the male or female profile expected by society.
Becoming an ally means diffusing the fixation on Gender Expression.
The same can be said about the fixation on Sexual Orientation. “When you look at people, the only thing your naked eye can see is how they express or represent themselves,” says Dungca. “Knowing just that, it’s never okay to assume––or worse, guess––the gender they’re attracted to or what gender they identify as.”
It’s this focus on appearances (a person’s build, hairstyle, clothing choices, mannerisms) and what society says about what should and shouldn’t be (the rules of femininity or masculinity) that also shape prejudiced commentary.
Allies understand that words could harm and words could erase.
Reading through statements that are unfortunately commonplace, Dungca shares the quips:
“My cousin is gay but intelligent!”
“My daughter is trans, but they’re beautiful.”
“My sister is a lesbian but not butch.”
Microaggressions like these, according to the SOGIE educator, ultimately invalidate. When it comes to these back-handed compliments, she says to take notice of the buts that connect a person’s identity with a redemptive quality. She adds: “There is no need for such disclaimers because who LGBTQIA+ people are is enough.”
These conversations need to be brought to places like work, where safe spaces are lacking.
Enter also: the need for allies. Today, a huge percentage of employees believe that their workplaces are not safe enough for them to express themselves authentically. A 2016 TELUS International survey reveals this much: 57% of queer employees are not out in their workplace. 33% have experienced or witnessed discrimination or harassment at work. 33% believe their workplace is unsafe on not inclusive for gay, lesbian, and bisexual employees. 47% believe their workplace is unsafe on not inclusive for transgender employees.
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Allies can do more by making their show of support concrete.
The TELUS International Philippines offices, for example, have long-established gender-neutral signages as part of their company-wide effort to make their spaces more inclusive. Within the company, there also exists a subgroup called Spectrum that has baked diversity training into its office culture. Tangible shows of support like bring the end-goal of inclusivity straight into the system.
“These efforts mean members of the community can choose for themselves, they can belong and be visible,” adds Dungca, who, as the director of LGBTQIA-led PR firm Castro PR, knows a thing or two about creating safe spaces. “Feeling safe means employees are able to live their authentic selves,” she says. “So they do not just enjoy their work but perform to the best of their capabilities without fear of discrimination.”
For allies, the goal isn’t just equality, but equity.
LGBTQIA+ issues tend to gravitate toward the concept of equality, in which it is assumed that everyone will benefit from the same kind of support. However, it is not a one-size-fits-all solution. According to Dungca, with so many barriers keeping society from achieving equality, there’s something more important that we should strive for: equity.
“As a marginalized sector, the LGBTQIA+ does not have the same advantages as cisgender, heterosexual people,” she says, acknowledging the differences in privileges, capabilities, and access to resources. “We need to find ways to totally remove the systematic barriers that keep the community from achieving their full potential.”
Ultimately, for cisgender, heterosexual allies looking to use their privilege for social change, the buck doesn’t stop at LGBTQIA+ allyship. “Maybe you think it’s enough not being a hater, to just be educated about safe spaces,” says Dungca. “All these are good steps, but what we should really be are champions of LGBTQIA+ rights.” This, according to Dungca, means “fighting for our rights, voting for government officials that will lobby for those rights and challenging remarks made against the LGBTQIA+.”
Allyship, in this way, is a verb. You don’t speak it into existence; you act.
Art Matthew Ian Fetalver