If you’re a straight man reading this it’s probably hard for you to imagine what being a gay man actually feels like. I’m not talking about what it feels like to be intimate with another man (a study conducted by the University of Quebec found that nearly half of all men have had same-sex fantasies so that’s unlikely to be entirely beyond your comprehension) but what it feels like to be treated, often on a daily basis, as though you are a freak, an outsider or a defective; to be bullied at school for a sexuality you probably haven’t come to terms with yourself; to be discriminated against, shamed or embarrassed in the workplace and threatened in the street for the way you walk, talk or carry a bag. Or to live in fear of publicly showing affection for the person you love just in case it results in an unscheduled visit to A&E. It’s probably hard for you to imagine having to select what clothes you wear for a night out based on how likely they are to trigger a homophobic attack. (A gay London barrister lost four front teeth last year simply for wearing bright orange brogues so that’s always a consideration.)
These things, though, are still the daily experience of many LGBTQ people across the world – and not just in countries famous for their intolerance towards the LGBTQ community like Russia, Jamaica and Iran – but in the U.S. and U.K. too. Yes, huge advances have been made in terms of LGBTQ rights in recent years (marriage equality is the most obvious example) but there’s still much work to be done, not just in terms of building upon hard-fought-for rights but, as politics becomes increasingly polarised, to ensure that those rights aren’t reversed by retrograde legislation or executive order.
It’s why ‘straight allies’ – heterosexuals who actively support the LGBTQ community – are crucial because that work can’t be done by LGBTQ people alone. Minorities have always needed the support of majorities in order to flourish. It’s an uncomfortable truth to many in the LGBTQ community, but it’s a truth nonetheless. And before you ask why you should bother offering support, bear in mind that it’s actually to everyone’s benefit. In my experience, the best and most prosperous societies tend to be those that harness the unique skills, talents and life experiences of all their members, embracing and utilising them for the good of everyone.
To discover the state of straight ally-dom in the U.K. grooming brand Harry’s commissioned pollsters Ipsos/MORI to survey over 2,000 British 16-75 year olds as part of their Pride campaign for 2018. Dubbed the ‘Proud Allies’ study once the data came in, it aimed to examine the relationship between the straight and LGBTQ communities and to explore what it means to be a straight ally in 2018. A slew of surveys appear around Pride ever year, focusing on the LGBTQ experience, but the Harry’s survey takes a different approach, looking at things from a different angle. And interesting reading it makes too.
In broad terms, the research reveals a majority of heterosexuals have embraced the idea of same-sex marriage, are unfazed by the prospect of a child coming out to them and are ready to leap to LGBTQ people’s defence in the face of homophobia in the street. A significant number even said they’d happily attend a Pride event if asked.
And although the news may sometimes seem full of stories about homophobia, prejudice and inequality the results of the survey offer a slight glimmer of hope and a more positive and optimistic view of straight people’s relationship with the LGBTQ community, with the vast majority of people already ‘instinctive allies’.
Especially encouraging was the response to a question about how people would react if a child came out to them. Coming out is never easy for an LGBTQ child – fear of a negative reaction often delays the decision and causes significant psychological pain – but encouragingly only 1 in 10 straight people said they’d be ‘disappointed’ if their child came out to them. One in five said they’d feel ‘trusted’ to be told, 18% say they’d be ‘proud’ and a similar amount said they’d actually be ‘happy’. Thankfully, and in a sign of how attitudes are changing, the least common reaction was ‘disgusted’ – a response expressed by just 2% of people. It’s often difficult for people to comprehend how any parent could actually be disgusted by their child’s sexuality but as any LGBTQ teenager who’s been thrown out of the family home because of their sexuality knows, it’s a response that’s all too real, even in 2018.
Also encouraging were straight people’s reactions to homophobia. A whopping 79% of people said they’d do something if they saw a member of he LGBTQ community being verbally abused in the street because of their sexuality, with over half saying they’d intervene directly to stop an attack. If true (and bear in mind with surveys there’s sometimes a gap between what people say they’d do and what they’d actually do) that’s pretty much ally-dom in action.
Of course, there’s still progress to be made. Although the study revealed that over 80% of straight people felt comfortable around lesbians and gays, slightly less were comfortable around bisexuals and the figure dropped significantly, to just 63%, when it came to transgender members of the community. The very fact that the survey included a question about feeling ‘comfortable’ around LGBTQ people at all is an indicator of quite how much work remains to be done.
What was also noticeable from the study was the gender divide. Although men do score pretty highly when it comes to supporting the LGBTQ community, women are still more likely to know someone who is LGBTQ; more likely to attend a Pride event if asked; more likely to support straight ally schemes in the workplace and more likely to respond positively to a child coming out as LGBT than men.
Education remains an issue too. Right across the board the survey revealed that the better the education the better the acceptance of LGBTQ people, echoing a controversial Australian study by the University of Queensland which highlighted a link between cognitive ability and attitudes towards LGBTQ people. Respondents with education to A-level, for example, aren’t just twice as likely to know someone who is openly LGBTQ than those with no formal qualifications, they’re also far more likely to be sympathetic towards issues that affect that community.
The study also revealed that there are improvements to be made in the workplace. While 73% of LGBTQ people think that more companies should have straight ally schemes to tackle homophobia, less than half (43%) of straight people think it’s a good idea. Encouragingly, however, that figure improves amongst younger people, with 56% of workers aged 16-34 saying ally schemes are a good idea.
For me, though, the most important finding from the study is also the most basic and glaringly obvious: that actually knowing someone from the LGBTQ community – whether as a friend, family member, colleague or neighbour – drastically increases the likelihood of you being supportive of them. Only 9% of people with close LGBTQ friends or family, for example, would have a negative reaction to a child coming out, whereas that number leaps to 17% amongst those who know no LGBTQ people. And knowing an LGBTQ person affected the results positively across the board. Familiarity, then, breeds not contempt, but acceptance, awareness and understanding. It’s a bit like sushi: when you have absolutely no experience of it it’s unfamiliar and scary but once you try it, it’s really no big deal (wasabi burn excepted).
Ally-dom, however, is a contentious issue in the LGBTQ community. There are those who say, with some justification, that straight people shouldn’t have to be nudged into being decent human beings. Others sneer at ally-dom as nothing more than virtue signalling. There are some who don’t even want the support of people they view as enemies because of the life-changing homophobia they’ve encountered. Companies and celebrities that (rainbow) flag their straight ally credentials, meanwhile, regularly find themselves coming under friendly fire from the very community they’re hoping to reach out to. When an organisation is simply exploiting the community for commercial gain without contributing to it in any meaningful way that’s entirely justified but I worked closely with Harry’s on their Pride campaign and know that they are not one of those companies: their commitment and support for diversity is genuine and their activity around Pride well thought out and three-dimensional.
Truth is, every single company that rejects bigotry and casual homophobia is making a small contribution to a larger, greater goal, while every celebrity proclaiming support, however shallow or headline grabbing it may seem to the naysayers, is setting a positive example to millions of fans, many of whom will never have seen someone offering support to a member of the LGBTQ community. The ultimate goal, of course, is a world where people being different matters so little there’s actually no need for allies. We can but hope. In the meantime, though, every single one of them (and yes I’m looking at you here) is worth having on side.
So how do you actually be an ally? Well, that’s easy. You don’t have to deck yourself out in rainbow flag and join a Pride march (though the study did reveal that nearly a quarter of straight men would attend a Pride event if asked so feel free to – you’d be more than welcome). Instead, you just need to challenge stereotypes and homophobia and be supportive through deeds as well as words.
Don’t put up with ‘harmless’ homophobic banter in the workplace, locker room or in the street. Call out your kids if they use pejorative terms like ‘that’s so gay’ and don’t just be be woke – be real. Support your gay friends by offering trust, acceptance and empathy. Defend them against injustice, abuse and inequality in the same way you yourself would expect to be defended against those things. Be like the majority of men in the study who said they thought the best way to support LGBTQ people was to treat them the same as everybody else.
Most importantly of all, support your child if they come out to you as LGBTQ. Parents might not be an LGBTQ person’s first straight ally (that’s often a trusted friend at school) but in some respects they’re the most important allies of all because if the people who brought you into the world can’t be your ally who else is going to stand by you unconditionally? If you’re a parent your love and acceptance will shape the psychological wellbeing of your LGBTQ child for years to come. No, scrub that. Not for years: for life.
I began this post by pointing out how difficult it must be for a straight man to understand what it’s like to be a gay one – or, in actual fact, like any member of the LGBTQ community – but in reality it’s not that big a leap of imagination: you just need to ask yourself whether you, your brother, sister, child or best friend would like to endure any of the horrific abuses I mentioned at the top of this piece and, if the answer is no, all you need to do is ensure that no member of the LGBTQ community endures them either. That’s what it means to be a proud ally.