6 Ways to Be an LGBTQ Ally
Being an ally to an LGBTQ friend, family member, co-worker, acquaintance, or the population as a whole goes beyond acceptance.
While it’s easy to look back at some of the progress made over the past decade in terms of LGBTQ rights—including marriage equality on a national level and certain protections for transgender folks seeking healthcare—there is still a very long way to go. For every federal policy granting LGBTQ individuals even the most basic human and civil rights, there is no shortage of state legislatures and courts attempting to not only roll them back but erode the protections even further.
This constant policy tug-of-war is one of many reasons why it’s not enough to simply “accept” your gay nephew, gender nonconforming grandchild, or the transgender woman in your community; in order for further progress to be made, it’s important to be an LGBTQ ally. If this is a term you haven’t encountered before, the It Gets Better Project defines an ally as “someone who supports equal civil rights, gender equality, and LGBTQ+ social movements; advocates on behalf of others; and challenges fear and discrimination in all its forms.”
One of the first steps towards becoming a more effective LGBTQ ally is to take the time to educate yourself on the discrimination LGBTQ individuals have faced throughout history, as well as today. Whether you’re looking to learn about what LGBTQ stands for, the meaning behind LGBTQ pride flags, LGBTQ quotes, or LGBTQ heroes, or get some suggestions for LGBTQ books and LGBTQ movies, you’ve come to the right place.
Why being an LGBTQ ally is so important
There are a number of different ways to be an LGBTQ ally—which we’ll discuss in a minute—and civic engagement and activism are only two examples. For many people, being a better LGBTQ ally starts at home, with members of their own family, group of friends, and community; specifically, making sure the LGBTQ folks in their lives feel supported, for the sake of their mental well-being.
“Family support is often a key factor in LGBTQ mental health, especially among younger individuals,” Adam L. Fried, PhD, a clinical psychologist and director of the clinical psychology program at Midwestern University in Glendale, Arizona tells Reader’s Digest. “Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for LGBTQ individuals to have experienced some sort of family rejection.”
And there’s data to back this up, including the Trevor Project’s 2020 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, in which 40 percent of respondents said that they had seriously considered suicide in the past 12 months, and 29 percent indicated that they had been kicked out of their homes, experienced homelessness, or ran away. According to Fried, this is consistent with academic research that suggests that family rejection is an important risk factor for several types of negative outcomes, including depression and suicidal thoughts, anxiety, and substance misuse.
So where does being an LGBTQ ally come in? As Fried notes, research has also shown that when an LGBTQ individual receives support from their family, it has been associated with positive outcomes, such as improved self-esteem and overall well-being. But not all families are related genetically or biologically.
“It’s hard for many LGBTQ individuals because while others can turn to their families when they need support, that’s not available for those who have experienced some sort of rejection,” Fried explains. “Many LGBTQ clients I work with have formed their own ‘families’ made up of friends and others—including allies—who care for and love them. These individuals end up becoming key sources of social support.”
Here are six of the many ways to be an LGBTQ ally.
Treat people with kindness, respect, and empathy
Ideally, we’d do this by default, but it’s worth repeating here, as it is allyship on its most basic level. Also, keep in mind that treating people with respect and dignity isn’t some abstract concept, or a blanket sentiment applied exclusively on a collective level: it means treating the LGBTQ individuals in your own life in a way that reflects your general belief. If this is something you find challenging, Fried recommends seeing them as a person (like a son, daughter, friend, cousin, etc.) first, who isn’t solely defined by their sexual or gender identity. Or, as David Cato, clinical director at the Sierra Tucson mental health facility in Arizona, and certified transgender care therapist puts it: “Treat LGBTQIA+ individuals humanely, as you want to be treated.”
Even if someone has the best intentions and experience in a variety of other areas, it is critical that before taking action, LGBTQ allies start with some listening. “Listen to the perspectives, messages, and requests of the LGBTQ community to guide your actions as an ally,” Nicole Villegas, OTD, a board-licensed doctor of occupational therapy and mental health professional tells Reader’s Digest. “This can look like taking guidance from a local community leader, or asking your sister who recently came out, ‘How can I support you?'”
As an LGBTQ ally, you’re not coming to the issue with your own personal lived experiences, so more often than not, the best way to help is listening to what people actually need. “Being an effective LGBTQIA+ ally does not mean wielding a rainbow flag and donning drag makeup,” Cato tells Reader’s Digest. “It can be as simple as asking someone about their pronouns, or what kind of support they need in particular. LGBTQIA+ individuals have different needs across the spectrum, and asking about those directly will create an ally.”
Understand that allyship isn’t one-size-fits-all
There isn’t a specific formula for being an LGBTQ ally. In fact, applying a one-size-fits-all allyship strategy to all LGBTQ individuals is problematic for a variety of reasons. “One of the biggest misconceptions about allyship is this idea that it informs how one should interact with LGBT+ individuals on a one-to-one basis,” Robbi Katherine Anthony, the founder and CEO of Euphoria.LGBT, a mHealth tech company, and an expert in the transgender and LGBT+ community tells Reader’s Digest. “The fundamentals of social interaction get replaced by overbroad rules that ultimately leave members of this community squarely in the category of ‘other.'”
It’s safe to assume that as a person striving to be an effective LGBTQ ally, “othering” all or part of the demographic is not what you had in mind. Instead, Anthony says that allies should treat other people with respect, let them have agency and privacy over sensitive areas of their lives, and follow the social cues that they give you. “If someone asks you to do something for them—or not to do something anymore—follow their wishes without litigating the validity of the ask,” Anthony explains. “It’s deceptively simple but incredibly rare to see in practice.”
Be an intersectional ally
It’s not enough to be an LGBTQ ally for people who happen to look like you: in order to be effective, allyship needs to be intersectional. That means acknowledging that on top of everything else, LGBTQ people of color face additional multilayered challenges rooted in systemic oppression that White people do not experience. For example, a 2017 poll conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that compared to their white counterparts, LGBTQ people of color are more than twice as likely to say they’ve been discriminated against because they are LGBTQ in applying for jobs and interacting with police. Being an LGBTQ ally (especially one who is White) requires reflecting on how you’ve benefited from different types of privilege not afforded to everyone.
Commit to lifelong learning
As we discussed earlier, LGBTQ allies need to put in the time and work to educate themselves on the past, present, and future of LGBTQ equality—starting with the fact that LGBTQ rights are not a “new” issue. Even if the gains in that area seem relatively recent (because they are), the deeply ingrained discrimination these laws and policies are working to counteract has a much longer history.
But it’s not simply a matter of memorizing a few dates or reading up on the issues currently facing LGBTQ individuals in your area: being an ally means committing to lifelong learning. “The role of an ally is to listen, learn, and practice in service to others,” Villegas explains. “If allyship is a new concept for you, begin by seeking more information and building your skills so that you can reduce harm and uplift the LGBTQ community.”
Along the same lines, Villegas stresses that LGBTQ allies should make the effort to seek out information from community-created resources, and not assume that it is one LGBTQ individual’s responsibility to educate you. “You may have the best intentions when you ask your trans nephew about all transgender issues, but this can be an unsolicited, unsupportive burden,” Villegas says. “Instead, research news, statements and realities of oppression and transgender issues, and connect with your family member on a personal level.”
Reflect on your own privilege
Whether or not we realize it, we all have a role when it comes to privilege, power, and oppression, Villegas explains. In order to become a better LGBTQ ally, they suggest reflecting on your various roles and how they impact those around you. “Adjust how you go about your day, and use your privilege to be of service to others,” Villegas says. “This can look like being quiet and listening as your coworker shares their experiences, and it can mean speaking up to support correct use of their pronouns in the workplace.”
As the dean of health and wellness at a Boston public school, part of Charmain F. Jackman, PhD’s job is to advocate on behalf of LGBTQ students—including speaking up when necessary. “When someone is being misgendered, be the one to speak and use the correct pronouns,” the Harvard-trained, licensed psychologist tells Reader’s Digest. “This happens quite a bit, and it is important that the LGBTQIA+ individual does not have to carry the emotional labor of correcting others.”
- Adam L. Fried, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and director of the clinical psychology program at Midwestern University in Glendale, Arizona.
- David Cato, clinical director at the Sierra Tucson mental health facility in Arizona, and certified transgender care therapist
- Nicole Villegas, OTD, a board-licensed doctor of occupational therapy and mental health professional
- Robbi Katherine Anthony, the founder and CEO of Euphoria.LGBT, a mHealth tech company, and an expert in the transgender and LGBT+ community
- Charmain F. Jackman, PhD, a Harvard-trained, licensed psychologist and the Dean of Health & Wellness at a Boston public school