Learning To Be An Ally, An Ally Is Always Learning
By Jorge Antonio Vallejos
Being and ally is a lifelong process. It has been 8 years for me and I have had waves of growth in terms of allyship. As an mixed-race Indigenous person I started with learning about, and being an ally to, Native peoples of Turtle Island; and then I learned about my male privilege and began to learn about respecting women; and then queer peoples, and it continues to grow and grow and grow.
While learning and doing allyship you fuck up.
I have fucked up many a time.
I am going to continue to fuck up.
That is the process.
On Monday I wrote a piece that I was moved to write because of my friendship with an out Trans woman whom I love dearly: Cindy Bourgeios.
The ladies of The View interviewed Jenna Talackova, the first Transgendered Miss Universe pageant contestant, and were Transphopbic throughout the segment. I took notes in front of the T.V and then jumped on my MAC. My fingers flew all over the keyboard, I checked off quotes and points I was using, and I put a peice together that I was proud of.
I followed by copying and pasting my article into my WordPress dashboard, finding images of The View and Talackova on Google, inserting the photos, editing my piece, titling it: The View Needs To Widen Their Scope of Jenna Talackova: Discussing Transphobia While Being Transphobic, and finally I hit the PUBLISH button.
Boom! My thoughts and allyship were out in the world.
Posting the article on Face Book as I do with all my articles put it out there even more.
Face Book friends started sharing the article and it traveled all over. I got comments from Hawaii and different parts of Canada and the U.S.
I love feedback. Feedback helps me know if my writing is good, strong, and on point.
A fellow activist and Face Book friend who is Transgender and teaches at a local university emailed me saying,
Hey Black Coffee Poet!
I love this. I don’t often watch The View b/c it can be, as you point out beautifully, so awkward and really hurtful in its efforts to be ‘hip’. You totally rock!
But not all the letters and comments were like the one above.
Here came the learning.
A commenter named leftytgirl wrote me a kind, well thought out, challenging letter that taught me some things. Here is a portion:
In reference to the birth issue, “trans-feminine” and “trans-masculine” might be useful terms in some instance, however, it might come off a bit vague as a way of addressing a trans person’s history. Rather, I would suggest “assigned male at birth” (AMAB) or “coercively assigned male at birth” (CAMAB) when talking about a trans woman. So something like, “Jenna was assigned male at birth, but she corrected this later in life” or similar. (I think it should be intuitive to replace ‘male’ with ‘female’ in the phrases above when discussing a trans man’s history).
There was no animosity in her letter. She thanked me, challenged me, and taught me some things I did not know. Thanks leftytgirl!
Not all the comments were as nice. And that’s fine. If I’ve pissed someone off they are free to express themselves and I want to know. I don’t fear criticism. And I don’t censor people, hence the approval and posting of Vyvy Ly’s comment on my website:
When you funnel all that attention for those mass media / pop culture and tabloid addicts in front of their TVs and PCs, you cause unnecessary wide spread negative attention on a already shallow subject matter eg: a beauty pageant disqualification or someone rumored to be transphobic this and that. Don’t be surprised that phobes all around the globe are on the rise because you breed what they read! Sensational journalism and sensational activism is cute but it doesn’t address any of the real issues. Miss Universe beauty pageants do not represent or stand for good gender ideals, it’s only soul purpose is sex appeal period. If you are born of the sex which the pageants are targeted, then be my guest make a show out of yourselves, but if your gender identity is more important, then all the power to you — change the world through positive work which inspires proactive change rather than draw ‘fag-hag’ attention to skin surface non issues.
Earlier in her long letter to me, Vyvy Ly, stated that I was being Transphobic by writing what I wrote. So, as I was critiquing The View for being transphobic while discussing transphobia Vyvy Ly says I was doing the same. I was being transphobic while critiquing Transphobia on The View.
Vyvy Ly ended her letter with: GROW UP!
I got told.
At this moment I agree with Vyvy Ly.
Still, I want to discuss it with some Trans folk I know.
Was I being Transphobic?
It is possible.
I remember someone I used to date say of activists, “Just cause you have good intentions doesn’t mean you will have good outcomes.”
It was also pointed out that Talackova is Native and the first Native woman to be a Miss Universe contestant. I did not know that at the time I was writing the article. Talackova did not mention it on The View.
Being an ally is about doing your homework, accepting challenge and critique, willingness to change, and putting yourself out there. It is also standing beside and behind peoples you are allied with and speaking with them, not for them. I aim to do this and hope I am.
My allyship is partly through my writing, part going to certain rallies throughout the year, but more importantly it is via real relationships and friendships with people.
One of my biggest problems with activists is the lack of relationships they have with peoples there are being allies to. I am talking in particular about Native peoples and Trans peoples. Lots of activists talk about Native land rights and Trans rights but do they have any Native or Trans friends?
I believe relationships are real allyship.
Holding a sign, yelling a slogan, and writing an article or an essay are all good things but how about conversation? How about having a coffee with someone? How about initiating a friendship? How about being told (in a good way) and accepting it?
The article I posted on Monday was one of many learning experiences for me. And there will be more. I do not know it all. Being an ally is a learning process. Without the willingness to learn you can not be an ally. I have much to learn and I am willing to go through processes of learning. Reading, writing, friendships, and being challenged has been a part of my process and will continue to be a part of my process.
A new comment today was posted that gave me hope that I am doing a pretty good job:
Thanks very much for your article. Clearly you have a sincerity that was lacking on The View. What is politically correct in terminology is constantly changing. What is important is the consideration of the commentator. This is more than evident in your article. Being a trans-lady I appreciate the effort expressed!
If you have thoughts on what it is to be an ally or if you have thoughts on my article please comment. Peace.
I didn’t want to tell any one ‘off’, on the contrary, I wanted to express my perspective on the whole thing from my own personal experiences and observations as a person of ‘self-identified gender’. I came across this wonderful message by Samoan multi-media artist of prolific proportions: http://vimeo.com/13811284 “From My First Breath”.
Much as I dislike beauty pageants in principle, for my part I’m glad to see a transwoman getting a chance to participate. Trans rights are still a small enough issue that most people simply ignore it; this will help humanize transpeople simply by forcing the audience to confront one, and much as I hate to say it, it will help that she’s extremely conventionally attractive – near as I can tell, a lot of the ire against transpeople is kind of an uncanny valley reflex, not surprising when every other human being you’ve ever met has had one of two narrow and highly consistent sets of secondary sex characteristics.
It would be nice to dive right in with queer theory and body politics and so on, and get people to stop watching this garbage in the first place, but I think this will be a great way to get a foot in the door and at least get people thinking about trans issues in a not-so-negative light.
Sometimes the wrong message is better than no message at all.
(Not saying anything about how this may or may not affect aboriginals because I am regretfully rather ignorant on the subtleties of the matter.)
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As someone who also considers myself an ally, I appreciate your thoughtfulness and open discussion of the learning process that is required of us. Keep it up.