Written by Michele Theil
Let’s dive into what an LGBTQ+ ally is (and does) and some practical ways you can demonstrate your allyship and better support LGBTQ+ loved ones and the community day-to-day.
An ally is broadly defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as someone who helps members of a group that is treated badly or unfairly, even if they’re not a member of that group.
You may have heard the term “LGBTQ+ ally” before but aren’t sure exactly what it means. In this context, an LGBTQ+ ally supports and advocates for LGBTQ+ people. If you already believe in equality for everyone, regardless of your gender identity or sexuality, then you’re well on your way to becoming an LGBTQ+ ally.
Sharing the social media posts of LGBTQ+ activists, speaking out against bigotry and stigma targeted at the LGBTQ+ communities, and sharing in the joy of the community are just a few ways that you can stand alongside the LGBTQ+ people in your life. And we know it makes a very real difference.
According to The Trevor Project, an LGBTQ+ nonprofit organization based in the United States, LGBTQ+ youth find strength and joy in having supportive and accepting friends and family, and feeling seen.
Lucie, a lesbian, tells Flo that allyship is also how real change happens. “It’s important for cis heterosexual people to support the LGBTQ+ community in the same way it is important for white people to stand up against racial inequality and injustice,” she says. “Change isn’t going to come just from within the LGBTQ+ community. We need people in privileged positions to stand with us.”
So, whether you’re well versed in LGBTQ+ history or are coming to the community with little knowledge but a willingness to listen, learn, and support, then you’ve absolutely earned the title of an ally. However, there’s so much you can do to be a better LGBTQ+ ally, both in your day-to-day life and online.
From challenging harmful stereotypes when you see them to educating yourself on the diverse experiences of LGBTQ+ people, here are some ways that you can step up and be an even better LGBTQ+ ally in your everyday life.
LGBTQ+ allies make up a fundamental part of LGBTQ+ communities. Celebrities like Harry Styles, Jennifer Lopez, and Kerry Washington have all used their platforms to share their love for LGBTQ+ people, making a real difference to how they’re seen.
CJ Smith, an accredited LGBTQ+ therapist, explains why their support is so important. “Within my therapeutic practice, I see that cisgender heterosexual people being allies to and affirming LGBTQ+ clients in their identities can make an enormous difference to the mental health and well-being of these clients, particularly amongst friends and family,” Smith says. “It sends a message that you belong and someone has your back, which is so important for promoting self-esteem and resilience.”
A study by Procter & Gamble and GLAAD revealed that greater LGBTQ+ representation in the media led to increased acceptance of LGBTQ+ people. Similarly, research collected by the Pew Research Center found that 92% of 1,197 American LGBTQ+ adults they spoke to believed society became more accepting of them in the decade between 2003 and 2013.
Those questioned also said that they believed society will become more accepting as time goes on. Participants attributed these changes in attitudes to people knowing more LGBTQ+ people, seeing famous LGBTQ+ actors on-screen coming out as LGBTQ+, and more LGBTQ+ people getting married and choosing to raise children. But we still have a long way to go until there’s universal acceptance.
If you already consider yourself to be an LGBTQ+ ally, then you might assume everyone you know is one too. Sadly, the stats show that this isn’t the case: 39% of respondents to Pew’s survey also said they’ve been rejected by a friend or family member, while nearly two-thirds have been subjected to slurs or derogatory jokes because they are LGBTQ+.
In the United Kingdom, charity Stonewall reported that one in five LGBTQ+ people has experienced a hate crime because of their sexuality or gender identity. The real number could be even higher, as many incidents go unreported due to stigma from hospitals, police, and support services. There has also been a reported rise in hate crimes against LGBTQ+ people in the United States, United Kingdom, and Germany.
This isn’t a hopeless situation nor a burden that LGBTQ+ people should carry alone. Freya, who is bi, says that because straight people “hold a lot of power in society,” they have the “potential to make big change.” There’s also a simple numerical point: allies are important because there are more cis, straight people out there than LGBTQ+ people. There is strength in numbers, and the more people there are who actively support equality (even if they aren’t part of the community), the sooner change happens.
“[We] need social support to survive, develop, and thrive,” Smith says.
Taking the steps to be an active and effective LGBTQ+ ally can be as simple as challenging LGBTQ+ stereotypes and discrimination when you see it. For Esha*, who is bisexual, this is where allyship makes the biggest difference; “it allows both communities to normalize varying relationships and identifying in different ways, so LGBTQ+ individuals do not feel like outcasts in society.”
For her, one of the best examples of allyship was when she came out to her best friend. Often, straight people stereotype those who are bi as promiscuous, going through a phase, or half-straight. Esha’s experience with her friend was completely different: “Her response was amazing. Words can’t describe how relieved and grateful I was for her support. She has always been open towards LGBTQ+ people and is absolutely fine with it, but I wasn’t sure how she would react to her best friend [being bisexual].”
Esha says that being an ally means “gladly accepting and supporting a person no matter what because they are human too.” She also hopes that people can appreciate that her romantic interests don’t change who she is as a person.
Psychotherapist Zayna Ratty, who specializes in LGBTQ+ issues, agrees: “We need to be more open to challenging stereotypes as well as reevaluating our own narratives.”
An example of this is not assuming you know someone’s pronouns, sexuality, or relationship status as soon as you meet them. If you’re unsure of the pronouns that someone uses, then you can politely ask them. In most circumstances, many people would rather you ask than assume and get it wrong. Similarly, remember that if someone identifies as a woman and is dating a man, that doesn’t automatically mean they’re straight.
Being a good LGBTQ+ ally isn’t about being perfect or right all of the time. No one is perfect. However, if you’re curious, open to listening and learning, and ready to challenge stereotypes that represent LGBTQ+ people as ‘other,’ then you’re doing the work. That’s effective and powerful.
Another way to be a better ally is to take time to learn more about LGBTQ+ history, culture, and lived experiences.
Firstly, if you have close friends within the LGBTQ+ communities, then you can speak to them. It’s worth noting that if you’re asking people about discrimination or rejection they’ve experienced, then this can be very painful and may trigger past trauma. Often the burden of education falls on LGBTQ+ people, which can be taxing emotional labor. However, it is possible to have these conversations in a sensitive way, especially if you already have a close relationship with someone.
“If timed sensitively and genuinely centering the needs of the LGBTQ+ person, it may be appropriate to acknowledge that you don’t know it all and would find it helpful to learn pointers on what effective allyship looks like to that person,” says Smith. This can also show that you value your relationship with the person in question and are making a sincere effort to ‘get it right.’
When you go into these conversations, make sure that you communicate that you’re ready to listen. Explain that you’re asking for their help and insight from a position of support and not a place where you will judge them.
You can also look online and contact helplines to educate yourself on how to be a better ally. This is something Smith believes is integral “before intervening in a situation where a friend or family may need significant emotional support.”
LGBTQ+ helplines, nonprofits, and resources are available to members of the communities and their loved ones. In the United States, The LGBTQ+ Center and Gender Spectrum advocate for young LGBTQ+ people. Similarly, Planned Parenthood, Gender Proud, and Side by Side offer a wealth of advice and testimonies from LGBTQ+ people.
Stonewall provides extensive information on LGBTQ+ issues in the United Kingdom and around the world. The London-based LGBT Switchboard also offers comprehensive advice and support. The charity Mermaids advocates for young trans people and their families, and FFLAG is a dedicated service for family and friends of LGBTQ+ people to seek reassurance and information. Galop also has an entire section of its website dedicated to family, friends, and allies.
Similarly, books like The Stonewall Reader, Good as You, We Have Always Been Here, Queer Intentions, Trans Britain, and The Transgender Issue all explore LGBTQ+ history and culture. If you find podcasts more accessible, then check out Nancy, Making Gay History, Queery, and LGBTQ&A, which feature interesting and inspiring stories from LGBTQ+ people from the past and present.
As many countries still don’t provide LGBTQ+-inclusive education for children or young adults within schools and colleges, using these resources could serve as your own education in becoming a better ally.
“Educate yourself. Be humble. Recognize that you have a sexual orientation and gender identity even though you have been taught it’s just the default reality and that you have been afforded privileges because of it,” says Smith.
Being an ally is not just a label that you can ascribe to yourself once and be done with it. Nor does it mean, as Ratty explains, “slapping a rainbow sticker on everything, (something we call commercial pinkwashing).” Genuine allyship involves continued and active work in supporting LGBTQ+ rights and defending LGBTQ+ people against discrimination, whether they are someone you know or a stranger.
“Stand up for LGBTQ+ [people] when you see injustice to them,” says Smith. “Think carefully about what you genuinely value about LGBTQ+ people and the contribution they make to your life, and then look for opportunities to communicate this to them and to others.”
Standing up for LGBTQ+ people doesn’t just mean fighting in their corner when they’re faced with discrimination. It can also mean celebrating their work and achievements. It can mean sharing in their joy and putting their names forward for jobs when you know they’d be the best fit. By drawing attention to the excellence within LGBTQ+ communities, you’ll help to create a greater platform for equality. It’s about winning together.
In addition to being open to learning and listening to LGBTQ+ people, make sure that you’re checking your privilege. If you hear anti-LGBTQ+ language or someone misgendering someone else, then challenge that, even if there are no LGBTQ+ people present.
“We are all different and unique, giving space to the notion that we are all intersectional, and that’s what makes the world so wonderful,” Ratty says. “Remain respectfully curious about the world around you. You never know what you may find out about yourself and about others.”
At times, allyship can be uncomfortable. It can mean facing your privileges as a cisgender straight person and confronting the ways society upholds bigoted ideas surrounding sexuality and gender identity. However, by striving to be a better LGBTQ+ ally, you will get to share in so many wins and be a better friend, family member, or partner to those you love.
Ratty explains that there’s a difference between being an “ally” and “solidarity.” “Sometimes an ally can do performative tokenism, whereas solidarity can mean words with actions,” she says. “Marginalized communities need places not to be perfect and sorted; we need safe spaces to be messy, complicated, and not be judged for it.”
Performative tokenism refers to making a symbolic effort to support the community or give the appearance of acceptance and tolerance when in reality, you aren’t doing the things required to be a 100% supportive ally.
Being an ally doesn’t mean you are perfect or won’t ever say the wrong thing. Even LGBTQ+ people mess up sometimes when it comes to accidentally using the wrong pronoun or assuming that someone is straight when they’re not. It’s okay to mess up but try not to get defensive about it. Apologize, correct yourself, explain that you did not intend to disrespect them, and promise to do better in the future — and then actually do it.
Ratty says that “we are all in a process of learning and unlearning” and urges cisgender, heterosexual people and the LGBTQ+ community to have compassion for each other. This guide highlights that there are so many practical things people can do to be better allies.
The key attribute of a good LGBTQ+ ally is being genuine in your intentions. “If you see someone really trying, it’s not a vanity project, and they don’t get it right, then show some compassion,” Ratty says. “We all make mistakes. Apologize and correct, and be gracious when correcting and being corrected.”
She adds, “We can’t hold hands with each other if all we do is show our fists. This is about calling people in, not just calling them out and creating barriers.”