“Allyship.” It’s a word we hear a lot these days, but many of us still wonder exactly what it really means to be an ally. We also worry that we might say or do something “wrong” in the process — which prevents us from taking action or speaking up at all. The desire to be an ally is rooted in a simple truth: people want to support others, but are often confused about the best ways to do that.
Let’s say for example, a colleague shares with you and a manager in a private conversation that they are now using They/Them pronouns, and no longer use She/Her pronouns. The next day, during an office-wide meeting, the manager openly refers to this colleague using they/them pronouns, however, that colleague has not shared that they have told others about using they/them pronouns and you can visibly see this colleague grow uncomfortable during the meeting. What do we do at this moment? What does allyship look like and mean in this context?
While defining allyship and what it looks like can be a personal process, at Reimagine Gender we see allyship as taking a purposeful, thoughtful approach to being in community with one another, developing an intentional relationship with one another, and finding ways to care for others that are rooted in love, respect and empathy.
What does that look like? In this article, we’ll explore the following, specifically as it relates to supporting the countless ways gender is experienced by people in your communities:
“Doing the homework”
Doing the homework — or taking it upon ourselves to understand more about other identities and experiences — allows us to build a more intentional relationship rooted in respect and empathy. That’s because we have made it our personal responsibility to learn foundational concepts relating to our colleagues’ and friends’ identities, in turn helping us better understand ourselves and those around us. When it comes to gender specifically, taking the time to educate ourselves on some of the core concepts around gender, sex, and sexual orientation can invite more meaningful, nuanced conversations that don’t place the burden of teaching on those with identities different from our own. Engaging in this type of learning reflects a level of intention and care — it shows our friends and colleagues that we are truly committed to showing up.
Looking to do a little homework of your own? Reimagine Gender has resources focused on the difference between gender, sex, and sexuality/sexual orientation, the importance of pronouns and how to use/ask about them, and more.
Another helpful way to build your foundational understanding is by thinking about your own gender story. Our gender story is the set of messages, experiences and interactions that ultimately shape the lens through which each of us see gender in our personal and professional lives. Understanding our own gender story is incredibly important because it informs what we see as “normal,” expected, and “appropriate.” The more we see what messages and experiences we've internalized, the better we can engage with them and not just react to them. Knowing our gender story can also help us cultivate a sense of empathy that can then help us show up for others with more understanding and authenticity.
Understanding our responsibility to one another
Being responsible to one another simply means understanding we owe each other kindness and respect, and that we all crave a sense of belonging. We can be responsible to each other by first “doing the homework” but also looking inward to understand the ways each of us has both privileged and marginalized identities — and where we can use our privilege to support and stand up for others.
Let’s take a step back to unpack what that means, specifically in terms of gender. To begin, we're all impacted by social constructions of gender, in different ways and to different degrees. This also means that each of us has the opportunity to be an ally to others in the specific ways that impact them. Everyone is affected by gendered expectations, therefore everyone has the potential to be an ally.
Please know that if you feel uncomfortable thinking about “privilege” in this way, you’re not alone. That is completely normal! Sometimes we might feel guilty that we have been given some advantage, regardless of how large or small that advantage feels. Other times we might feel resistant to the idea that we have privilege in some way. After all, you didn’t ask for the privilege you’ve been given. But we are all privileged (and marginalized) in various ways. Being an ally means that you understand the advantages and opportunities you have in some areas while honoring the ways you are also disadvantaged. Once we own where and how we have privilege, it can be used as an important tool to help support others. But what does using our privilege to support others look like? This can look different from person to person, but a few examples include:
Navigating fear while in community
In our personal journeys to develop more intentional, thoughtful relationships with others, we are bound to make mistakes. There is a natural fear in “getting it wrong” or even being “cancelled” for unintentionally saying something which harms loved ones or those with whom we’ve formed a community. While we acknowledge the reality that there are some folks who intentionally belittle and discriminate against others, in our experience these folks are pretty rare; instead, most of us are trying our best with the knowledge/resources we have!
“Getting it wrong” is nearly impossible to avoid in any earnest attempt at self-education and being in community with others. Getting things wrong is part of how we learn, and in those moments where we unintentionally harm others, we should own those mistakes, apologize, and commit to incorporating feedback while continuing to learn.
We should also remember that we shouldn't assume we know what being an ally looks like for a particular person, or in a specific context. In the first example we shared of a manager sharing someone else’s pronouns, this manager likely felt that by using the colleague’s pronouns they were supporting them, however, they failed to ask their colleague if that would be supportive. Without first checking in with people to better understand what support looks like to them, we can accidentally hurt others.
Additionally, while the fear of unintentionally harming others is valid, this fear often freezes us in place, halting our own growth and learning, much of which takes place when we humbly understand when and how we’ve made a mistake. Much of what we learn about being allies for one another comes in sharing our experiences, so silence is a real obstacle to be addressed.
Final thoughts on allyship and being in community
Being an ally is often communicated in a way that sounds like doing a favor for someone else. However, we think it can be more easily understood as developing an intentional relationship with others which centers respect and empathy, and seeing allyship as a verb rather than a noun. Being in community with one another requires action, intentionality, and grace for others. We are all learning, trying to understand the experiences of others that are different from our own experience.