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What is an ally?

What is an ally? No, really. The way people have been using the term in identity politics is a significant extension over previous uses. It’s important to understand this, and its implications.

Allies have been a tricky topic in trans politics lately: how should they be treated? Do allies have rights or responsibilities? How does someone earn ally status? Are lesbian, gay and bisexual people automatically allies? What about bondage, domination and sadomasochism fetishists? Are different kinds of trans people (transvestites, transsexuals, genderqueer) automatically allies with each other? Can ally status be revoked? What does it mean to be an ally, anyway?

When I hear the word “ally” outside of identity politics, I think of the Allies of the Second World War. The thing about them is that they were allied for a very specific reason: to win the war against the Axis. Maybe there were noises about Freedom and Civilization, but 75 years later it seems pretty clear that those were just propaganda. Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were allies for the partition of Poland, but once that was over the Nazis didn’t need the Soviets, and the alliance was over. The Soviets joined the Allied Powers, and after the Nazis were defeated we went right into the Cold War. The countries were allied while they shared a goal, and when they didn’t share that goal any more, they were no longer allies.

An example of an alliance like this is gay men and MTF trans people uniting for greater police protection, because bashers don’t respect our categories and will target us as “faggots” or “trannies” regardless of what words we use. There is a shared goal that unites us, regardless of ideology, and that is personally relevant for us.

Allyship in identity politics is usually not like the Allies of World War Two. On the surface, at least, it’s about shared goals, but these goals are not equally relevant to both groups. Bathroom rights are tangible to me but abstract to a gay man who never imagines using the women’s room. Same-sex marriage is important to my gay and lesbian friends, and even to my trans friends who may be in a relationship that would be denied recognition under certain laws, but to me it’s abstract.

On the surface, again, there is often an appeal to principles. Just as the Allies in World War II talked about Freedom and Civilization, allies in today’s identity politics appeal to Equality, Fairness, Acceptance and Mutual Respect. In theory that should be enough. Don’t you want fairness for everyone? Just sign onto our agenda!

In practice, high-minded principles like Fairness and Acceptance go out the window when they conflict with Our Goals, just like Freedom and Civilization went out the window when it looked like the Soviet Union might take over all of Germany. You can expect some individuals to hold to principles, but politicians rarely do. We kind of understood that after World War II, but we have trouble with it when it comes to LGBT alliances.

On a deeper level there’s more to alliances than that. I’ll get to it in a future post.

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2 Comments

  1. Right, that makes sense one-on-one. But what does it mean for one group to be an ally of another? Or for an individual to be an ally of an entire group?

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