What is an Ally?

May 24, 2021

As educators for LGBTQ+ equality and belonging, we hear a lot about allyship. We want to share some core definitions and tools with you to support your work in actively strengthening and building LGBTQ+ affirming communities where every individual can be seen and valued.

This is an excerpt from Keshet’s “allyship” training – meant as a starting place and tool for conversation. Many of the tools and concepts described here are useful when talking about oppression and allyship for many historically marginalized groups. We have outlined the ways they often apply to LGBTQ+ people. 

However, none of these concepts applies only to LGBTQ+ issues. Many of these frameworks were developed by Black thinkers describing racism in the United States. The activists of the Combahee River Collective coined the phrase “interlocking systems of oppression” to describe the ways in which different systems of oppression overlap and interact, often particularly impacting those who live in multiply-marginalized identities. And Kimberlé Crenshaw chose the now widespread term “intersectionality” to describe how (initially) racial and gender bias combine to create harm (read her original essay, watch her TED Talk, and follow her on Twitter). This term is now used to talk about how any number of biases or types of oppression interact with one another. The movement for LGBTQ+ equality owes an ideological and practical debt to – and is inextricable from – the work of the Black Feminist movements.

If you would like to have further conversations with Keshet educators about allyship and build on these skills with your community, please do not hesitate to reach out to learn more!

Understanding Marginalization and Oppression

One framework for understanding marginalization and oppression is the 4 I’s. This framework helps outline the ways that oppression might play out in four different layers: Ideological, Institutional, Interpersonal, and Internalized. These layers are not mutually exclusive – in fact, they actively reinforce and play off one another. This is a framework that has been developed and refined by many generations of activists of many identities, and Keshet does not claim credit for it.

In each section that follows, we offer a definition of the level or type of oppression, some examples, and some ways for people to show active allyship for LGBTQ+ equality!

(1) Ideological oppression is the idea that one group is somehow more normal, deserving, better, or more moral than other groups. 

When applied to anti-LGBTQ+ oppression, ideological oppression may be expressed in terms of religious or pseudo-scientific beliefs that being cisgender and straight is “moral,” “natural,” etc. and that being LGBT or Q is “deviant,” “unnatural,” “hypersexualized,” etc. These ideas are used explicitly and implicitly to justify oppression and marginalization of LGBTQ+ people.

As an ally to LGBTQ+ people, a few ways you can begin to uproot ideological oppression are: 

  • Notice and speak up when you encounter messages that erase, belittle, hypersexualize, or perpetuate taboos against LGBTQ+ people and identities.
  • Actively promote messages that LGBTQ+ people and identities are deserving of dignity, equality, and belonging.
  • Notice when you come across (or find yourself making) the assumption that everyone (or most people) are straight and cisgender!
  • When putting together curricula, book lists, etc., ensure that LGBTQ+ identities are represented. 
  • Learn about and share accurate and respectful information about LGBTQ+ people and identities – be aware of the common talking points used against the LGBTQ+ community and know how these talking points might be answered. 
  • Ensure you’re listening to and learning from LGBTQ+ people, both people in your life, and LGBTQ+ writers, filmmakers, artists, online personalities, and other creators.

(2) Institutional oppression refers to the ways that bias becomes embedded in the institutions of society. 

When some groups have access to services, protections, and systems that others do not, this is institutional oppression. This can take place explicitly, when laws or policies directly apply differently to different groups, or implicitly, when seemingly “neutral” policies consistently benefit some groups at the expense of others. Institutional oppression may be facilitated or carried out by individuals as representatives of the institution, and often relies on ideological systems for justification. 

Anti-LGBTQ+ institutional oppression includes formal and systemic discrimination against LGBTQ+ people in jobs, housing, access to public services and more; discrimination against transgender people seeking to access healthcare; policies barring transgender individuals from accessing physical facilities or participating in sports, activities, or groups; legal recognition and protections for different-gender families and parents that do not apply to same-gender families or parents, and more.

As an ally to LGBTQ+ people, a few ways you can uproot institutional oppression are: 

  • Assess whether the institutions you are a part of have policies that foster LGBTQ+ equality and belonging. Be aware that sometimes policies that appear neutral on the surface may have disparate impacts on different groups of people, and work towards policies that explicitly promote equity. 
  • Work to ensure that your organizations have policies that explicitly protect LGBTQ+ people from discrimination, bias, bullying, and harassment.  
  • Work to ensure that LGBTQ+ people and families have full access to the institutions that you are a part of, from sign-up forms to facilities. Bring Keshet into your Jewish organization or community to help assess and support you!
  • Learn about national, state- or province-level, and local legislation impacting LGBTQ+ rights. Take action with Keshet and other LGBTQ+ advocacy groups to protect and expand those rights. 

(3) Interpersonal oppression refers to the ways that individual, interpersonal interactions reflect and reinforce the ideas about dominant and marginalized groups that are described above. 

Anti-LGBTQ+ interpersonal oppression includes conscious and unconscious homophobic and transphobic humor, slights, or insults; refusing to call transgender individuals by their names or pronouns; invasive questioning and other microaggressions against LGBTQ+ people; or an individual personally denying opportunities to LGBTQ+ people out of their own bigotry. Interpersonal oppression is often informed by ideological beliefs about marginalized groups, and may be supported by institutional oppression of those groups. 

As an ally to LGBTQ+ people, a few ways you can begin to uproot interpersonal oppression are: 

  • Actively use the language for identity that the LGBTQ+ people in your community use, and encourage others to do the same.
  • Interrupt, question, or otherwise disrupt anti-LGBTQ+ jokes and insults when you encounter them. 
  • Learn more about common anti-LGBTQ+ bias and microaggressions, and work to create cultures in which bias and microaggressions are minimized and feedback from LGBTQ+ people is welcomed and attended to.
  • If you make a mistake, apologize and gracefully figure out how to repair the harm!

(4) Internalized oppression refers to the ways that marginalized people or groups can take in the messages about them that are communicated by ideology, institutions, and interpersonal interactions. 

When we are surrounded by constant stereotypes and negative messages, it takes active work to reject them and build empowerment, and positive identity. Undoing internalized oppression is healing that LGBTQ+ people need to do for and among ourselves, so it’s not necessarily work for allies to do. But allies can and should be committed to unlearning anti-LGBTQ+ ideology, ending anti-LGBTQ+ institutional policies and practices, and interrupting anti-LGBTQ+ interpersonal oppressions. Having dedicated, caring, and active allies helps LGBTQ+ people clear our minds and hearts of internalized anti-LGBTQ+ oppression.

(5) Some thinkers also talk about a 5th “I” – oppression and bias can also be Implicit.

Implicit bias is not a separate level of oppression, but is active at all four levels. It refers to the attitudes, stereotypes, and assumptions that we hold without even being aware of it. Implicit bias often runs counter to our consciously held values. These biases are communicated to us through media, language, institutions, leaders, family members, and more. We all take in explicit and implicit messages about LGBTQ+ people and identities, and these messages work their way into our understandings of the world. April Baskin describes implicit bias as a set of “factory settings,” basic operating ideas in our minds that we can especially revert to when we are already under stress or in a hurry.

As an ally to LGBTQ+ people, a few ways you can counteract implicit bias are: 

  • Be in authentic friendships, relationships, and community with LGBTQ+ people. There are LGBTQ+ people in all communities, and the LGBTQ+ community is incredibly diverse. This does not mean going out of your way to find LGBTQ+ people to befriend for the sake of “diversity,” but it does mean being aware of ways that identity might play out in the relationships with LGBTQ+ people who are already in your community and your circle. 
  • Immerse yourself in the media that LGBTQ+ people are putting out into the world. There is a wealth of brilliant literature, podcasts, blogs, art, film, and more, by and about LGBTQ+ people. This will also give you an opportunity to disrupt implicit biases about who LGBTQ+ people are and what we are like, by encountering the tremendous diversity within the LGBTQ+ community. 
  • Practice self-awareness. In general, we did not create or choose the anti-LGBTQ+ biases that we are exposed to on a daily basis. By identifying anti-LGBTQ+ messages and comparing them to our consciously held values, we can lessen their impact.  
  • And most of all, SLOW DOWN. Our biases typically pop up when we act or speak without giving ourselves time to think. When responding to any new or challenging moment, give yourself a moment to pause, assess, and act in ways that align with your values.

We hope this is a valuable resource that supports your thinking about allyship and how we can all work together for the full equality and thriving of LGBTQ+ people everywhere!

Some Useful Definitions

Allyship The process of being in relationship with people who hold a marginalized identity that you do not share, and using your own platform, privilege, or power to work with them to increase safety, dignity, and belonging for members of that group. Allyship is action-oriented, accountable, and ongoing, and may look different from situation to situation. Being an ally does not mean that you will get everything right, it means that you will listen, learn, and grow when you do not.
Intervention An action intended to prevent, interrupt, or mitigate harm of a marginalized person or group. Interventions may take place on an institutional or an interpersonal level, and a person of any identity may intervene to interrupt harm.
Advocacy / Activism Actions designed to change the policies and structures of oppression that impact a marginalized group. People of all identities may be advocates or activists. Advocacy and activism should ideally be conducted under the leadership of those most directly impacted by the policies and structures in question.