ideas for change · LGBTQ · PhD · professors · students · teaching

Being an LGBTQ Ally

This post may be considered Part II of my post from last week, when I wondered aloud what a more “queer” feminism might look like, and proposed that this blog could be a space for us to think through how to become better advocates for the LGBTQ community. Here I share my experience with a recent six-hour course at Fordham called LGBT and Ally Network of Support Training; by participating in this course (according to the website), members of the network

demonstrate their active commitment to creating a campus environment that is open and welcoming to all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) students and their allies, in keeping with the Jesuit tenet of Cura Personalis (care for the whole person) and the principle that all persons should be treated with dignity and respect which is explicit in Catholic teaching. 

 Yaaay Jesuits! Plus we get a pin and a plaque with our name on it!

That fostering a growing ally network is important cannot be understated; at Fordham, the findings from last year’s LGBTQ Que(e)ry Student Experience survey reveal that nearly two thirds of the student LGBTQ population felt “uncomfortable or unsafe” in the classroom, and 46% felt uncomfortable or unsafe around their professors (p. 18). The report contains numerous other chilling anecdotes from students, including these: “My roommate went on a rampage about not standing for any of this ‘gay and lesbian bullshit’ on her campus. As a result, she does NOT know that I am bisexual”; “I don’t want to out myself to [my roommates] because I can’t deal with their questions and curiosity that is borderline invasive”; and one student reported being out to “Certain friends who could tolerate that information (p. 17). Straight, cisgender respondents were sometimes disturbingly dismissive of the survey, expressing their beliefs that it was not necessary because no space on-campus was “unsafe” (15).

I could go on, but basically–this stuff matters.

The course I took basically consisted of a group of 30 or so beautiful and diverse people sitting in a room together over a couple lunches, discussing challenges faced by the LGBTQ community, and attempting to facilitate heightened awareness, understanding, and knowledge. I’m hoping that in posting here some of the activities we conducted, you can share in some of this wonderful experience too, and perhaps learn a couple strategies for your own classrooms and your own advocacy practices (though this is mostly a recounting of my experience rather than a delineation of inclusivity strategies). If you require a primer on LGBT terminology before proceeding, by the way, I will refer you to GLAAD’s “Ally’s Guide to Terminology,” the PDF of which can be accessed here. From my perspective, some of the most arresting/memorable group activities we did were: 

  • Introducing ourselves with our chosen gender pronouns (ex. “My name is Boyda Johnstone, and my pronouns are she, her, and hers”). We as teachers can implement this exercise in our classrooms in an attempt to create more inclusive spaces for transgender people. Like all new things, it was a little bumpy in practice (I personally am not clear on why we needed to list all three pronouns rather than just one, which made things significantly bumpier), but the more it becomes established, the smoother the playing-out.
  • A circle exercise wherein we were asked to step forward whenever we identified with various statements. The statements began as softballs (“I like to eat sushi”; “I was born in America”), but gradually increased in import (“My family growing up did not have much money”; “I have lost a parent”; leading to “I identify as bisexual,” “I identify as gay,” etc). I was shocked at how nervous I became even when stepping forward during low-stakes claims; no matter the category, it was scary to break out from the crowd. It’s hard to imagine what it’s like to step forward during high-stakes claims, especially in “real life” situations such as coming out to loved ones. 

  • A role-playing exercise wherein we practiced responding to various situations, such as someone using the word “fa***t” in an elevator, or our best friend coming out as gay. In the former case we agreed that it’s best to vocally express discomfort, even if the other person doesn’t respond well–‘planting seeds’ that may sprout later on, when we’re not around (of course there are complicating factors when we consider intersecting issues such as gender and race, and speaking out might not always be the best option). For the latter case, that of a friend coming out as a LGBT sexual or gender identity, we reviewed and practiced active listening skills:  acknowledging (“acknowledge that you understand what someone is saying by sending verbal and non-verbal cues”), reflecting (“helps you understand and process the whole experience”); interpreting & clarifying (“I hear you saying this…” or “Is this what you mean?”); and summarizing. Such practices, however basic they may seem to us, always merit review: we can never fully predict how we will respond in a given situation. It’s never a bad thing to remind ourselves how to shut up and listen. 

  • A word association exercise where we, as groups, generated ‘semantic bubbles’ of some of the positive and negative terms associated with LGBT terminology. We built our own definitions and categories but then challenged and questioned those categories, treating terms as living and situation-specific. The stereotypes and negative associations that were brought up made for sobering discussion, to say the least. Here I attach a photo of the posters I snuck with my phone, but it should be noted before reading that some of these words might be triggering or offensive, and were used in a specific context.

As I’m not sure this brief synopsis of events conveys, it was the complexity and diversity of the bodies in the room that made the course truly wonderful; because it was a safe, confidential space, people felt comfortable sharing their personal perspectives and variously heartwrenching and uplifting stories.

What about you, readers? Do you have strategies for making your classrooms more inclusive spaces? How have you practiced allyship to those in the LGBTQ community? Or, if you’re part of the LGBTQ community, how can we be better allies to you? 

2 thoughts on “Being an LGBTQ Ally

  1. Eep! Yes! I'm so sorry, highlyeccentric. I wasn't as cognizent as I could have been as to the dangers and implications of that word, or the assumptions underlying it, and have since revised. Thanks for your feedback.


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