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The WIU Ally Guide: Being an Advocate for Gay, Lesbian, & Bisexual People

An Informal Booklet for People Who Care about People
By Mark Reed and Leslie Webb
Dept. of College Student Personnel/Office of Affirmative Action

What is an Ally?

An ally is a member of the dominant majority culture (heterosexual) who works to end oppression in his/her professional and personal life through support of, and as an advocate for, the oppressed population (gay, lesbian, and bisexual students).

Why Be an Ally?

Recall a time in your life when you felt valued and how that made you feel. Then recall a time when you were made to feel different and how that made you feel. If you compare the difference in how you felt each time, you'd probably agree the main difference was this: when you felt valued, you were proud to be who you are and truly enjoyed being yourself; but when you felt different, you were reluctant to be yourself and perhaps even wished you could be someone else.

Feeling as though you can't really be yourself is not an uncommon experience for gay, lesbian, and bisexual people. If you're not a member of this population, this may be difficult to understand. Certainly we've all experienced times when we felt, for whatever reason, we could not be ourselves. But do you have an understanding what it's like to feel this way on a daily basis for an entire lifetime?

If you want to support gay, lesbian, and bisexual people in their efforts to live fuller lives and be proud of who they are, you're ready to be an ally.

Statistical Reasons to Become an Ally

Numerous studies have been conducted at colleges and universities to measure the attitudes of student populations concerning GLB students. Listed below is a brief summary of a study conducted in 1990 to measure the attitudes of college freshmen. The results clearly indicate there are statistical reasons to support gays, lesbians, and bisexuals.

  • 29% believed the college would be a better place if only hetersexuals attended
  • 55% did not know a gay man casually and few knew any gay men well. 85% of the men and 81% of the women did not know a lesbian casually and only 5% of the men and 6% of the women knew a lesbian well.
  • 78% were not very interested in learning more about gay men and lesbians. 85% said they were not willing to attend a program on homosexuality.
  • 85% admitted they had made homophobic comments. 30% of the men said they did so often, compared to 7% of the women.
  • 83% said it was fairly or somewhat likely that gay men and lesbians would be harassed on campus.

Defining a Common Language

Homosexual -A clinical term first used over a century ago, often used inaccuarately, to label people who are emotionally, physically, and/or sexually attracted or committed to members of the same sex. Used appropriately, it refers to affectional and/or sexual behavior between people of the same sex.

Lesbian - (from the Greek Isle of Lesbos) is one of the oldest, most common, and most preferred terms for female homosexuals.

Gay - A common and acceptable term for male homosexuals, but often used for both genders.

Bisexual - A person who is emotionally and/or sexually oriented toward both sexes. Once viewed primarily as a phase of gay or lesbian development, bisexuality is now regarded as a valid, independent sexual identity.

GLB - Gay, lesbian, and bisexual; or BLG. Three syllables are easier to say than nine.

Faggot - (From the latin word meaning "bundle of sticks") was a term applied to gays during the Inquisition when they were burned along with witches; a derogatory and insensitive term for gay men, although gay men sometimes use it affectionately with each other.

Dyke - A term applied to lesbians, usually negatively, to stereotype them as masculine. It's been used recently by lesbians as a term of pride to mean a strong, independent person.

Heterosexual - A person who is emotionally and/or sexually attracted to persons of the opposite sex.

Straight - (slang) A heterosexual person.

Homophobia - The irrational fear of GLB people or any behavior, belief, or attitude in self or others which doesn't conform to rigid sex-role stereotypes. It is the fear that enforces sexism and heterosexism.

Heterosexism - The assumption that being heterosexual is the only "normal" and "correct" type of lifestyle, and in fact superior to alternative relational lifestyles. Systematic and institutional oppression of GLB populations.

Internalized Oppression – The process by which a member of an oppressed group comes to oppression; accepting and living out the inaccurate myths and stereotypes applied to the oppressed group.

Coming Out - The process of becoming aware of, accepting, and expressing one's sexual identity to oneself and others. To "come out" and publicly declare and affirm one's gay, lesbian, or bisexual identity can take many forms. It can be to another person, small group of people, or a public expression. It is a life long process characterized by repeated incidents of coming out. In each new life situation, a lesbian, gay man, or bisexual must decide whether to come out because this process often results in awkwardness, rejection, or prejudice.

Pink Triangle - A symbol used by the Nazis to identify homosexual people or persons thought to be homosexual. Currently worn to show pride and/or support for gay, lesbian, and bisexual people.

Rainbow - A symbol celebrating the uniqueness and diversity within the GLB community. Often displayed in the form of a flag or "freedom rings" (a necklace of multicolored rings).

Uncovering Truths from Behind the Myths

MYTH: There are very few bisexuals. People are either completely homosexual or heterosexual.

TRUTH: The pioneering studies of Dr. Alfred Kinsey (1948, 1953) are most frequently cited on this question. This data suggested that few people are predominantly heterosexual or homosexual in their actions, feelings, thoughts, or sexual fantasies. Most people fall somewhere on the continuum between these two extremes and have the capacity to experience both affectionate and sexual feelings for members of both sexes.

MYTH: Gays, lesbians, and bisexuals are only a small percentage of the population.

TRUTH: The Kinsey studies showed that approximately 10% of the population is predominantly gay or lesbian. Approximately one in every four families has a member who is predominantly lesbian or gay.

MYTH: Lesbians and gays can ordinarily be identified by certain mannerisms or characteristics.

TRUTH: The vast majority of gays and lesbians cannot be identified by looks or effeminate/masculine characteristics. The small number of gays or lesbians who behave in a way that will make people think they are gay do so because they want to be known as gay or in rebellion of traditional sex roles. Many straight people appear to be lesbian or gay for this last reason. Stereotypes persist due to the way gays and lesbians are portrayed in the media.

MYTH: Lesbians and gays have made a conscious decision to be homosexual.

TRUTH: While researchers continue to disagree on the specific "causes" of homosexuality, they mostly agree there is some sort of predisposition or genetic relationship involved. The "decision" may not be whether one is going to be gay or lesbian but rather whether one will acknowledge the existence of gay or lesbian thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

MYTH: Homosexuality is not "natural"; it does not exist in nature and is therefore dysfunctional.

TRUTH: From a scientific point of view, it is "natural". Any animal, including the human species, is capable of responding to homosexual stimuli. Research suggests that homosexuality is almost universal among all animals and is frequent among highly developed species. One anthropological study of non-western cultures found that 64% of their sample cultures considered homosexuality "normal" and "acceptable" for certain members of the society.

MYTH: The majority of child molestors are gay.

TRUTH: Over 90% of child molestation is committed by heterosexual men against young girls. The overwhelming majority of homosexuals have no interest in pre-adolescent or adolescent children.

MYTH: Gay people should not be teachers because they will try to convert the students to the gay lifestyle.

TRUTH: Homosexual conversion/seduction is no more common than is heterosexual seduction. Most gay teachers live with the fear that they will be fired immediately if they are "found out". Most, if not all gays have no desire to convert students. Unfortunately, their efforts to provide support for younger gays may be misconstrued and misrepresented. If, in fact, the data are correct that suggests that sexual orientation is established by 3-6 years of age, then contact with teachers would have no effect on students.

MYTH: Most gay people regard themselves as members of the opposite sex.

TRUTH: The vast majority of gays and lesbians are comfortable with their gender. Being gay must not be confused with transgender (one who feels trapped in the body of the wrong sex) or transsexual (one who has had a sex change operation).

Attitude Continuum

There are eight attitude stages concerning gays, lesbians, and bisexuals, ranging from intolerance to support. Where do you see yourself? Allies are most effective when in stage eight.

1. Active Participation - This stage of response includes actions that directly support lesbian/gay oppression. Such actions include laughing at or telling jokes that put down lesbians or gays, making fun of people who don't fit traditional masculine/feminine stereotypes, discouraging others from and avoiding personal behavior that is not sex-stereotyped, and engaging in verbal or physical harassment of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and heterosexuals who do not conform to traditional sex-role behavior. It also includes working for anti-gay legislation.

2. Denying or Ignoring - This stage of response includes inaction to support lesbian/gay/bisexual oppression coupled with an unwillingness or inability to understand the effects of homophobic and heterosexist actions. This stage is characterized by a "business as usual" attitude. Though responses in this stage are not actively and directly homophobic or heterosexist, the passive acceptance of these actions by others serves to support the system of gay and lesbian oppression.

3. Recognizing (But No Action) - This stage of response is characterized by a recognition of homophobic or heterosexist actions, and the harmful effects of these actions. However, this recognition does not result in action to counter the homophobic or heterosexist situation. This stage is accompanied by discomfort due to the lack of congruence between recognizing homophobia or heterosexism yet failing to act on this recognition. An example of this stage of response is a person hearing a friend tell a "queer joke", recognizing that it is homophobic, not laughing at the joke, but saying nothing to the friend about the joke.

4. Recognizing and Interrupting - This stage of response includes not only recognizing homophobic and heterosexist actions, but also taking action to stop them. This stage is often an important transition from passively accepting homophobic or heterosexist actions to actively choosing anti-homophobic and anti-heterosexist actions. In this stage a person hearing a "queer joke" would not laugh and would tell the joke teller that such jokes are not funny. Another example would be a person who feels uneasy participating in a gay or lesbian-related activity or program, fearing "guilt by association", but decides to participate anyway.

5. Educating Self - This stage of response includes taking action to learn more about lesbians, gays, heterosexism and homophobia. These actions include reading, books, attending workshops, talking to others, joining organizations, listening to lesbian or gay music, or any other actions that can increase awareness and knowledge. This stage is also a prerequisite for the last three stages, which involve interaction with others about homophobia and heterosexism. In order to do this confidently and comfortably, allies need to educate themselves.

6. Questioning and Dialoguing - This stage of response is an attempt to begin educating others about homophobia and heterosexism. This stage goes beyond interrupting homophobic and heterosexist interactions to engage people in dialogue about these issues Through the use of questions and dialogue, this response attempts to help others increase their awareness of and knowledge about homophobia and heterosexism.

7. Supporting and Encouraging - This stage of response includes actions that support and encourage the anti-homophobic and anti-heterosexist actions of others. Overcoming the homophobia that keeps people from interrupting this form of oppression even when they are offended by it is difficult. Supporting and encouraging others who are able to take this risk is an important part of reinforcing anti-homophobic and anti-heterosexist behavior.

8. Initiating and Preventing - This stage includes actions that actively anticipate and identify homophobic institutional practices or individual actions and work to change them. Examples include teachers changing a "Family Life" curriculum that is homophobic or heterosexist, or counselors inviting a speaker to come and discuss how homophobia can affect counselor-client interactions.

Qualities of an Ally

An ally possesses many characteristics that enable him/her to be effective in the role of advocate and supporter for GLB people. These traits are not simply obtained, nor are they developed over night. After many months or even years of personal experience and/or education, you too will obtain these qualities.

1. An ally is in touch with his/her own personal and sexual identity. This may be one of the toughest obstacles for many people because it involves opening up to both people and characteristics that the ally may have previously not understood or even disliked due to prejudicial attitudes prevalent in our heterosexist society. With an understanding of this, an ally can acknowledge and articulate how these patterns of oppression have operated in his/her life.

2. An ally works to develop an understanding of people who are different from him/her. It's important for an ally to see people as unique individuals and resist temptations to group people together based on individual traits. An ally must be committed to the personal growth this process requires; however, the ally should find support from other allies.

3. An ally takes the responsibility to initiate change in society. Being a member of the majority culture carries with it a responsibility. Heterosexist and homophobic attitudes will not disappear or erode over time--they must be confronted and questioned. Remember that silence is complicity--challenge anti-gay and lesbian statements and structures as well as the assumptions behind them. Don't promote the institutionalized invisibility of GLB populations.

4. An ally believes that being an ally is in his/her own self-interest . In deciding to be an ally, you will not only foster the personal growth and development of gays, lesbians, and bisexuals, but your own as well. While an ally expects to make some mistakes, he/she should not use this as an excuse for non-action. Likewise, when things go well, an ally is quick to take pride in, and appreciate successes.

5. An ally has a good sense of humor. This quality will help you get through difficult times and help ease the frustration that you'll experience by choosing to support an oppressed group.

What Can an Ally Do?

An ally can take many initiatives ranging from the personal to the professional, from individual to group activities, and from short- to long-term projects. Here are some examples:

Don't assume everyone is heterosexual, nor assume that anyone is gay/lesbian/bisexual. It's highly likely you work with gays, lesbian, and bisexuals whether you know it or not. By not making assumptions about a person's sexual orientation, you create an atmosphere wherin people are likely to "come out" to you.

Avoid engaging in and confront anti-gay jokes and remarks whenever possible. Confronting such language is probably the most difficult aspect of being an ally because it may cause you to alienate friends, family, and collegues who hold homophobic values. The key is to combine confrontation with education. When you help educate others, you'll be given respect for your convictions.

Acquaint yourself with the gay/lesbian/bisexual community. Read books, attend seminars and workshops, attend cultural events, and listen to music by gay/lesbian/bisexual artists that address this community's issues.

Create an atmosphere of acceptance. By taking actions such as participating in WIU's "safe space" program, hanging up posters exhibiting a pro-gay/lesbian/bisexual sentiment, and building an updated library of gay resources, books, articles, and periodicals, you will create an atmosphere where gays/lesbians/bisexuals feel accepted.

Make yourself a resource for referral to individuals, organizations, students, and peers. An ally may not have all the answers, but should be able to refer people to those who can provide more information.

Help publicize and celebrate National Coming Out Day (October) and Gay Awareness Week (April).

Join standing committees and commissions within professional organizations that address multicultural and GLB issues.

Educate the people around you. Utilize existing training programs like those developed by Student Services professionals or Affirmative Action staff to provide an educational program for your work environment. Encourage attendance at Safe Space and Ally training programs.

Be a positive role model by avoiding the use of pronouns that assume the gender of the significant others of those around you. Use inclusive examples that specifically refer to gay/lesbian/bisexual people when discussing various issues.

Surf the Net! The World Wide Web contains thousands of pages of GLB resources, articles, home pages, etc. What a valuable asset!

A Few Additional Tips

Listen to yourself talk. Avoid the use of language that implies all people are heterosexual and "single, married, or divorced".

Do not presume that all gay students/staff are unhappy about their orientation.

Do not presume that all who try to change their orientation can do so.

Remember that people do not choose to have gay feelings. People can choose whether or not to act on those feelings.

Help those you ally yourself with to get in touch with their feelings. Help them define their problems, goals, and action plans.

Help those you ally yourself with help themselves. Help them increase their self-reliance and self-worth so they can take charge of their lives and integrate their thoughts/feelings/behavior in a positive way.

Know when your competence reaches its limits. Don't hesitate to refer those with serious problems to more qualified helping professionals.

Don't take advantage of an ally relationship by imposing your own sexual desires. You could do irreparable emotional harm.

Take the "sex" out of homosexuality. Sexual thoughts and feelings are only part of being gay, lesbian, or bisexual.

ARE YOU READY?

You've read this booklet, now we must ask...
Are you ready to take on this monumental task?
We don't want to pressure or coerce you as such,
It's just that we need allies... we need them so much.

By reading these pages you've learned about gays,
You know they're not weird or just in a phase.
You've learned some new terms and uncovered some truths,
You've got so much to gain and so little to lose.

You've read about attitudes and educating others,
You know that gays could be our sisters or brothers.
The qualities of an ally should be a bit more clear,
We're sure you'll take a stand despite your fear.

Are you ready to be an ally? Please don't say "I guess"™
We want you to stand up and proudly shout "YES!"
Allies are special, they have a warm loving heart,
And so do you...we know you'll fit the part!