GLBTA explores importance of their allies

The student group discussed the role of allies in the GLBT community.

by Amber Schadewald

The Minnesota GLBTA Campus Alliance, a new student group affiliated with the Queer Student Cultural Center, hosted Minnesota OUT!, a conference educating students, faculty and staff from across the state about gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and ally issues.

The group hosted about 200 people from 30 different campuses and organizations on Friday and Saturday at Coffman Union and the Radisson Hotel. Participants attended a variety of workshops and keynote addresses from activists and legislators, and had opportunities to network during dinners and a dance.

One workshop in particular, Ally Development, discussed the often-misunderstood role that allies play in the GLBT community.

Ross Neely, a public policy graduate student, is the assistant program coordinator for the GLBTA Programs office. This past summer, the office added the “A” to their acronym to represent the ally identity, which Neely said is essential.

Neely defines an ally as a heterosexual-identified person who is working toward GLBT rights and accessibility, but said everyone can be an ally. A lesbian can be an ally to a gay man, a bisexual to a transgender person or even a man to a woman, he said.

“An ally really means crossing these identity boundaries to work for justice,” Neely said.

Helping the GLBT community not only benefits those associated within that group, but everyone outside of it as well, Neely said. Allies are not helping out a group that is less fortunate, he said, but instead work to dismantle a system that is oppressive to everyone.

“It’s about gender freedom – period,” he said. “We are all hurt by an oppressive binary of gender.”

Neely is a member of Campus Alliance and has been helping organize the event since March. Neely, along with Matt Eichler, a doctoral candidate in the adult education program, taught the ally workshop to a group of about 30 people Friday evening.

During the presentation, Eichler spoke about the differences between being an ally and being an ally activist. He said people usually start out by recognizing the oppression GLBT individuals face and the privilege they have as an individual outside that community.

Activism, he said, is the next step.

“Activism is doing things to change public policy,” he said. “It’s going beyond the individual level.”

Eichler said building relationships with people in the GLBT community is the key factor in becoming an ally. Until there’s personal experience, it’s hard to know and understand the position of an oppressed person, he said.

Sara Schwermer, global studies and political science senior, considers herself an “A” and said being an ally is about being a supportive friend. Schwermer grew up in a small town in Missouri and said she didn’t even know what the word “gay” meant until she came to college.

Now Schwermer works in the GLBTA Programs office and proudly wears a T-shirt with the word “ally” across the front on a regular basis. Schwermer said it all began with the friendships she made within the GLBT community at the University.

“I began seeing some of the stuff they go through and experience, and I wanted to do whatever I could to help them,” she said.

Schwermer said being an ally isn’t always easy; people regularly assume that “because I work in the queer community that I’m gay, or will be.”

“I’m not assumed to be an ally – ever,” she said.

Schwermer said being an ally put her in some uncomfortable situations with friends from home who used the word “gay” synonymously with “stupid.”

She said she started correcting them and asked them not to use the word. Slowly they accepted it, and now she even hears some of them correcting others.

Schwermer said she was really excited to hear that her office had added the “A” because now she feels like she’s officially part of the community.

For people not completely familiar with the GLBT community, the addition of ally to the acronym has just added confusion. Many students have either not heard of the “A” being attached or they have but don’t know what it means.

University first-year Jennifer Young, along with multiple other students, guessed that the “A” stood for association or advocacy.

Even some people within the GLBT community are unfamiliar with the concept of an ally. Sociology sophomore Melanie Teichner said she identifies herself as bisexual and guessed the “A” meant asexual.

Schwermer said responses like Young and Teichner’s are actually quite common. Schwermer said the best way to be an ally is to “open your mouth” – explain to people what an ally is and be proud of your identity.

Becky Saltzman, an active member of the Queer Student Cultural Center who identifies herself as bisexual, encourages allies to be active and use resources here on campus, such as the Friends and Allies group, the GLBTA Programs Office and the QSCC.

“If (allies) are not outspoken about it, they’re not helping the community,” she said. “It’s okay to be quiet, but the more people (outside the GLTBA community) see, the more accepting they will be.”