Allies are people who do not identify as LGBTQ, and who offer support to LGBTQ causes and communities. Although there is some dispute as to whether allies are members of the Gay community, some classifications give them honorary membership within the umbrella category of “Queer.”
Several prominent activists, educators, scholars, scientists, and entertainers have defended Gay people and Gay-related identities before Stonewall, including the Roman historian Plutarch, Chinese playwright Li Yu, British pub owner Molly Clap, British philosopher Jeremy Bentham, radical American activist Emma Goldman, French writer Émile Zola, psychologist Sigmund Freud, Canadian-British singer and actress Beatrice Lillie, American actress and playwright Mae West, German-American physicist Albert Einstein, German writer Hermann Hess, and Russian writer Leo Tolstoy.
One of the earliest and most prominent groups of allies supporting LGBTQ communities is Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). The organization began after a woman named Jeanne Manford marched with her son in New York’s Pride parade in 1972 and started meetings with other parents of LGBTQ children the following year.
After a network of these supportive groups formed over the following decade, PFLAG was formally incorporated as a non-profit organization in California in 1982. In its local and national incarnations, PFLAG has provided a place for allies to meet with each other, but has also been a voice for allies and supporters of LGBTQ rights in demonstrations. With over 500 chapters and 200,000 affiliates, the organization is a vocal presence in the media, political lobbying, and public opposition against efforts to repeal LGBTQ rights ordinances as well as end hate speech, hate crimes, bullying, and high rates of LGBTQ teen suicide.
A number of efforts spearheaded by allies have grown into well-publicized campaigns. Since the first group was founded in 1988, groups that formed to offer support to Gay students were known as Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs), often operating in connection or collaboration with the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) after it formed in 1995. GLSEN has grown to be a vocal coalition of allies and LGBTQ people in schools, and runs campaigns like ThinkB4YouSpeak, No Name Calling Week, and the annual Day of Silence – a day where students around the country keep silent for a day to draw attention to the effects of bullying, harassment, and violence on the basis of gender and sexuality. With over 4000 GSAs connected to GLSEN and running events locally, these coalitions have become one of the fastest-growing student organizations in the United States.
Allies as Bridges
In the USA and elsewhere, allies have provided support in places where LGBTQ communities are discouraged from forming their own groups. Private universities in the United States that refuse to allow LGBTQ students to form their own organizations have been more lenient about allowing groups supporting LGBTQ students to assemble. For example, LGBTQ issues and inclusion at Notre Dame are handled by the Core Council for Gay and Lesbian Students, and Boston College has a group called “Allies” that helps LGBTQ students, but no group that is specifically for LGBTQ students.
National or transnational activists working in environments that may be hostile to explicitly LGBTQ organizations have often made inroads by working within inclusive organizations that focus on gender, women’s rights, reproductive rights, public health, HIV/AIDS, and human rights. Even when LGBTQ groups do organize separately, there are labor, feminist, anti-racist, religious, and other social movements that offer tactical or symbolic support. On bills like the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), for instance, key supporters included the National Coalition for the Homeless, the National Black Justice Coalition, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the AFL-CIO’s Pride at Work.
Advocacy work done by Judy Shepard, mother of Matthew Shepard, a young Gay man who had been tortured and murdered in Wyoming in 1998, was important in eventually getting hate crime legislation protecting much of the LGBTQ community through the US Congress. Since her son died, Judy Shepard has testified repeatedly in the face of insulting remarks made about her deceased son by politicians eager to voice their opposition to the bill, and who did so by trivializing the death of Matthew Shepard to her face.
In Canada, it was a collective Gay-Straight effort to getting same-sex marriage legalized, incorporating faith-based groups affiliated with Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Sikh communities. Gay-Straight cooperation helped bring about Project Lazarus in New Orleans, which provides living space and support to those with AIDS by means of a coordinated effort uniting the Gay community, the city of New Orleans, and the Roman Catholic Church.
Gay people in Cuba were persecuted before and after the 1959 Revolution. In the first decade of communist Cuba, effeminate men were sent to labor camps because male homosexuality was seen as a form of capitalistic decadence. But its dictator Fidel Castro appeared to have a change of heart some years later, and spoke in favor of homosexual people in the early 1990s, although police raids of Gay nightclubs and arrests of Gay people continued. Members of Castro’s family have become important allies to the Gay community as well. His brother Raúl authorized free sexual reassignment surgery in 2008, and Raúl’s daughter Mariela (who marched with the Gay community in its International Day Against Homophobia parade in May 2010) has been at the forefront of promoting LGBTQ rights and education.
A number of figures who do not necessarily identify as Gay have been outspoken advocates for LGBTQ causes and communities. Often, these individuals begin as icons in LGBTQ communities – like singers A-mei, Eartha Kitt, Bette Midler, Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick, Cher, Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Patti LaBelle, Kylie Minogue, Kelly Osbourne, and Lady Gaga – who vocally support their Gay fans. Straight politicians such as Bela Abzug (New York), John Conyers (Michigan), Ted Kennedy (Massachusetts), Luis Lula de Silva (Brazil), Hugo Chavez (Venezuela), George Moscone (San Francisco), Diane Feinstein (California), Dan Inouye (Hawai‘i), and Gavin Newsom (San Francisco) have laid the groundwork for positive legislation and been ardent supporters of LGBTQ communities.
The Circuit community has its own Straight, mostly African American, female supporters who do vocals for dance music and perform at circuit parties. These include Martha Wash, Inaya Day, Pepper Mashay, Ultra Naté, Donna Summer, Dawn Tallman, Cindy Lauper, and Deborah Cox.
Religious leaders like Episcopal Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, Vietnamese Buddhist leader Thich Nhat Hanh, and Robert Aitken-Roshi of the American Zen community have also supported the Gay community. The United Church of Christ became the first mainstream Christian denomination to officially support Gay marriage. Quaker communities in Australia, Canada, and Britain have been supportive, as have Reform and Reconstructionist Jewish authorities internationally. Some Methodist, Lutheran, and Presbyterian communities have also opened up to Gay people.
Folk Terms for “Ally”
While the term “allies” is a generic signifier for supportive individuals or groups, there are also specific terms for allies of various LGBTQ communities. A supporter of the Trans community may be called a SOFFA (Significant Other, Friend, Family or Ally). More controversially, Straight supporters who primarily socialize with LGBTQ individuals are known as fruit flies, and women who socialize extensively with Gay men are often labeled fag hags – a folk term which has spawned offshoots like fag stags (Straight men who socialize extensively with Gay men) and lesbros or dyke tykes (Straight men who socialize extensively with Lesbians).
Questioning and Supporting Inclusion
There have been extensive debates about the extent to which allies can and should be included in LGBTQ activism. Separatism was a staple of many of the early demands for Gay liberation, with proponents arguing that Straight allies could not understand the marginalization of the LGBTQ community, or that liberation would only occur when queerness displaced heterosexuality and the nuclear family. The most prominent vein of separatism within feminism and LGBTQ communities was Lesbian separatism, which involved the rejection of both male and heterosexual privilege by maintaining relationships only with other women.
Within Queer communities, there have been a number of contentious debates about who should be included under the LGBTQ umbrella – especially the extent to which the many subgroups under this umbrella are allies of each other. Critics point to divisions between Gay men and Lesbians on the basis of sex, biphobia and transphobia within LGBTQ communities, or whether the movement should fracture along the lines of gender, orientation, or biological sex, thereby reconfiguring Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, and Queer groups in different combinations.
Many LGBTQ folk groups welcome Straight people as part of the Gay ethos of inclusion and diversity. Women’s music festivals accept all women-born women (and often open to women of all genders and sexualities), Leather events tend to be for all Leatherfolk, and Circuit parties are open to everyone, as are the Gay Games, the International Gay Rodeo Association, the opulently regal drag-centered International Court System (started by Empress José [Sarria] I in 1965), and other events and organizations.
Shepard, Judy. The Meaning of Matthew. New York: Hudson Street, 2009.
Woog, Dan. Friends and Family: True Stories of Gay America’s Straight Allies. New York: Alyson, 1999.