My mom says, “Ally means to me…..i got your back……count on me.” That’s what an ally is in one-on-one terms, 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? It is relatively easy to be an ally when you have no stake in the game other than friendship or general human decency. It is much harder when the alliance has an actual or potential conflict with your own priorities.
Pauline Park has a good summary of the short-lived alliance among LGBT advocates for an Employment Non-Discrimination Act. The alliance was abandoned by some of its most powerful members, notably the Human Rights Campaign and Representative Barney Frank, who identified as gay men and saw their primary mission as the protection of gay men. They were willing to concede defeat on issues of gender identity and expression in the hope that protections for sexual orientation could pass on their own. In the end, nothing did.
It’s not like this doesn’t happen between groups under the trans umbrella either. How often is “gender identity” the focus, with no mention of gender expression? How often do transitioning trans people feel betrayed by famous drag queens like RuPaul?
In practice, these alliances function just like the Allies in World War Two: when there is a common interest they work together, but when there is a conflict of interest they work against each other. Somehow, people have an expectation that the alliance will not be so mercenary, but it usually doesn’t turn out that way, in war or in politics.
Why do we expect these alliances to hold in the face of conflicts of interest? Why would we expect gay men to put the interests of trans people ahead of their own? In part, I think it’s the myth of the Righteous Person. The people who help us can’t just be individuals who have a heart, they have to be so perfect that they can put our needs in front of theirs whenever there’s a conflict.
Beyond that, I think there’s a sense of alliances of the hearth. Many of these gay men and lesbians and transitioning trans people live in the same neighborhoods as us. They go to the same bars and clubs and community centers. Sometimes they literally are us: the magic of intersectionality and fluid identities means that someone can be gay and trans, or identify first as gay, then as trans.
We don’t expect the people we eat or drink with to go against us. How can they be helping us with our makeup one day, then lobbying against job protections for us the next? And yet somehow it happens. The alliances break down. In those of us who are simultaneously members of conflicting categories, the conflict of interest may have played out inside them before we saw it in the community.
Does this mean that these community relationships are all a sham, and all for nothing? No. Groups of people do great things for each other when there is no direct conflict of interest. Individuals even do great things for each other against their own personal interest. But the record seems to show that it is unrealistic to expect entire groups of people to voluntarily act against their group’s interest. There are limits to alliances. We need to be prepared for them, and act accordingly.