When you learn that someone you know or love is LGBTQIA, it can be challenging to figure out the “best” way to react. You may want to ask a bunch of questions, or express your support, or disapprove of the intolerance that those in this community face on a regular basis. Or you may feel emotions ranging from honored to confused, and have no idea what to do or say next.
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Either way, it’s vital to remember that LGBTQIA people are not an anomaly. They are human beings, just like you and me, who also hold the roles of friends, daughters, uncles, sisters, sons, co-workers, mothers, brothers, fathers, and cousins. Being an ally means to value the importance of equality, acceptance, and respecting all—regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. Here are 6 ways you can support the LGBTQIA community.
1. Really listen.
The number one most helpful thing you can do to support someone who is LGBTQIA? Listen.
Your job as an ally is to believe the stories of marginalized people—such as those in the LGBTQIA community—without bias or presumption. And one of the most helpful ways you can do that is to listen with an attentive, open mind.
Pay attention to what the person is telling you, whether they are officially coming out, or describing a new relationship, or sharing details related to personal experiences of the head, body, mind, and heart. It’s OK to be quiet; you don’t have to immediately chime in with a story about your gay friend or declare your love for queer people to “prove” your compassion. Listen first, and then ask questions that express a desire to learn more about the person you are talking to. Questions such as, “How are you feeling?” and “What can I do to support you?” and “Could you tell me more?”
You see, your job as an ally is to believe the stories of marginalized people—such as those in the LGBTQIA community—without bias or presumption. And one of the most helpful ways you can do that is to listen with an attentive, open mind.
2. Check your privilege, then use it.
I’m a heterosexual, white, cisgender person. That means I’ve literally never had to be concerned for my safety by holding hands with someone I love in public. I’ve never had to worry about how to present my gender, or struggle with feeling like I’m in the wrong body. I don’t think twice about if I can access my husband in the case of an emergency, and experienced zero barriers in my desire to marry him in the first place. Nobody asks me if I’m “sure” about being straight, or questions what straight sex “is like.” Everywhere I turn, I see normalized examples of my orientation and identity.
This is called privilege. Name it. Own it.
Because if you have privilege, you have power. Don’t spend a ton of time feeling guilty about being privileged; instead, put that time and energy toward constructive action to support those who aren’t privileged in the same way. Be acutely aware of your privilege, so you can check it and use it to support the LGBTQIA community.
As an ally, your ability to speak up for queer people to other privileged people is incredibly valuable. You don’t have to position yourself as a savior or anything, but you can absolutely work within your spheres of influence to make change. Use your skills and talents to speak up and step up. Are you a writer? Help trans people share their stories. Are you an artist? Make art that celebrates love and diversity in all forms. Have extra cash or free time? Volunteer at or donate to organizations like GLAAD, the GSA network, the Human Rights Campaign, and the Trevor Project. Are you politically minded (which we should all be!)? Call your legislators, know where they stand and ask them to publicly support the LGBTQIA community in word and action.
If you have the luxury of privilege, then you have the ability to put it to positive use on behalf of LGBTQIA people.
3. Don’t put people in a box.
Just like there are many, many ways to be a straight person in the world, there are many, many ways to be a queer person in the world. My friend Steve puts it this way: “We are not all the same, so treat us as you would want to be treated. We are not all the promiscuous type who want to hit on every girl/guy we see. A lot of us want a lasting marriage, children, success and the ability to live with the freedoms straight people are afforded.”
Be acutely aware of your privilege, so you can check it and then use it to support the LGBTQIA community.
Media representation of LGBTQIA people tends to be unrealistic; it positions them as stylish, witty, sassy, ambitious, hilarious, and righteous as well as falling into worn stereotypes: lesbians always look ____, gays talk like ____ and trans people are ____. (Fill in the blank however you prefer.) Even the most well-intentioned straight people are susceptible to these expectations when they act completely fascinated by, let’s say, going to a gay bar.
Another friend of mine described his experience of coming out like this: “I noticed that many straight folks treated me like a novelty rather than a whole person. I had to break off some casual friendships. I remember my words at the time were, ‘I can’t be friends with someone who puts me under glass like a museum exhibit.’ That’s the best metaphor I could find at the time, but it felt accurate.”
Of course, this doesn’t mean you can’t be curious about getting to know the LGBTQIA people in your life. All people have interesting nuances, complicated backgrounds, and compelling traits. Embrace and explore that reality just as you do with anyone who happens to be straight.
4. Recognize queer identity as valuable.
As a straight person, one of the most enlightening statements I’ve read regarding how to be an ally came from Vox video producer Carlos Masa. He said, “If I had a nickel for every time I heard a well-meaning friend say some version of ‘I don’t even think of you as a gay, I just think of you as a person,’ I could pay so many parking tickets. Every queer person relates to their queerness differently. For some, it’s background noise. For me, it’s full orchestra doing a Celine Dion medley at max volume in my head at all times. Either way, telling someone that you don’t acknowledge or think about their queerness is not kind or enlightened. At best, it makes a significant part of our identity feel like a footnote. At worst, it can make us feel like you think of our queerness as something that’s better left unsaid.”
The urge to “normalize” marginalized groups is, well, normal. Straight and queer people are the same in that they need to eat and sleep and make a living, but they are also very different; the former is welcomed as the default norm while the latter is often an oppressed part of one’s identity. If you want to emphasize your support of someone who is LGBTQIA, celebrate the fact that they are LGBTQIA rather than pretending like it “doesn’t matter.” It does matter. That’s not the only detail that counts, of course, but it is a defining part of their experience in the world.
5. Be courageous in everyday moments.
“That’s so gay.”
“What a homo.”
“He’s a good-looking guy, but I’m not a queer or anything.”
“She looks like a man.”
“Two girls kissing? Hot.”
I’ve heard such words casually offered up in conversation for years, and for a long time, I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want to make things awkward. I let so-called “jokes” and inappropriate comments slide. Even though I wanted to be an ally, calling people out on felt hard and uncomfortable. Calling out friends and family from my small town felt damn near impossible.
Every person deserves the right and opportunity to be who they are and love who they want to love.
I call myself out, now, because I still witness others who claim they are not homophobic . . . and then promptly stand by with hesitation in the face of homophobia. And that’s wrong. Being LGBTQIA means facing all kinds of discomfort: legal challenges, family rejection, internalized shame, street harassment, demeaning stereotypes, religious exclusion, and so much more. Being uncomfortable as a non-LGBTQIA person in the presence of prejudice is part of the work of being a true ally.
So be a resource for inclusivity. Educate yourself, constantly, on local and national issues that affect LGBTQIA people. Give your business to companies with anti-discrimination policies. Say, “That’s not funny,” or “Where did you get that impression?” Queer people can certainly stick up for themselves (and do, all the time), but that doesn’t let you off the hook. Be brave, and don’t let casual bigotry slide.
6. Remember that it isn’t about you.
Every person deserves the right and opportunity to be who they are and love who they want to love. Ultimately, one’s journey as an LGBTQIA person has very little to do with you. If you’re straight, know that you can’t fully understand what people within the LGBTQIA community have gone through.
A friend, who is lesbian, told me, “You don’t know what it’s like to have people question your love, for a Catholic think you’re a sinner, for a family member think you’re going through a ‘phase’ with the person you identify as the love of your life, or for kids to stare at you for those two seconds longer in a restaurant, because it’s still not ‘the norm.’”
She’s right, but that’s OK—you can still be a purposeful ally. Hear, read, and watch the diverse stories of LGBTQIA people. Ask the queer people in your life how they’re doing and what they need. Reinforce the fact that your love or care for that person will not change. Though support of the LGBTQIA community has grown and solidified over the years, there is still work to be done. Being an ally indicates your willingness to develop a better understanding of what it means to be queer in the U.S. today—so you can do your part to help dismantle discrimination.