Breaking the Silence: A Lesson Learned in My Ongoing Development as an Ally

“Homophobia is like racism and anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry in that it seeks to dehumanize a large group of people, to deny their humanity, their dignity and personhood……. I appeal to everyone who believes in Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream to make room at the table of brother and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people.” –Coretta Scott King (1927-2006)

oppression silenceThis is the first post of which I hope to be followed by many more which highlight critical points in time that have pushed me further towards becoming a better ally to oppressed Peoples in working towards social justice.

As I have said in my Vision & Values Statement, my experiences have shown me that in the process of working toward social justice outwardly, it is also important for me to continue to critically examine myself; shedding attitudes/behaviors that are oppressive, to make room for those that are more inclusive and humanitarian. The following words serve as an example of a critical analysis of my behaviors for the purpose of improving my understanding and ability to serve.

So what is an Ally?

To me, being an ally means using one’s status and privilege as a member of a dominant group in society to work to end the plight of targeted, marginalized and oppressed groups.  There are many ways that our identities can place us in positions of privilege, as well as in vulnerable positions in which we are oppressed. To see additional information on how our social identities can intersect, read about the Umbrella of Oppression.

If you took a glance at that link on the umbrella of oppression, I hope you were able to get a better idea of the scope of oppression in terms of how complicated and pervasive it is in society. Conversely, if you read up a little on Allyhood, I hope you are able to see some ways you can work against oppression through social action.

For this entry, I will focus specifically on a sobering experience I had in my ongoing development as an ally for persons who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer.

The Backstory

While engaging in a discussion in class on social identities, a comment was made about people on welfare that asserted that all people who receive services through welfare are exploiting the system, that they just want to “get a free ride” with no effort.

I expressed what I was thinking by addressing the idea, and not indicting person. The comment was particularly upsetting to me, because not only was it coming from someone who could potentially be in a position to decide whether or not the people of whom he was talking about could receive those services, I also saw it as a sweeping generalization which not only contributed to a harmful stereotype, and came across as “blaming the victim” instead of addressing the systematic conditions that contribute to poverty.

The instructor interjected and pointed out how the comments could be seen as blaming the victim, followed by someone else whose personal experiences left them feeling stereotyped.  A few others weighed in, believing that from their perspective, the individual who made the initial comment was being ganged up on.

Instead of seeing the process as an opportunity for learning about how our biases or prejudices can impact other people, some viewed it as a personal attack, and attempted to rescue the person.

I was reminded of one of the guidelines   I’ve used in my training for facilitating dialogues for social justice which states“…We will let each other sit with their own discomforts, allow them to be uncomfortable, and not “rescue” them”. 

 Sometimes I think in order for us to change, we need to be uncomfortable. We need to be able to feel the impact of how our actions impact others. The experience of this person being rescued reminded me of a time when my own actions (or inactions in this case) were harmful and I was not rescued.

My Experience: A lesson in Breaking the Silence (excerpted from a personal reflection I wrote in revisiting an experience I had in co-facilitating a dialogue on gender and sexuality in the past) Some aspects were changed to protect confidentiality.

civil-rights-project“Originally when thinking about choosing a dialogue facilitation topic, I thought about race because the topic is an area that is really close to me and heavily salient in my life and experiences. Improving race relations between different groups and opportunities for people of color is something that will remain a guiding force in my life.

 However after having the conversation in class about taking risks, and doing something outside of my comfort zone, I chose to focus on religion and spirituality because, based on the judgement, dismissal and invalidation I receive as a result of me not having a specified religion from the broader society, as well as in some of my family and working relationships, religion can be a hard topic for me to discuss.

I ended up choosing religion as my first option thinking to myself “that’s about as risky as I could get in this class”. I thought that facilitating a dialogue on religion and spirituality could really get me uncomfortable enough to reach my learning edge.  However, I ended up being selected for facilitation of the combination of sexual orientation, and sex, gender, and gender identity dialogue. 

While I initially thought that facilitating a dialogue on religion and spirituality would be a good challenge for me, I am also glad to say that being a part of the group facilitating on sexual orientation and gender identity also challenged me in good ways as well. We had so much information to hit on, but all things considered, I believe it was a good first attempt for me. I enjoyed working with my team, and I am happy to say that I walked away with a new understanding of myself and of some of the issues we discussed during the dialogue.

 There was one time specifically where my co-facilitator who identifies as gay was asked a question in a way that seemed to ask him to speak for his group. He was asked something to the effect of “what do gay people think when they hear the term “that’s so gay”? I cannot remember if it was asked specifically in that way, but that was the interpretation that I gathered from the question.

71be399098df1b697b82fb947e7c302dMy co-facilitator immediately reflected the question back towards the rest of the group members, which was good, and said that after the others have responded, He would then respond if He so chose. Immediately after the question was asked my brain started “firing” (that’s the only way I know how to describe it). 

It had triggered an emotional response within me and  I felt that the way  the question was asked was all wrong. I just didn’t feel right about it at all. While the others were responding I wrote a quick note to my co-facilitator telling him that I thought that the question was singling him out, and asking him to speak for his group. I wanted feedback from him to decide whether or not we should take some time to remind the group about the guidelines, particularly the one that stated “We will not treat individuals as “representatives” of their social identities; each person speaks as an individual and not for their entire group”. (Mistake number 1 on my part. It was not my co-facilitator’s responsibility to sound off here. More details into my though process below) 

 Our silent exchange took place in the middle of people’s responses, and he thought it was best to just continue on with the conversation.  And so we did. However, when we were receiving feedback and the question scenario came up, he told me at that moment that he would have liked to have had heard me say something in that situation, and the subsequent feedback that I received left me feeling like I had left my co-facilitator hanging from a cliff in a time where he needed my support.

 Although in my perception, the message I received in during the feedback session was different from the one I received when I checked in with him, I took the feedback in stride because the fact of the matter is that I didn’t say anything. I definitely should have followed my gut and addressed that question the moment it was asked, and reminded the group of our multicultural guidelines.

I have been in unfair situations where I have been expected to speak for African-Americans, or men, or African-American men, and I know how frustrated that makes me feel. In retrospect I think that is why the “how do gay people feel when they hear “that’s so gay” question triggered such an uneasy emotional response in me. It is also why I realize that I should have acted.

In my mind, sure I checked in with my co-facilitator, and sure I almost said something, but “almost” wasn’t effective at all. The fact is, I was in a position of privilege in the situation, and I should have spoken as an ally from that position. It would have been a good lesson for the group to learn. However, I remain appreciative of the feedback because the sting of my inaction here is a feeling that I will not forget. I don’t like the feeling, and it will serve as a reminder to do better in the future.

This was definitely not one of my shining moments! At the time I felt terrible, and it took me awhile to recover, but I did not withdraw. Instead I stayed in the conversation, and walked away with the will change my behavior and do something differently in the future. A will to break the silence.

My frustrations in my backstory stemmed from my feeling as if the person who made the comment was being rescued instead of having the time to think critically.

I believe the biggest thing that contributed to me developing into a better ally as a result of the my experience was the fact that I wasn’t rescued!

I was able to sit with my discomforts, feel the sting of how my inaction impacted my co-facilitator, and find a connection through my own experiences of being expected to be a “representative” of my group.

In order to have a serious attempt at communicating across differences, people who are privileged need to remain in the conversation, because oppressed people do not have the opportunity “tune out” of their oppression, because it impacts them in their everyday lives.

I think apart of being an ally is giving up the privileges we have in order to ensure a more just society for all. My identity as a being heterosexual puts me in a place of privilege socially in encounters with those who are not.  In this case, staying in the conversation was a release of power.

Communicating across differences can be intense and uncomfortable, so can coming to terms with our privileges. In my backstory I can remember someone saying that they were afraid to offend people and felt as if they were “walking on eggshells”.  But how can we come to know if we are acting or behaving in a way that is oppressive to others unless we expose those thought processes and values? To never expose them for scrutiny could potentially drive values that are oppressive to others even deeper under the surface of our psyches, something that anyone with a desire to work toward social justice should be wary of.

As a friend of mine once said,

“the eggshells are there to be stepped on..its when you deliberately pick up an egg and throw it at somebody that worries me”.

Again, this was not one of my shining moments, but a victory that I see is that I have gained from it a stronger conviction to speak up, to break the silence. We are all teachers and learners. It is my hope that by giving of myself in this way, someone will be able to receive something positive from my experience.


From Aspiring Humanitarian, Relando Thompkins



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I'm a Social Justice Educator and Aspiring Humanitarian who is interested in conflict resolution, improving intergroup relations, and building more equitable and inclusive communities. "Notes from an Aspiring Humanitarian" is my blog, where I write about issues of diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice. By exploring social identities through written word, film & video, and other forms of media, I hope to continue to expand and enrich conversations about social issues that face our society, and to find ways to take social action while encouraging others to do so as well in their own ways.

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