Sunday Reflections: Why I’m a GLBTQ Ally
In honor of LGBT History Month and on the heels of Ally Week, Karen asked if I would be interested in writing the Sunday Reflection on why I’m a GLBTQ ally, and I said of course. But when I started to think about what I wanted to write, I kept getting stuck on the fact that my answer is a short one: I’m an ally because of course I am. Because why wouldn’t I be? How could I not be? That’s the brief answer: I’m an ally because I don’t know any other way to be. I’m an ally because aren’t all decent human beings?
There is a longer answer, one that starts somewhere in the murky years of forming Teenage Amanda and figuring out what she was all about. Being an ally just felt like a natural extension of my early identity as a feminist. I credit the early 90s communities that I was a part of—feminism, punk, zine writing—for leading me to this role as an ally.
So what solidified this role for me?
Maybe it was joining the very awkwardly named group Respecters of Diversity in high school, which wasn’t exactly a GSA, but was sort of GSA-adjacent in its purpose. Maybe it was in college, when I was a Women’s Studies major. Some stereotypes are just true facts—the women’s studies program was home to lots of gay and bi women. Maybe it was taking the Lesbian Studies class (a class whose name was changed the year I took it to something very clunky like History of Women-identified Women, as there had been some drama over people not wanting the word “lesbian” on their transcripts. Most everyone I knew still called it Lesbian Studies, because this new name was not just clunky, but made little sense.) where we spent many weeks looking at the history of gay rights, reading coming out stories, and sharing coming out stories. Maybe it was joining the GSA in college. Maybe it was the night we held our candlelight vigil for Matthew Shepard, and my brain reeled from the horrific details that we were learning about his death. Maybe it was all of those things. Maybe it was just thinking, learning, growing, and loving that never made me think “why this?” but instead made me think “of course this.”
Through high school and college, I’d had friends come out. Then there were the two girls I babysat. I’d started babysitting them when I was 16. I’d answered an ad in the newspaper. There weren’t a lot of punk kids in my small town in the early 90s. I went to the interview hoping that having purple hair, an eyebrow ring, and an infinite collection of band tshirts wouldn’t work against me. It didn’t. I spent the next many years babysitting those girls, telling them how Barbies were evil, playing the card game Punk Rock with them, introducing them to the eclectic mix of friends I’d made—a motley crew of kids I knew from bands, zines, and scenes. Even after I left for college, and then moved to Massachusetts for graduate school, we remained close. So when the older girl was visiting me in Boston, along with her mother, and nervously whispered to me late one night that she had been hooking up with a girl, and hadn’t told anyone else, I felt honored (and, honestly, not even a little bit surprised). This girl I loved was telling me something very new and very big. I immediately started shoveling books her way to show her other gay kids and their stories. A while later, when her sister emailed me that she’d met a girl at camp and they were dating, I did the same thing for her. These girls were and are my family, and my kneejerk reaction to “why do you care so much about GLBTQ issues” is to point at them.
I started at the high school library in October a few years ago. The first thing I did was set up a bunch of displays for LGBT History Month. I put up a cheerful little sign on National Coming Out Day. When I did book talks to literature classes, I made sure to include all different kinds of books with GLBTQ characters, to talk about how important these books were. I tried to share as many books as possible, because GLBTQ characters and teens are not homogeneous. It didn’t take long for word to get around that I was “safe” to talk to. Before long, I had kids who would routinely come and tell me about their crushes, or their coming out stories, or stories about wanting to come out. I had kids come asking for books with gay characters and still remember one boy saying to me, “I didn’t know there were books about kids like me.”
By working in a high school, I saw firsthand just how important it was for teenagers to see themselves, to feel supported, to have someone listen. Their stories will stick with me for a long time. The boy who tried to kill himself, the girl whose mother told her she was going to hell, the girl whose parents kicked her out, the boy who told me about his first kiss, the girl who showed me pictures of her and her girlfriend at prom. Being an ally meant being vocal in my support for those teens. It meant lots of seemingly small things, like wearing purple for Spirit Day, giving high fives on the Day of Silence, and sitting where I was visible at the circulation desk reading books like Rainbow Boys or Empress of the World. Those seemingly small things spoke volumes. It meant calling out kids who I’d overhear saying “that’s so gay.” I’d say, “So perfectly normal? So born that way? So 10% of the population? So no big deal?” It meant telling kids when they were being offensive. It meant using inclusive or neutral language. It meant taking every opportunity to make it clear that I was an ally. I think a little bit of my initially getting stuck while trying to start writing this is that I don’t generally march around and announce I’m an ally. I’d hope my actions and my words would make it clear that I am. Being an ally is not something I think of as an identity, as something I am, but as an action, as something I do. Not a noun, but a verb, you know?
I’m no longer at the high school, but of course still want to read books about GLBTQ kids, and I want to make sure those books get into the hands of both the kids who really need them and the people who work with these kids. My role as an ally has taken on a new meaning while raising my son, too. As a parent, I’ve only ever told my son that he can love whoever he wants. He knows we have friends who identify as bi, or lesbian, or queer, or genderqueer. As far as he’s concerned, this is how everyone is raised–being taught that love is love, that all sexual identities are okay. As adults, we unfortunately understand that these are not the lessons being taught in every house, but we can do our best to help spread this message by our actions, our words, and our works. The most important thing we can do? LISTEN. We’re here to help, but these are not our stories. Listen as hard as you can, then see what you can do from there.
Where to look for information about being an ally:
Human Rights Campaign’s An Ally’s Guide to Issues Facing the LGBT Community
PFLAG’s Straight for Equality
PFLAG’s guide to being a straight ally
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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