What Does It Mean to Be a Good Ally in 2019?
GQ talks with LGBTQ players from all walks of life to find the answers.
June 26, 2019
This month, LGBTQ people around the country, and the world, are marching—to celebrate, to recharge, to resist—in honor of Pride Month. Even in 2019, on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, this is no small feat. Under our current president’s administration, the rights of LGBTQ people are under attack, both directly—in the workplace, in the military, and beyond—and more indirectly as part of broader legislative assaults, including state abortion bans and restrictive immigration policies. It’s not an exaggeration to say that in another 50 years, to continue to be able to march and to exist proudly and freely, we need support, both from those within our community and from our allies.
So what does it mean to be an ally in this cultural climate? For insight, GQ spoke with LGBTQ players from all walks of life—from activists to Olympians to pop stars—to hear about how their allies have played a pivotal role in their lives, to share in the lessons they’ve learned about how to be a better ally themselves, and to envision what true allyship means moving forward.
GQ: Why is LGBTQ allyship especially important in 2019?
Wilson Cruz (actor, Star Trek: Discovery and My So-Called Life): These are darker times than we’ve known, as a community, in a very long time. After eight years in which we had an administration that was clearly working toward creating a society, a culture, and a government that supported LGBTQ people, that era has ended. We can’t just sit by and allow hate speech and violence—either physical or mental—without speaking up and doing something about it. Being an ally right now is just being really vocal—not just in word and in feeling, but also in deed. We can’t do it alone.
Margaret Cho (comedian): There are people who are trying to reverse all of the work that’s been done. Being a queer activist for as long as I have, I’ve never seen such a stark intensity of trying to return to these quote-unquote family values. It’s disgusting. It’s really about being united against bigotry and this hatred we’re facing. I think it’s just an important time to be very, very active in what’s almost like a civil war.
Nico Santos (actor, Superstore and Crazy Rich Asians): Before, it seemed like it was just totally acceptable for our allies to be like, “I watch Will & Grace! I’m cool! I’m hip with it!” But the stakes are so much higher. Nowadays, I don’t care if you watched Pose—I need you to go out and vote and make sure that my rights aren’t taken away, to make sure that trans rights are protected.
Daya (singer): People in the LGBTQ community are straight-up being denied rights that heterosexual people might take for granted, whether it’s the transgender military ban or something else that this administration is trying to implement to limit the rights of LGBTQ people. We need other people to have our backs and to understand where we’re coming from and that we just want to be treated like normal human beings.
What traits or actions make for a great LGBTQ ally?
Chella Man (actor): The ability to see each individual as a person with their own unique story, behind whichever label they choose—or don’t choose—to identify with.
Jacob Tobia (writer, producer): The best allies understand that their own personal liberation—in terms of sex, gender, identity—is wrapped up in the liberation of queer and trans folks. Supporting a world in which trans and gender-nonconforming people are possible also supports a world in which everyone has less gender-based trauma, where everyone is able to be more free and expressive and complete in their gender expression and the way that they exist in the world. It’s important for people to understand that your rights and dignity as a human being is on the line, too.
Alaska Thunderfuck (drag queen, recording artist): Paying respect where it’s due. Speaking from the point of view of being a drag performer, I think a lot of times, things get co-opted from the drag world, and there’s not really a reverence or letting people know where it came from. Like, when I steal stuff from people, I’m the first to say, like, “Okay, this is exactly who I stole it from—and shout out to them!” I think that’s important.
Nico Santos: I don’t live in New York but I’m here for the summer, and every time I go into the subway, I keep hearing [the phrase], “If you see something, say something” on the subway speakers. And I feel like that’s actually such a good phrase to represent being an ally. You really can’t be an innocent bystander.
Daya: Compassion, first and foremost. I think it’s about having love for yourself, but also a love for those around you and a desire for them to have the same rights you have.
What's one time when someone was an excellent ally to you, and how did it change your experience or perspective on allies?
Chella Man: My girlfriend of two years and eight months has now become fluent in sign language to communicate with me, language barrier–free. This has shown me true love.
Adam Rippon (Olympic figure skater): When I was young, there were times when somebody made a joke or teased me about something, and my friends stuck up for me right away, without any question. That inspired me to stick up for other people when given the chance—it can be scary, but that feeling of safety and pride is so awesome.
Wilson Cruz: My parents had a very hard time with my coming out. When I was 19, I did the pilot of My So-Called Life, and then I came out to them because I knew I was going to come out publicly. My dad threw me out, and we were estranged for a year.
In the end, he reached out to me to say, “I want to know you, and I want to understand you because I love you. You’re my son and I need to figure this out.” We had the most vulnerable and honest and uncomfortable conversation that I’ve ever had in my life. But what came out of it was a richer and more real relationship with my father.
One of my favorite memories [since then] was that I got on the phone with him and he asked, “Hey, how was your date the other night?” And I said, “You know what, it was really good, but he’s not for me!” And he said, “Okay, well, there’s going to be someone who deserves you.” It was such a small gesture, but it meant so much to me.
Jacob Tobia: In the past few months, the United Methodist Church globally strengthened its ban of same-sex marriage, as well as any queer or trans clergy. A bunch of allies and some queer folks at my hometown church [in North Carolina], which is a Methodist church, have taken it upon themselves to do the work to become a Reconciling Congregation, which means a congregation that’s specifically gone out of its way to affirm that it’s a safe and open congregation for all LGBTQ folks.
I came home [to North Carolina] recently and walked into church with my mom, and there was a basket of rainbow ribbons just sitting at the very front when you walk in, next to the name tags. It was really cool, because I didn’t have anything to do with them being there, even though I was part of the church for a very long time and was very visibly queer. There were just brilliant allies and queer folks in the church who took it upon themselves.
I think that’s such a good example of the best kind of allyship: when something happens that makes a queer or trans person feel affirmed, and they didn’t even have to lift a finger for it.
Ali Krieger (FIFA World Cup champion): When I was having my first experience discovering my sexuality, I told my best friend how I was feeling—we’d been best friends since we were 7 years old—and talked through it with her. From day one, she’s been an ally. She’s always told me that my happiness is most important to her, no matter what I'm doing in life or who I’m dating. She’ll support me through anything, and she’s always willing to educate herself. I can come to her for anything.
Nina West (drag queen): I went through a really tough time in college. My friend Heather was just so fearless and so strong in protecting me. I moved into her dorm room when I was being bullied and having my life threatened. She was also actively using her own voice to stand up for me, as well as other queer people, on campus. She was talking to my professors and reminding me of assignments and delivering work back from me to them. She was acting as me in the best possible way.
Billy Porter (actor, Pose): In the ‘90s, I had an R&B record deal, and I was having a really hard time with being in the music business and being authentic. I went on The Rosie O’Donnell Show —she was a friend of mine; we did the revival of Grease together—and she saw that I was struggling. She just looked me in the face and said, “None of it matters. You are enough. Lead with that.” All these years, I’ve held onto that.
What's one lesson you've learned about being a better ally to people who face different forms of oppression than you?
Chella Man: I’ve learned to add image descriptions to [everything] that I post. On Twitter and Instagram, you’re able to add alt-text that’s read out loud to those who use screen-readers with visual impairments. This enables everyone to be part of the conversation and content I’m creating.
Wilson Cruz: When I was working at GLAAD, I was a national spokesperson and I was on television speaking about our work and our call for equality and acceptance—and I got called out by one of my friends. The actress Sara Ramirez (Grey’s Anatomy), an openly bisexual woman who I’ve known for 22 years now, said to me, “You need to look at the way that you unintentionally and subliminally erase bi culture by not naming us.” My first reaction was internally defensive. And for me, that was a big note to myself. Why am I getting defensive? I had to look at that and consider the truth of it. I then reached out to her and said, “Tell me the ways that I did it wrong, and I’m going to do better.” Just because you’re an LGBTQ person doesn’t mean you can understand and speak to the experiences of every person within the spectrum of that community. I thank [Sara] for that. Our friendship is stronger because of it.
Jacob Tobia: I feel like I’ve learned a lot of embarrassing lessons about what it means to be a better ally—specifically for trans women of color and for black trans women. In some ways, it’s been about me learning, in certain moments, to be like, “Even though I’m naturally a performer and very extroverted, there are times when I don’t need to take up as much space.” Sometimes the most powerful thing you can do is to show up but step back and just be there as a validator of other folks’ leadership.
What, if anything, do you think is missing from the conversations about LGBTQ allyship in 2019?
Chella Man: Cis and white-passing individuals—queer or not—must acknowledge that trans or nonbinary black, brown, and disabled individuals are typically at the forefront of the movement against discrimination. I believe these individuals are the ones that deserve spotlights right now.
Adam Rippon: I was an individual athlete, but I think in team sports, there’s still a fear that somebody will think less of you or think that you’re weak if you’re an out athlete. But I think that when there can be different pride nights and LGBTQ events within the sports world, it’s going to allow those athletes to live openly. Sometimes [with those events] there’s a backlash of like, “Why do we need this? This has nothing to do with sports.” Well, there are people who are still uncomfortable sharing who they are in fear that they could lose their jobs. That’s why it’s important.
Jacob Tobia: I think a lot of people don’t understand what allyship looks like in the context of more intersectional issues. Like, being an ally to the LGBTQ community doesn’t mean just supporting gay marriage when it’s cute. It’s about wanting prison abolition. It’s about wanting to live in a social democracy where basic health care is provided to everybody. It’s about wanting to live in a world where discrimination is formally outlawed in every single instance. It’s about supporting us on a deeper, more immersive, more structural level.
Ali Krieger: For me, I think it starts with educating youth. When I was younger, growing up in the ’90s, I feel like I was never exposed to the LGBTQ community. I had no education [in school] about being an ally or discrimination against certain communities, really. I never knew two women could be together. I just felt like it wasn’t normal, you know? I feel like if all kids were taught [about the LGBTQ community] from a young age, we would all be more aware and feel like anything was normal and possible. We wouldn’t have so much discrimination.
Alaska Thunderfuck: I’m always ready to speak up for drag queens—whether they’re gay men or cis women or transgendered women who are participating in the art of drag. We often don’t get treated like people. I’ve been on Hollywood sets where drag queens literally receive worse treatment than a dog would if a dog was being booked as a guest star. Often we’re not paid, and most of the time we’re doing our own hair and our own makeup, but we’re expected to be ready before everyone else. Drag queens are making a lot of inroads in Hollywood right now, and so we’re at the forefront of it, but that’s also why we need to have these conversations right away.
Nina West: We have a lot of work to do within our own community before we can really work outwardly. The LGBTQ community, in and of itself, needs to work on its own issues [including] with racism, misogyny, and classism. Let’s take a step back and ask what can we do to better ourselves so that we can have a successful conversation with the other side.
Billy Porter: Ultimately, the only thing that we demand and the only conversation that we need to be having is [about] respect for our humanity. I demand respect for my humanity. And if you look at me like a human being, you’ll stop doing what you’re doing. We’re all created equal. Period. The end. Stop creating legislation to discriminate against someone because you don’t like them. This is a new conversation that we must have with our allies and our allies can have with their friends.
What's one piece of advice you'd give to someone looking to be a better ally?
Adam Rippon: Diversify your friend group. When you meet somebody who’s different than you, befriend them. Include them in things that you do. Get to know them. You’ll find you’ll meet so many different people and you’ll open your world up to so many different, amazing experiences.
Wilson Cruz: If you don’t understand someone’s lived experience, make yourself vulnerable enough to say, “I don’t know.” But then don’t stop there. Learn the answer. Inquire. Read something. Listen to someone who has lived the experience and see them fully in that moment when they’re speaking to you. Be present in it.
Jacob Tobia: The most powerful question you can ask any human being on this planet is “What do you need, and how can I help you get it?” That’s all you have to do. So many times when people mess up in their allyship, it’s only because they thought they knew what someone needed. All they need to do is ask—the answers will often surprise you.