The importance of allies in the LGBT community

Story and photos by Chad Mobley

Attending a Safe Zone training, like the one held during Pride Week on Oct. 5, 2012, at the University of Utah, gives people a chance to gain a better understanding of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

Lauren Jensen works tirelessly to build education and awareness of the LGBT community around the University of Utah and Salt Lake City.

This training was an open forum with conversations led by two facilitators to create dialogue among participants. Many of the talks focused on how straight people could become allies of the LGBT community and how important  allies are in the progress of equality among all genders and sexual orientations.

“Allies are underappreciated because it takes a lot to be a part of the LGBT community whether you are actually in the community or a supporter,” said Lauren Jensen, speakers bureau coordinator at the LGBT Resource Center at the U. “The LGBT community couldn’t exist without supporters on the outside. We need as many voices and as many supporters as we can get.”

But becoming an ally of the LGBT community may bring unwarranted connotations.

“There is a stereotype for allies as well,” Jensen said. “If they support gay marriage or gay rights, then people think ‘Oh they must be gay.’ When in fact all they believe is that everybody should have equal rights. Just because you support gay rights doesn’t make you gay and that’s something people need to realize.”

Jensen sets up panel discussions all over campus at professors’ requests. She also coordinates workplace panels for companies across the Salt Lake Valley. The purpose of these events is to create a situation for people to openly ask questions about anything that has to do with the LGBT community. These panels, in conjunction with events like Safe Zone trainings, educate straight allies about LGBT issues.

Janice Marcus of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) recognizes these programs as an effective means to grow the allied community in Salt Lake City.

“PFLAG is aware of Safe Zone training and encourages members to attend trainings,” she said in an email.

In addition to Safe Zone trainings and panel discussions facilitated by the University of Utah LGBT Resource Center, PFLAG separately holds events to build and educate the straight ally population.

PFLAG provides a support group for parents, families and friends of the LGBT community the second Tuesday of every month from 7-9 p.m. at the Utah Pride Center, 361 N. 300 West. The first hour is spent as a support group helping people to understand the feelings of a friend or family member coming out to them. The second hour is used to educate members by providing accurate information about what it means to be LGBT, how it feels and how they can provide the best support.

“We provide support for parents, families and friends of gays and lesbians, as well as advocate for the LGBT community,” Marcus said. “We are willing to provide education and panel discussions for any group or work place that would like to contact us. I think that it’s critical that people understand that PFLAG is not associated with any political organization or religious belief.”

Thanks to events like these across the country, the LGBT community is gaining strength nationwide through growing allied support.

Sean Mehew, federal club co-chair for the Human Rights Campaign’s Utah steering committee, has seen this growth firsthand over the past few years.

“Voter approval of gay marriage is over 50 percent for the first time ever nationwide. Five years ago it was probably only 30 to 40 percent,” Mehew said.

One of the HRC’s top priorities is fighting for same-sex marriage. If it is ever going to become a reality, the LGBT community needs allies in high places.

“Look at President Obama coming out [as an ally]. That’s the first time that a president has ever even had a positive stance,” Mehew said. “When he originally came to office, he said he wasn’t sure what his stance was on gay marriage, but he evolved.”

Educating people and growing the straight ally community is the best means for gaining equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. People interested in becoming an ally can attend Safe Zone trainings, panel discussions or PFLAG support groups. A week much like Pride Week, called Ally Week, will be held on campus in April 2013 for students and community members.

“As allies mature in the process of providing support for the LGBT community, they transition from offering support to [the LGBT community], to speaking up when they hear inappropriate comments,” Janice Marcus of PFLAG said. “Regardless of the process in which they are involved, they cannot remain silent. Silence allows abuse and discrimination to continue unchecked, so that speaking up in small groups, followed by increased knowledge to provide education through interviews and panel discussions are critical.”

The LGBT Resource Center at the University provides a wealth of information on becoming an ally.

10 ways to be an ally and friend:

  1. Be a listener.
  2. Be open-minded.
  3. Be willing to talk.
  4. Be inclusive and invite LGBT friends to hang out with your friends and family.
  5. Don’t assume that all your friends and co-workers are straight. Someone close to you could be looking for support in their coming-out process. Not making assumptions will give them the space they need.
  6. Homophobic comments and jokes are harmful. Let your friends, family and co-workers know that you find them offensive.
  7. Confront your own prejudices and homophobia, even if it is uncomfortable to do so.
  8. Defend your LGBT friends against discrimination.
  9. Believe that all people, regardless of gender identity and sexual orientation, should be treated with dignity and respect.
  10. If you see LGBT people being misrepresented in the media, contact GLAAD.

Information courtesy of Lauren Jensen.