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At the start of 2019, gay journalist Jonathan Rauch proposed that the term “LGBTQ” be retired as a collective referent for sexual and gender minorities. To replace it, he recommended a single “Q.” Writing in the Atlantic, Rauch argued that the “alphabet soup . . . has become a synecdoche for the excesses of identity politics—excesses that have helped empower the likes of Donald Trump.” Careful to note that he was not drawing a direct causal line from the term “LGBTQ” to the Trump presidency, Rauch nevertheless claimed that it was just this sort of “balkanization” that fueled the resentment of “ordinary Americans” and alienated “white, straight, male America,” sending them fleeing into Trump’s embrace. While Rauch noted that the “Q” would be derived from “queer,” itself an increasingly common term of inclusion in popular discourse, it would be sheared of the word’s ugly history and more recent “radical baggage.” His solution would make clear “that discrimination against sexual minorities—or for that matter sexual majorities—is not the American way.”
Even white, straight, male Americans can find a place for themselves as allies.
This tossed-off aside about sexual majorities is actually at the heart of Rauch’s argument about what is wrong with LGBTQ: unlike the longer initialism, even white, straight, male Americans can find a place for themselves in “Q”—or, more to the point, not feel excluded from it. Rauch is far from the first to think that a principal failing of LGBTQ is its lack of space for others. Indeed, this is a critique that has long been internalized: in the most common extended version of the term, LGBTQIAA+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual, Allies, Plus), a space has already been made for “Allies,” who could be any straight person—even white, male, American ones.
The concept of “allies” is old, bringing to mind everything from World War II or the machinations of legislative bodies to the plots of most procedural dramas, but the current political meaning of the term has no real connection to these prior usages. Quite the contrary, the idea of the ally as someone who is not like you and does not suffer the same oppressions, but who supports your struggle for rights and freedom, is of recent vintage: it originates in the multicultural education initiatives of the early 1980s. How then did the idea of the ally become central to gay and lesbian activism and recognition, and through that to the work of present-day coalition building, from mainstream left politics to Black Lives Matter?
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In the 1980s, higher education in the United States followed a corporate human resource trend: augmenting equity and compliance measures with new focus on the development (and administration) of diverse organizations and institutional cultures. In universities, this proliferated as a host of diversity programs, aimed at students as well as employees, which were interconnected with efforts to diversify course content and pedagogy. Focused on representational diversity—different faces and backgrounds among student populations, faculty, and university administrators—rather than the underlying structures and inequities that were the sources of underrepresentation, these programs tended to shift the burden of creating diverse institutions from the institutions themselves to individuals: if the university was not diverse, it was not because of administrative choices, but the failures of community members and applicants. The migration of such programs from corporations to universities not only constitutes a key site for tracing the corporatization of higher education, but also marks the ascendancy of the neoliberal university, with its defining free market logics and relentless promotion of individual choice.
The idea of the ally as someone who is not like you but who supports your struggle is of recent vintage, originating in the multicultural education initiatives of the early 1980s.
This rise of diversity programming was in some senses a backlash to the civil rights movement and the cultural nationalism of Black Power, the Chicano movement, and others. Writing in 1989, feminist scholar Chandra Talpade Mohanty described university diversity initiatives as an emergent “Race Industry.” They came about, she argued, in response to the radical pluralism of 1960s and ’70s activisms and early implementations of affirmative action and education reform. In practice, they were “responsible for the management, commodification, and domestication of race on American campuses.” A central feature of this management, Mohanty noted, was its production of a “harmonious empty pluralism” drawing false equivalents across various categories of difference, obscuring variability within those categories, and abstracting each from their history and structural specificity—the hallmarks of mainstream multiculturalism. The result was the appearance that significant diversity had already been achieved and more was on its way, while no meaningful institutional changes or redistribution of authority and resources had occurred. This version of diversity was not only incapable of addressing the compound conditions of structural inequality, but reinforced them by celebrating the existence of the diversity initiatives themselves. In the thinking of university leaders, if these programs failed to produce more diverse institutions, it was not because of their obvious inadequacies; it was instead because of personal failures—not least of all the failures of minority individuals for lacking the merit, character, or grit to succeed.
By naming this the work of a “Race Industry,” Mohanty pointed to the fact that late-century multiculturism took its legal architecture from the longer histories of U.S. attempts to remedy racial injustice, from Reconstruction and the Fourteenth Amendment through the Civil Rights Act. By adopting race as the controlling metaphor for all kinds of injustice, multiculturalism sought to coopt the moral power and human bravery of the still-recent civil rights movement—particularly a version that privileged individualized over collective solutions. This was best represented in the period’s common plea, based on the heavily redacted words of Martin Luther King, Jr., to simply judge each person by the “contents of their character.” By the same stroke, it provided the emergent “ally” with a usable past found in Atticus Finch and the bloodied white faces of SNCC activists.
Coming from this world of institutionalized multicultural and diversity programming, the first printed use of the term “ally” in its present sense is in Beyond Tolerance: Gays, Lesbians, and Bisexuals on Campus, a 1991 resource manual published by the American College Personnel Association. The book’s penultimate chapter, by Jamie Washington and Nancy J. Evans (one of the books coeditors), is called “Becoming an Ally.” Evans also wrote the manual’s introduction, in which she explains the need for such a book, the first of its kind, to her audience of other U.S. higher education counseling and student affairs professionals: “Although discrimination and prejudice related to racial and ethnic background are beginning to be addressed on campuses, oppression based on sexual orientation is frequently a taboo subject.” The implied race-then-LGB formulation assumes racism as discrimination’s ur-form, while also suggesting a bureaucratic structure in which non-white and LGB people are administered as distinct constituencies for programming and care. The verbiage also implies that these categories are mutually exclusive, reinforcing the presumptive whiteness of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people and their allies.
The touted benefits of being an ally—self-improvement, greater self-esteem, the pleasure of moral righteousness— directly, even exclusively, benefitted allies themselves.
Beyond Tolerance posits the self-actualizing “heterosexual ally” as analogous in development and values to the white advocate for anti-racism. Washington and Evans take their readers through a comparison to a five-stage model of white identity development in relation to understanding racism and white privilege. The fifth stage is “Action,” which they describe as the “most important” and by far the “most frightening” for straight allies-in-the-making because they must confront and overcome the “many challenges and liabilities for heterosexuals” that discourage most from public LGB advocacy.
For Washington and Evans, one of the greatest risks to the LGB ally is that people will assume the ally is lesbian, gay, or bisexual. This is an issue with no obvious analogue in anti-racism: it was rarely the case that white civil rights supporters were accused of being secretly black. Yet it has long been a stereotype that anyone drawn to LGBT activism must themselves actually be LGBT, and either unwilling to come out or still struggling to figure it out. For this reason, Washington and Evans suppose that only the most self-aware, secure heterosexuals can become allies. But the benefits of their bravery are many, assure the authors, including: the possibility of interacting with “an additional 10% of the world”; feeling less constrained by dominant sex and gender roles; having “close and loving relationships with same-sex friends”; possibly being the reason a family member, friend, or acquaintance feels secure in their LGB identity and doesn’t turn to drugs or alcohol; making a difference to youth; and having the chance to be “invited to some of the most fun parties, have some of the best foods, play some of the best sports, have some of the best intellectual discussions, and experience some of the best music in the world, because everyone knows that lesbian and gay people are good at all of these things.” The authors identify the last one as a joke—except not: “Imagine what it could be like to have had such close friends as Tennessee Williams, Cole Porter, Bessie Smith, Walt Whitman, Gertrude Stein, Alice Walker, James Baldwin, or Virginia Woolf. Imagine the world without their contributions.”
Nearly everything on Evans and Williams’s list directly, even exclusively, benefits the ally: it is unclear how, if at all, they advance the political cause of an oppressed minority. In spite of this, Evans and Williams insist that straight allies are critical to changing campus cultures, creating environments in which LGB people are safe and can thrive, and strengthening wider movements for equality. Straight allies may be most effective at raising the consciousness or changing the minds of other straight people, they contend, thus producing more allies. But it remains the case that the benefits they promote in order to achieve these outcomes are narrowly framed as self-improvement, greater self-esteem, pleasure (including the pleasure of moral righteousness), and the implied opportunity to moonlight as oppressed while knowing that one can always retreat to the safety of privilege.
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Until allies were included as equals within the LGBTQ+ cosmos, it had never been the case—and certainly not in the civil rights movement—that allies were afforded equal footing as an identity group within a social justice movement. There is, indeed, something deeply unsettling—and simply incorrect—about counting straight allies as potential recipients of harm and discrimination on par with lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transfolk, and other dissident sexualities and genders.
The ally as a white minority identity prefigured the rise of white-as-oppressed identity politics in the age of Trump.
That said, it is impossible to separate the publication of Beyond Tolerance—and the early-’90s push for campus LGB initiatives and support services—from the HIV/AIDS crisis and its attendant safe sex education. Recall that in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, which premiered in San Francisco in May 1991, the central redemptive arc is of the unlikely straight ally Hannah Pitt, a devout Mormon who is mother to a closeted, self-loathing son. In the course of the play, Hannah cares for, and then becomes close friends with, the prophet Prior Walter, a gay man living with AIDS. In the end, the role of the ally liberates Hannah, opening her to a kind of self-knowledge denied to her son. This is to say, the ally was part of the Zeitgeist, and for many people suffering with AIDS, allies could mean the difference between life and death—or, at least, between dignity and dying alone.
Nonetheless, there remains an unsettling dissonance to the incorporation of an explicitly heterosexual identity category into a grouping of sexual minorities. For one thing, it is predicated upon the ally remaining demonstrably and steadfastly impervious to any fluidity of desire or gender expression, which seems both unrealistic and an unfair price of admission. More concerningly, the role of the ally as created by 1980s multiculturalism offered white heterosexuals a minority identity—as compensation for feelings of exclusion, accusation, and guilt—in a way that prefigured the rise of white-as-oppressed-minority identity politics in the age of Trump. This version of the ally was (and to a large extent remains) a liberal mirror image of the white backlash and ethnic heritage movements of the 1970s that gave energy to the Silent Majority and made the Republican Southern Strategy such a long-term success. While the New Right was animated by charges of reverse racism and special rights for minorities, the ally would come to represent positive white, straight, and/or male identities untarnished by structural privilege and relieved of complicity and negative self-image.
Although standing as liberal counterpoint, the ally simultaneously represented the wholesale incorporation of the terms of New Right challenges to pluralism and distributive justice though the insistent glorification of individual character, merit, and, to borrow a twenty-first-century keyword, resilience. In rejecting their own privilege and standing for or with the reviled, allies assumed sometimes-great personal risks to support the freedom struggles of others. They, too, became heroic, systemically harmed individuals who overcame their circumstances and could be celebrated for their moral characters, conviction, and selfless actions.
As multicultural pedagogies gave way to social justice education initiatives in the twenty-first century, the distinct silos commonly inhabited by white allies, straight allies, and male allies were dismantled with the embrace of intersectionality. In time, Evans and Williams’s straight ally became simply the social justice ally, a more flexible identification representing the intersecting identities, oppressions, and conditions of possibility experienced by allies and the diverse communities with whom they align. It is in this version, for example, that the ally shows up in current struggles for racial justice. As many leaders of these movements have already noted, however, this configuration is no less troublesome, and for many of the same reasons: at its worst, the social justice ally is paternalistic and patronizing or playacting, putting on the suffering of another for pleasure, then taking it off whenever privilege suits them better.
Perhaps the notion of the ally will prove most productive in acts of its rejection, such as recent calls from activists for accomplices in social justice work, rather than allies. Recent research on ally development, particularly in the areas of higher education administration and social psychology, show a marked shift in their approaches, focusing on the ally’s limitations and framing alternative models for affinity and teaching humility.
While inevitably freighted with the history of its origins, the ally remains to me a fundamentally optimistic and potentially radical notion. It carries the promise, if not always the practice, of relational politics and meaningful community; of new world making. I conclude, therefore, with both hope and skepticism. The historical record brims with unexamined privilege, brutal self-interest, lost opportunities, and the adaptive tenacity of neoliberalism. But it is hope that fuels change, that gave rise to the very idea of social justice education, and that sustains the spirits and labors of diversity officers and student affairs professionals who believe that “another university is possible” in spaces lovingly carved from oppressive institutions. It is the hope for radical transformation through the supple activisms of diverse coalitions forged in collective rage and mutual compassion. It is the hope of looking for—and looking to be—an ally.
Micki McElya is Professor of History at the University of Connecticut and specializes in the histories of women, gender, sexuality, and racial formation in the United States from the Civil War to the present, with an emphasis on political culture and memory. She is author of Clinging to Mammy: The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America (2007) and The Politics of Mourning: Death and Honor in Arlington National Cemetery (2016), and is currently at work on her next book, Liberating Beauty: Feminism, the Civil Rights Movement, and Miss America.
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