There are no formal qualifications for being an LGBT rights advocate or ally. There are, however, some things that you can do in order to ensure that you are effective in your advocacy. The following isn’t an exhaustive list, as it is built out of my own experience and that of my friends, but is instead meant to suggest ways of thinking about advocacy and how you can be a more effective campaigner. While they use examples relating to LGBT issues, many of the following can be applied to other activist pursuits.
1. Recognize Your Privilege
I’m a gay man whose gender presentation means I can pass as straight. I’m also white. That means that in most circumstances I have a great deal of privilege in both how the law treats me and how other people treat me too. I’m unlikely to be stopped by police for so-called random searches, for instance, and I’m also unlikely to be catcalled on the street or sexually harassed in public. Similarly, my gender presentation is never questioned, and I am never asked whether my gender accords with my birth sex. As a result I will never be accused of “gender fraud” or be subject to what’s now been termed the “genital inquisition” that many trans people must face.
In a world like ours where discrimination against people affected by these kinds of issues is, sadly, still very prominent, recognizing our privilege and the way in which we are given more power, whether by having our voices heard or in terms of legal rights, allows us to consider how we can best help people. It also helps us guard against making assumptions based on how people treat us that may not be true for other people with less privilege.
I would also shoehorn under this banner the need to confront our own biases. For instance, some within the gay community have a particular prejudice against effeminate gay men (just as some have and continue to have a problem with so-called butch women). To be effeminate is to “harm the cause,” is the often parroted line. Recognizing if you yourself carry prejudices (we all do at some point) can help you look at them in a logical light and strip them away so as to ensure your work isn’t tainted by these errant beliefs.
2. Know What You Think About the Issues
Deeply consider what you think about various topics because only through doing so can you find the integrity to move forward and to argue for and support others in their fight for equality.
For instance, not everyone in the LGBT community believes that same-sex marriage should have the community’s focus because, the argument goes, it takes energy away from other important areas, or because they argue that marriage is an antiquated system that the community should not be helping to perpetuate.
Do you believe that marriage is a societal institution that is beneficial? Or do you believe that marriage has had its day? This is just one example and of course it isn’t necessarily as simple as supporting or opposing a particular aim (for instance, we might believe gay people should have the right to get married even if marriage isn’t necessarily something we approve of or wish to see continue).
Examining issues as thoroughly as you are capable of before speaking on them will allow you to trust your own voice when, inevitably, you face criticism. That said, be prepared to change what you think when evidence presents itself or a convincing case is made that contradicts something you have held as true.
3. Find Your Focus
Once you know what you think about certain issues, you will likely find you will gravitate toward those issues that you may have very passionate views on. That’s a good thing because it is that passion that can sustain your advocacy. For instance, you might care deeply about LGBT homeless youth and wish to reach out to them. On the other end, you might wish to improve end of life care for elderly LGBTs and want to work toward that.
When you have that focus, you can then begin to learn how to be effective in that area, such as by contacting charities and existing groups, or reaching out through social media to find people of a like mind with whom you can share information and learn and grow.
4. Decide How You Will Engage with LGBT Advocacy
Do you want to go on marches? Be involved in frontline outreach? Or, being the bookish sort, are you better off working from your computer, involving yourself in online petitioning, essays and the like? Do you have particular skills that you can use, for instance legal/medical skills, that might also be helpful to existing LGBT organizations? None of these are more valid than the other, though certainly some skills are rarer than others and may therefore be more desirable. Decide for yourself, based on your skill-sets, what level of engagement and what method of engagement you will use — just remember that skills can be improved and new talents can be cultivated to help you with this work.
Even if it’s just starting a blog designed to reach out to your social media friends and make them better informed about the things that are happening in terms of LGBT rights in your area, if it’s done well, then it is worthwhile.
5. Let Your Advocacy Grow and, if you Need to, Go
As you develop your skills and participate in the community movement toward a fairer society, you cannot help but be changed by it. Recognizing that it’s okay to develop on certain issues, to even change your position, to admit that you were wrong or to hold fast to why you were right and keep saying it in more sophisticated ways or depth, is all part of the journey.
Sometimes, you will find that issues you felt strongly about before will not seem as pressing for you as they once did. Don’t be afraid to let others take on that work when it happens and move on to something else. Or, you may need to take a break from advocacy for a while, and give yourself permission to do this. This passion is, sometimes, a thankless task and while it can be incredibly rewarding, the constant struggle can be draining. If you need to take time out for yourself, it’s time well spent because you cannot be an effective advocate or ally if you are fatigued and unable to think clearly or with good judgment.
6. Speak to Elevate the Voices of Others, Not Your Own
At Care2, I have often reported on issues facing the LGBTQQA community, and I have done so as a member of that community. However, as I said above, I have a great deal of privilege that others in this community do not. As a result, while I might report on stories affecting gay women, bisexuals and trans people, as well as the questioning, queer, or asexual, I cannot and definitely should not speak for my brothers, sisters and undefined under the rainbow flag — all I can do is read widely, talk widely to the people affected by the various rights issues the community faces, and report as diligently and fairly as I am able using my voice that society has, due to a number of historical missteps, elevated above that of others. My focus in doing so is to broadcast the voices and stories of others, and not my own, and this has been one of the most valuable lessons that I have been taught doing this work: don’t talk for other people, use your words to let them be heard.
7. Enjoy Learning as You Go
It might be tempting to say “enjoy yourself” in your advocacy, but that sounds a bit trite. What I personally have found is that through doing this work I have enjoyed deepening my understanding of the issues we face and, in turn, adding insight where I can to particular things that my knowledge base allows me to give meaningful comment.
There’s a lot of joy in offering value in this way, whether it’s from things like my small contributions to the ongoing movement, or to the massive contributions advocates, campaigners, and just all round brave individuals like Edith Windsor have made.
Photo credit: Thinkstock.
Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may
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