As a bisexual man and writer, I try my best to be open to hearing and answering as many questions as I can from those seeking to learn more about my community. Of course, I don’t always have the answers and, when I think I do, I’m always sure to clarify that this answer is coming from my perspective and is based on my experiences and the sources available to me. These inquisitive individuals could surely ask the same question of another bi man and receive a vastly different answer.
So, as I dive into this article about allyship, I want people to keep that notion in mind: what I consider to be a successful ally is not absolute, infallible, or universal. However, I think through my work and personal experiences, I can offer a relevant opinion on how individuals can continue to grow and be an ally to any number of marginalized communities.
The main message I always try to convey regarding allyship is that it is a never-ending journey. There is never going to be a moment where you reach absolute perfection. It’s not like you’ll graduate from ally school and leave with your ally diploma, never having to revisit the topic again. It takes constant work to be an ally because the needs of the world’s inhabitants are in flux. If you’re serious about helping to facilitate real changes within a community, it takes a real commitment.
That’s not to say there is anything wrong with gradually working up to this commitment rather than diving in headfirst. It can be incredibly overwhelming to hear and understand the new perspectives that one encounters when starting an allyship journey, which is a lesson I had to learn myself as a young advocate. After coming out as a bi man and beginning my own advocacy efforts, I’ll admit I’d get easily frustrated with people who didn’t seem to just “get it”. It was baffling how something so obvious to me could be so hard for someone else to comprehend, and sometimes that would result in impatience on my end, leading to instances when I may have pushed too hard.
I understand that those who take time to deconstruct the information advocates share, in order to figure out their path forward, have a form of privilege that is not available to everyone in this world. But I would rather give them some time to put what I’m saying into a context they understand rather than bullying them out of pursuing allyship at all. What’s more, I think it’s imperative for an ally to understand why this work and partnership is important from their perspective, rather than having them parrot what an advocate is saying because it simply sounds good. Allyship is about being informed, and motivated, which means a conscious effort to understand and improve is needed.
Since perfection is unrealistic, improvement is what I think every ally should strive for. It’s somewhat of a tough pill to swallow, but there will inevitably be a moment when an advocate or member of a marginalized community raises a concern about an action or comment of yours which they perceive as offensive. I’ve found this is a moment when contention can really elevate between the two parties; it can devolve into an offense/defense situation, such as "I've done x, y, z for this community, I cannot believe you’re attacking me!" which is not productive for anyone.
This was also a lesson I had to learn, but this time as an ally. For example, as a white man, I can never truly understand what it’s like to be a person of color in this country — not the systemic issues that impact our entire society or the microaggressions that many POC have to deal with on a daily basis. Rather than getting defensive if a member of this community raises concern about an action, comment, or behavior of mine, I’ll say something like, "I appreciate you letting me know. I will do better in the future." From my experience on both sides of this situation, it’s not about shaming someone, but rather giving them the information they need in order to be better in the future.
I think one of the hardest parts of allyship is knowing that you are going to make a mistake at some point, especially when that misstep is concerning race, sexual orientation, or gender. But if you are coming from a place where you are truly trying to better yourself and advance the community in question, any true advocate will help with your ongoing journey. It is through these uncomfortable situations, and tough conversations that true allyship is born and genuine progress can be made.