I had close friends who came out to me in high school, but it was not until I knew several openly gay and lesbian people in college that I began to realize the magnitude of the discrimination they faced. When I took my first job in the corporate world, I was fortunate to have an openly gay colleague with whom I worked closely. Not only did he teach me about marketing, brand management, and how to make the copier work without overheating, but he also taught me a great deal about my own misconceptions and stereotypes.
In many states in the US, you can still legally be fired for being gay or lesbian, and even where laws provide equal protection, a great deal of homophobia and discrimination may continue. This is why I tell people that I am an ally, a straight person who supports equal rights for gay and lesbian people and for creating a workplace that allows employees to work to their potential without fear or distraction.
So you want to be an ally? Many straight students want to be supportive of their gay, lesbian, and bisexual classmates but are not sure what to do or say. Fortunately, you don’t need to devote your life to activism to make life easier for the GLBT students in our community.
A straight ally is someone who is not gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender (GLBT) but personally supports and/or advocates for GLBT equal rights and fair treatment.
Here’s how you can start:
Be supportive and receptive, but not intrusive. When someone comes out to you, they are starting a conversation based on honesty and shared values. It’s good and important to ask questions, and it’s okay to admit that you aren’t sure how to be supportive of your friend or classmate. But do consider his/her privacy threshold. Knowing someone is gay or lesbian does not entitle you to probe into every detail of his or her personal relationships. Treat your gay or lesbian colleague with the same respect as you would treat a straight colleague.
Resist mentioning someone’s sexuality or dating relationships (even in a casual way) every time you see them. Even if you are trying to demonstrate that you are supportive of gay and lesbian relationships, you may instead be suggesting that you see gays and lesbians as people whose entire personalities are defined by their sexuality. Students at HBS are worried about classes and jobs – regardless of whether or not they are gay or straight. Life issues are the same; sexuality is just one dimension.
Don’t wait for others to speak out against homophobic jokes or comments. Not every gay and lesbian person at HBS is out, and we all suffer when those around us are shamed into silence. Standing up against homophobia helps make the community stronger for both straight and GLBT people; a community where open conversation and dialogue can be truly be created.
Don’t expect one gay or lesbian to speak for every gay and lesbian. There is tremendous diversity in the gay and lesbian community just as there is in the straight community. Each person has their own unique experiences, and while a lesbian classmate may have spent more time thinking about GLBT issues than you have, don’t expect her to fully educate you.
Educate yourself. If you have questions about the gay or lesbian community, ask. Stereotypes and misconceptions exist because of lack of information.
Voicing your support for GLBT people is powerful. Challenge a stereotype. Correct misrepresentations and misinformation. Becoming an ally for a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender friend, relative, or colleague, is a perfect way to celebrate National Coming Out Day!