On July 16, 2014, a Kalamazoo couple came home to slurs and the words “Move or Die” written on the walls inside their home. Their wedding photos were destroyed.
What this lesbian couple survived ultimately led to the formation of the Hate Crime Awareness Coalition in Kalamazoo. The group consists mostly of community members who occasionally hold public forums to discuss ending violence and discrimination against LGBTQ people.
In Michigan, the current hate crime law does not include sexual orientation or gender identity in its protections. Additionally, the state does not prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing, education or public accommodations.
On the national level, the Human Rights Campaign — a national LGBTQ civil rights organization with over 3 million members — reports that 42 percent of LGBTQ youth do not believe the community they live in welcomes LGBTQ people.
The Center for American Progress, a policy research group whose aim is addressing and promoting change, surveyed people who experienced sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination within the past year to see if they were negatively affected. According to the survey results, 68.5 percent reported a negative impact on their psychological well-being, 43.7 percent on their physical well-being, 52.8 percent on their work environment, and 56.6 percent on their community environment and neighborhood.
These statistics show the LGBTQ community’s need for more support from people outside of this community — in other words, from allies. The term “ally” is used primarily by cisgender, heterosexual (straight) people who wish to show their support for the LGBTQ community. However, the word “ally” has not been adapted to the new threats facing LGBTQ people, says one activist.
Ronan Ler is a member of the LGBTQ community and has been a part of many Pride events and protests in Lansing during the past four years. Ler’s goal is to educate and change the socioeconomic and political systems working against LGBTQ people.
“I think it’s very easy for someone, or a company, who is not part of the community to identify as an ‘ally’ and then go on to reap the profits without contributing back to us,” says Ler.
“Drag is mainstream, gay bars are hot spots, and Pride festivals draw in so much revenue for the sponsors and the cities who host them. At the same time, none of these corporate entities are putting anything toward the high rates of homelessness in our community or HIV education or the many other issues that are bound to affect a marginalized group of people.”
Ler sees the assimilation of LGBTQ culture into both mainstream media and communities around the world as a big way to promote inclusivity and friendliness in predominantly non-LGBTQ spaces.
“It’s all about love in the end,” says Ler. “I think it’s so important for allies to be loud and proud in their support. Normalize it with friends and family. Show up for our protests, though always defer to the organizers. Flex your privilege in situations that you can.”
To combat misinformation about being an ally of the LGBTQ community, some activists aim to educate the public on LGBTQ history. Chris Mattix studies queer history at Western Michigan University and is a member of the LGBTQ community who uses
“they” and “them” pronouns. Mattix runs “The Queer Historian,” an informational website, Facebook page and Instagram page where they use their access to WMU’s library and archives to make LGBTQ history more accessible to everyone.
“In the past, ‘ally’ would be like what is considered an ‘advocate’ or ‘accomplice’ today,” says Mattix. “I absolutely believe that they (allies) need to take a bigger role. If you’re going to be an ally and call yourself an ally, then you need to show up for
them (LGBTQ people).”
Nathan Nguyen has been the director of the Office of LBGT Student Services at WMU since 2016. Before that, he worked for the LGBTQ community in many ways, including as an HIV tester and counselor for the Jacksonville (Florida) Area Sexual Minority Youth Network (JASMYN).
Nguyen says he has seen the positive difference that allies, accomplices and advocates can make for the LGBTQ community but also says that there needs to be more support for the LGBTQ community from non-LGBTQ people.
“An ally would be supportive, while an advocate would be vocal about changing policies to be more inclusive or to make sure LGBTQ voices are heard,” says Nguyen. “An accomplice would be someone who is willing to risk their own safety, career or comfort to disrupt homophobia and transphobia.”
He says supporting the LGBTQ community also involves recognition of one’s own bias, privilege and influence.
“I think something to keep in mind is that, yes, it’s great that allies are supportive and are our friends, but it’s still a process. There still needs to be room to grow, learn and be humble,” says Nguyen.
“Being an ally means being supportive of those who are most marginalized and understand that as a heterosexual or cisgender person that you are already given more opportunities and access than those who are LGBTQ.”