Sometimes, you might not fully understand what your friends are going through but still want to help. This can be especially true when it comes to things like gender and sexuality, which is why we wrote this guide. It gives some tips on how you can help out your LGBTQ+ friends.
What is an ally?
The word ally means to side with or support someone or a group of people. The term has been embraced by the LGBTQ+ community to refer to someone, usually (though not exclusively) a straight person, who supports and respects members of that community and what they stand for. These allies take on the struggle of LGBTQ+ people as their own, stand up for others, and use their social position to help in whatever way they can.
How to be a good ally
As support organisation Stonewall explains it, “being an ally is about being an active friend or support to someone else.” Although many of us try our best to create an environment where everyone - no matter their sexuality, gender, nationality, ethnicity, colour, religion, or any other status, is accepted - prejudices and inequalities remain. For example, there are many countries that have laws preventing the LGBTQ+ community from being in relationships, accessing healthcare, or being recognised in the same way as heterosexual people. Being an ally is about showing solidarity with those who face such oppression. Here are some ways you can support an LGBTQ+ friend:
Whether your friend is coming out to you for the first time or opening up about a difficult experience, it’s important to actively listen to them. Here are some ways you can be a good listener:
- Truly pay attention to what they’re saying and don't get distracted (stay off your phone!)
- Ask questions about what they’ve said and ask how they’re feeling, but respect their boundaries.
- Don't dismiss what they’re saying, even if you think you're making things better by trying to make something feel like less of a big deal. This doesn't make their experience less painful and can shut down a conversation.
- Unless they've made it clear you don't need to, keep what they tell you confidential. They might not have told anyone else yet, they might not be ready for other people's reactions, or they might have had to deal with unsupportive reactions already. And - depending on what country they live in - they could get into trouble with the law.
Remember, you may not be able to relate to or fully understand what they’re going through, but that doesn’t mean it’s not hard for them. Equally, just because you can’t entirely relate doesn’t mean that your advice and support isn’t useful.
If you don’t identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community, it can sometimes be tricky to know about the various terms used and their meanings. You may also not understand the finer points of your friend’s struggle as they come to terms with their own identity. LGBTQ+ friends can help you, but always make sure they are up for a conversation. It can be very painful and exhausting to talk about their experiences, and though as a friend they might want to help, it's never their job. Reading and researching on the subject yourself is an excellent way to become a better ally:
- Our guides on understanding sexuality and understanding gender and identity are a great place to start with the learning process (if we do say so ourselves).
- You can also check out other resources from organisations such as The Trevor Project and LGBT Foundation to learn more about the issues affecting the LGBTQ+ community.
Knowing what to say when someone opens up to you isn’t always easy, especially when it’s about a subject like gender identity or sexuality. Everyone makes mistakes. The important thing is to acknowledge them, and to stay open and willing to learn.
- If someone points out something you weren't aware of or misunderstood, try not to be defensive. It's a totally normal reaction to have, but they most likely didn't say it to make you feel bad. Instead, ask them if they want to help you understand, or let them know that you will try to learn more about the issue.
- If you use the wrong pronoun for someone by mistake, correct yourself or accept a correction from someone else, and move on with the conversation.
- If you think you might have said something that made someone upset, ask them. They might not feel able to explain right away, but if you make clear you want to understand, it opens up the conversation for later.
- Understand that something that might seem innocuous to you can be a big deal for someone else - for example, it might be something they hear again and again, when you don't have that experience.
There are lots of ways you can use your knowledge to help influence others. For example:
- Avoid making offensive jokes. Some people find them funny and have no problems with them, but others find them very hurtful.
- If you spot someone making a mistake, you can point it out (kindly!)
- You can challenge the hurtful behaviours of others. Getting into arguments isn't helpful, but you can try to calmly explain why certain words and behaviours are offensive, or simply say that you don't want to be part of the conversation.
- You can use your position to champion the rights of others. For example, you could show your support for LGBTQ+ causes, volunteer at charity days or attend events in support of LGBTQ+ rights.
Keep being the friend they know and love - it's one of the best things you can do to support your LGBTQ+ friends!