On being an ally to friends, enemies, and strangers who make choices we don’t understand

Being an ally is not the same thing as being a friend. This may seem obvious, or it may seem baffling, and hopefully this can be relevant reading either way.

You can be someone’s friend while also marginalizing them, either through microaggressions (such as being a cis person telling a trans person that they don’t look trans) or outright aggressions (such as being a white person calling a person of color a racist slur). They may or may not perceive what you’ve done as marginalizing. They may have gotten really good at finding internal ways to manage that marginalization (such as apologizing for your behavior for you, or agreeing with your behavior and its implications about them) in the interest of maintaining the friendship, or maintaining jobs, family, housing, whatever. They’ve likely lost any or all of those things before when advocating for themself about that thing. Yes, your friendship with someone can matter enough that they would rather put up with being repeatedly hurt by than risk losing yet another damn thing in their life.

I’m someone who eventually advocates for myself, later if not sooner, but eventually. I’m more competent than average at meeting people where they are at and at addressing a range of experiences, and I’ve been working on it for many years, so I’m at this point reasonably good at it. When I was terrible at it, I was even worse at keeping my mouth shut, so I had to start learning pretty quickly. And I still see people explode at me, furiously believing that I’ve forgotten and forsaken every piece of our interaction until now because of something they did that they believe I should take as non-seriously as they did.

When I used to read as non-gender-normative, I got this at staggeringly higher levels, partly because I had less practice at the time responding to that marginalization, partly because getting read that way exposed me to a lot more directly aggressive marginalization and so constant burnout. But I also had many people respond that I was different and that my experience never counted in any situation ever, because apparently at a certain point of being other you become their invisible friend who is only there to deal with their real life consequences. So, hey.

And like I said, I don’t tend to internalize managing my transness in favor of keeping their friendship, but I do have to keep reminding myself to not take the blame when everything implodes. I’ll blame myself for handling it poorly, I’ll blame myself for not speaking up sooner, I’ll blame myself for waiting too long to speak. I do this even after multiple people have come to me years after one of these implosions and apologized for their actions, agreeing with what I’d tried to tell them so long ago. And then I’ll blame myself for being alone again.

Thankfully, that last step hasn’t happened in a while, now. It’s been traded out for a step in which I’ll talk to a few trusted friends and say, did I screw this up, did I misread this, how can I do it better? It’s powerful to have anyone at all to do that with. That’s friendship. This isn’t allyship at all. These are friends who sit with me and hear me out and validate my hurt and exhaustion, and give me feedback to the best of their ability, and share their own experiences and insights. They give me the cushion and the security to not worry if another relationship in my life falls apart. I’m not clinging to wreckage after too many storms any more. And they’re usually allies too — bonus!

You can be a valuable, significant part of someone’s life and still be hurting them. Chances are decent that if the way you’re hurting them is by marginalizing them, they may have determined that your friendship is more valuable than your absence. I think the way to understand how to address this problem is not by friending harder: your friendship is probably already there, you’re on it, and that’s why this person has stuck around. I think the key is learning about how you can be an ally without being a friend.

These people and I don’t currently engage in the mutual care behaviors that make up a friendship: people I would like to get to know better and can’t, enemies, acquaintances whose names I may or may not know, bartenders who remember my order and/or the name on my card, coworkers, exes that I don’t speak to any more, famous people that I’ve never met regardless of what I think of them. My relationships with them share another trait: I am capable of being an ally to all of them regardless. This form of allyship does not force me to be personal or intimate with anyone but myself.

For example, there’s a person I loathe who is a woman. I’m not going to engage in misogyny to undermine her or her hurtful behaviors. I’m also not going to refrain from defending her from misogyny when I see it directed at her. And finally, if misogyny is the only thing that validates a particular reason for why I don’t like her, I am obligated to rethink that reason and my understanding of how as a man to be an ally to women. That’s where it gets personal and intimate. I’ve learned volumes from working to be an ally to this person: I’ve had to decipher what she does that is considered bad because she is in a misogynistic world versus what is actually problem behavior. Of her problem behavior I’ve had to consciously explore what her alternatives are for survival in this misogynistic world. I’ve had to consider what I’m doing to improve options for women, yes all women, including her, including the option to be a terrible person without facing misogyny for being a terrible woman. I can do this while entirely avoiding being around her.

When figuring out how to be a better friend when the friending is already done, I think it’s helpful to consider: how would I advocate for this person if they weren’t my friend? If I hated them?

Many years ago, I had a small friend circle that included another person who had come out as trans. She and I had grown apart and I’d stayed closer to the other two friends, until they resumed calling her by her male name. When I told them that that was a kinda horribly cruel thing to do, they believed that until she started acting like a better friend, she hadn’t earned the right to be called by her chosen name. I don’t know what was actually happening, so all I could do was give them the benefit of the doubt that she was being a bad friend. But I also saw that they considered acknowledging this person’s gender as a cookie she could earn if she was a good friend, not a matter of basic respect. See above story of this woman I loathe: she doesn’t “deserve” being called a bitch, because as a slur that term is always misogynistic and systemic in its impact and meaning. I learned then that these two friends were not to be trusted to be trans allies, even if they were friends to me. I learned that if our friendship fell apart, I could expect them to use my gender against me. I started looking for new friends fast.

When I need allies, the biggest and most reliable flag for me that someone isn’t an ally — that they are, in fact, hostile to my having needs that are not theirs — is that they start telling me that I have lost their support because of how I didn’t hold their hand and speak with patience and compassion and answer every question personally and wait through their months and years of possibly coming to terms with my reality or possibly deciding, nahhh, my reality is hogwash. The biggest flag that someone is an ally is that they take that work off of my shoulders: they do the research and work to become resources themselves, and when I am exhausted and hurting and someone is aggressing and I have more or less the capacity to say “fuck off” or say nothing at all, they take that person away from me and do the work themselves. Even if the extent of the work they are capable of doing is to shout “fuck off” when I am too tired even for that. Some of them are not friends; some of them, I will skip out on an event to avoid being around them.

I can be surrounded by allies and have not a single friend in the mix. Two separate needs, and finding people who can meet both needs is a long, exhausting process. Sometimes it’s been more manageable to settle for constantly scrambling for scraps of friendship among allies. Sometimes it’s been more manageable to settle for constantly caging the tender parts of me while in the company of otherwise wonderful friends. And sometimes it’s been more manageable to bounce back and forth between the two groups, until I felt hopelessly split into two halves: one politically engaged, one cared about.

You’re not obligated to be anyone’s friend, or anyone’s ally, but if you’re reading this you’re presumably interested in being an ally. Part of being an ally involves considering the choices individual marginalized people make to meet their friendship and allyship needs.

And part of it involves considering what to do with people you aren’t prepared to be friends with, or even willing to be associated with. It means considering why you have that stance, and it means figuring out how to be an ally regardless of your stance.

To sabotage a marginalized group of people, associate the group’s efforts at fighting that marginalization with unacceptable social behaviors. Loud. Aggressive. Interruptive. Destructive. Taking up space. How loud, aggressive, interruptive, destructive, and space-taking is the criticism of their actions? Who can you hear more clearly? Who are you amplifying?

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