Are allies above reproach?

Last week when we published 12 Ways People with a Modern, Liberal Sexual Ethic Can Be More Supportive of Celibate LGBT Christians, we received much thoughtful feedback and many questions from our readers. One such question arose from item #6, specifically the sentence: “Don’t assume that you’re above reproach because you have a long history as an ally.” We heard from allies who found that statement confusing and wanted some clarification. One person contacted Sarah and asked: “I take it that statement means you’ve had negative experiences with allies. Can you tell me more about that so I can avoid doing the same things myself?” The purpose of today’s post is to discuss more thoroughly what we meant in saying that allies are not above reproach.

First of all, we believe that no human being is above reproach, and that includes us. Everyone makes mistakes, and if we ever say something that comes across as hurtful or discriminatory, you can feel free to open communication with us about it. That doesn’t mean we’ll necessarily come to a place of agreement, but we’re willing to talk about the issue and would never want to be dismissive of another person’s experience. We believe very strongly in this approach to dialoguing about LGBT Christian issues, and we hope that our allies do to. When we say that allies are not above reproach, it is not an attempt to hold them to a higher standard than ourselves: it’s our way of saying that there’s a need for everyone involved in this discussion to be respectful and listen.

We also believe that allies generally have the best of intentions. Neither of us has ever experienced intentional harm or offense by a straight ally. However, even the most compassionate of people can say and do things unknowingly that hurt others. That’s why listening and communicating is so important. We’re pretty good at sticking feet in our own mouths at times, so we empathize with how unpleasant it is to do what one thinks is right, then find out later how said action adversely affected someone else. But these times are opportunities for teaching, learning, growing, and loving.

Lena Dunham’s recent acceptance speech upon receiving the Point Foundation’s Horizon Award provides a great example of an unintentionally hurtful statement from an ally. As Dunham accepted the award, she told the audience about her sister Grace’s coming out and said the following:

“It was actually a huge disappointment for me, when I came of age and realized that I was sexually attracted to men. So when my sister came out, I thought, ‘Thank God, someone in this family can truly represent my passions and beliefs.'”

No doubt, Dunham’s intention was to show support for her sister and for the broader LGBT community. However, this statement struck us as thoughtless and unkind. Being glad that one’s sister is a lesbian because she “can truly represent” one’s “passions and beliefs” effectively reduces the sister’s existence to “symbol of a political cause.” Whether Dunham meant it or not, she implied that her happiness for her sister’s decision to come out is entirely for selfish reasons. Lindsey has one brother and Sarah has one sister, both of whom are straight. If either of our siblings were to make such a statement about us, we would feel terribly hurt because we are not incarnate symbols of the political left, and we’re skeptical of anyone who cares about LGBT people as a demographic rather than as individuals. Dunham’s remark is the sort of likely-well-meaning-but-ignorant comment that we’re talking about when we say it should not be presumed that allies are above reproach.

We’ve also had a number of conversation experiences with allies in our lives that have turned out to be less than productive. In most cases, it’s because that person has been unwilling to engage further in discussion once we’ve pointed something specific he/she has said or done that we’ve found inappropriate. One example of this came early in our relationship when we showed up together at a function and people who knew Lindsey began asking, “Now that you’re in a relationship, what does that mean for your prior commitment to celibacy?” That’s a fair question, and we had some great discussion about the issue with Lindsey’s friends who were interested in talking about celibacy. But during this conversation, we happened to overhear someone saying, “It’s only a matter of time before those two give up on celibacy. Two more former gay celibates for the cause!” Sarah noticed a pained and irritated expression on Lindsey’s face, so Sarah approached this person and attempted, as kindly as possible, to address what she had said. Instead of acknowledging that she had made an offhand comment that might have been hurtful to us, this person told Sarah that she is a longtime, tried-and-true, dedicated ally of LGBT people. She began to list all the ways she spends her time serving the LGBT community, including lots of grassroots activism and building friendships with married LGBT couples. Sarah expressed gratitude for that commitment, then asked, “Could we talk about what I heard you say a few minutes ago? I’d like us to have a conversation about it.” The ally dismissed Sarah’s request and asked Sarah to think on it again once we see how celibacy is working out for us after a few years.

As a result of that interaction, we’ve never been able to trust this person or see her as safe. The way we see it, being an ally is more about being a safe person for LGBT people than fighting for certain political causes. Past reputation with LGBT people does not warrant an automatic “in” to other LGBT folks’ circles of trust. That’s why we suggested in both our “12 Ways” posts that listening and getting to know people as individuals is of utmost importance. Allies can make errors in judgment when discussing experiences different from their own. So can we. So can anyone. We believe it’s good to practice humility when interacting with people’s stories and coming to see how others understand themselves. Often, the best way to avoid hurting another person unintentionally is to accept that you are not above reproach and receive feedback graciously.

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