Re-conceptualize Activism and Allyship
The following is an excerpt from "A Speech to Queer Youth Activists" by Alok Vaid-Menon:
As youth queer activists we need to be more deeply concerned and troubled with the way that the mainstream gay rights movement has dominated the very language of 'Equality'. What does it mean that the very word 'Equality' has become claimed and marketed by the gay movement when there are so many continuing social and economic inequalities in our society?
We recognize this reality every day in our hallways. It's not just the gay kids who get picked on: it's the kids of color, it's the non-Christian kids, it's the fat kids, it's the kids with disabilities, it's the poor kids. Yes, bullying on the basis of gender and sexual identity is a major issue, but it's an issue among many. As young people we have a particularly privileged vantage point to understand that inequality still exists against many different social groups. We interact with diverse people daily. Unlike our (older) peers who work at fancy non-profit organization offices in Washington DC and New York City and are able to think of prejudice and equality in narrowly focused ways that only consider the experience of gay students, we encounter multiple-forms of discrimination every day we go to school. In fact, we might even be the cause of some of this discrimination: accepting our LGBT friends but making fun of the kids in Special Education.
If we really want to dismantle prejudice against LGBT people we need to think more about what type of bodies, what type of personalities, what type of identities get stigmatized in our school and how these struggles are interconnected. Indeed, my high school presented a really tangible and easily accessible way to understand how heteronormativity intersects with multiple systems of discrimination. Every year the homecoming king and queen looked the same: they were a heterosexual pair, white, Christian, able-bodied, blonde, athletes, upper-middle class, etc. etc. Through the institution of Homecoming, we can see how many high schools (not just my own) valorize not only heterosexuality, but Whiteness and Able-bodiedness. Students who do not fit the 'paragon' ideal are made to feel insignificant, self-loathing, insufficient. Growing up I not only wanted to be straight, I wanted to be white, I wanted to be Christian, I wanted to be rich, I wanted to wear Abercrombie & Fitch (not because it was sartorially pleasing...far from it!)
Considering the intersections of these prejudices at a real and immediate level in our schools, I do not think we should be only focusing on discrimination against kids on the basis of gender and sexual identity. In doing so, we are only fighting for the rights / legitimacy of white privileged LGBT students. Instead, we need to create models of activism that address the needs of all students. Indeed, only by dismantling racism, classism, ableism, sexism, and other hierarchies of oppression can we truly dismantle heterosexism – as these ideologies all are interconnected a complex system of power.
Thus, I believe we should think about the radical potential of being an Ally, more broadly. I began this speech with critiquing the narrow definitions of activism we have become socialized into arguing that rallies, pride parades, and direct actions may not be the most effective strategies of resistance in our high school. I think Allyship is, instead, a much more legitimate and useful strategy.
Ally is an elastic and un-specified enough term that it can apply to multiple different types of discrimination, not simply LGBT-based discrimination. Ally unlike gay, is not (as easily) associated with a particular race, gender, class, etc. It is a term vague enough that student activists can imbue it with meaning - make it cool, hip, important for all students. In a culture where students become demarcated and classified into separate groups and categories every day, Allyship provides a necessary intervention: it allows students to self-identify and to transgress boundaries. Allyship permits a space for radical coalition building among groups.
It is important to concede that allyship presents a particularly useful framework for queer youth activists because it provides a space for queer and questioning students who may not be able to come out to still actively identify as something different. Yet, this difference has not (fortunately) become associated with as much stigma as gay/lesbian. We need to strip the 'straight' from 'Straight Ally' and think of Ally more of a space (emotionally, intellectually, and politically) of resistance. Being an Ally is a useful framework for political action in your high school. Being an ally means asking your history teacher why the history of women and minorities aren't covered in your curriculum. Being an ally means intervening in a conversation when someone says "No Homo" and explaining why it's problematic.
These interpersonal and interactional encounters you have are more important than any demonstration you could coordinate. They confront people with their racist, sexist, heterosexist, etc. assumptions and present alternative realities, visions, and perspectives that have the potential to radically transform peoples' minds and directly confront systems of oppression.