In March 2016, NAIT held its second annual Pride Week. As someone from the LGBTQ community and NAIT employee, I took this celebration of our diverse student and staff population as an opportunity to reflect on inclusion, and I appreciated its efforts to inform those interested in learning more.
It also got me thinking about a conversation I had shortly after I started working here. Last fall I met an old friend for coffee. He’s a NAIT instructor. We’ve known each other since kindergarten but hadn’t connected in person for years.
Thanks to Facebook, we’d watched each other’s lives unfold. We liked and commented when we became parents, offered comforting messages when we went through divorces, and joked about each other’s parenting woes.
Five years ago, when I announced I was in a new relationship with a woman, I could see that my friend could be an ally to the LGTBQ community. He sent a supportive message and continued to like posts and comment positively. Last year my partner came out as transgender. He liked posts about that, too.
In person, he didn’t hide his struggle to understand. “You know me and I’m not the best with these things or at using the right words – so I apologize in advance – but have you always been gay?” he asked. “And now that your partner is transitioning, does that change how you identify?”
I often get questions like this from well-meaning people. When I do, I try to be patient because I want to educate those who want to understand. As a director of the Pride Centre of Edmonton, I know that marginalized communities need allies and I’ve seen their impact. Like my friend, many people I meet outside the LGBTQ community want to be an ally but don’t know how or where to start. Here’s what I would tell them.
Good intentions are just the start.
You cannot just claim the title of “ally”
Good intentions are just the start. Think of it like a badge of honour you have to earn – like the ones on my daughter’s Girl Guides sash.
To earn a new badge, she has to learn something and challenge herself, even when it’s hard. After that, she presents what she’s learned to her troupe of fellow 7-year-olds in order to receive her badge.
It’s similar with a marginalized community: you challenge yourself to understand, learn what you need to do to help and then act. When you do, you earn acceptance.
Ask questions respectfully
During our conversation, my friend also asked, “Can I ask you what’s the deal with universal washrooms?”
I was candid because of his intentions. His question wasn’t meant to start a debate or argument. It began by asking permission and it showed that he genuinely wanted to understand.
I told him that I’ve not experienced the barriers that transgender and non-binary (not exclusively masculine or feminine) people face, because I’m cisgender (I identify with the gender I was assigned at birth).
But I also shared what my transmasculine (female-assigned at birth but identifies as male) partner experiences when they* access public spaces such as washrooms, gym change rooms and other gender-specific spaces. They are leered at and confronted in women’s washrooms; in men’s washroom, they face harassment and threats of physical violence.
Challenge your beliefs and biases
Challenge your beliefs and biases about an issue or community. It isn’t easy but when you do you’ll gain a new perspective.
“I had no idea,” my friend said after learning what my partner encounters on a daily basis. Through this conversation, my friend challenged his own misunderstanding.
“I could totally get behind something like that at NAIT,” he added about the universal washrooms.
Listen then act
I’ve seen incredible changes happen because of the influence of allies. This is why we need them. Their voices carry power; we need them to take what they learn back to their troupes, potentially encouraging others to try to become allies as well.
If a student or co-worker prefers the third-person pronouns – they, them, their for referring to one person – that aren’t grammatically correct, use them anyway out of respect. If you learn that someone is transitioning, don’t ask personal questions about their body.
The key is to always be empathetic. Listen. Ask how you can help.
And if there are times you have questions and you don’t know who to ask, check out the Pride Centre of Edmonton, the Trans Equality Society of Alberta or a LGBTQ outreach group in your community. (At NAIT, we have the Safe Spaces program.)
Like my friend, you don’t need to march in a parade or wave a flag to announce you’re an ally. Sometimes it’s the smallest gestures of compassion that start as ripples and grow to become waves of change.
*They/them are my partner’s pronouns