These notes were delivered in a different form as a guest lecture at Kutztown University on 1 April, 2021. They have been reworked from that lecture for the purposes of clarification and citation. There were many wonderful questions asked by the students, and I have worked some of my replies to them into the finalized notes. This work is, in many ways, still in progress–the issues under discussion cannot be resolved by a single lecture or essay, but must be part of an ongoing personal and social critique.
While the terminology of allyship arrives in the 1980s, I would argue that allyship as an action, as well as the concept of an ally as an invested participant in a movement, began with the change in the contemporary structure of what we now term social justice movements. Many contemporary imaginings of American history present the Civil Rights movement in a crystalized moment of the 1960s, reaching its zenith in the persons of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks, rather than presenting the era of the 1960s as part of a momentum building from previous decades of boycotts, protests, and marches on Washington. (This is not to downplay or erase the serious victories of icons of this movement, but to point to the tendency we have to clean up and simplify the nature of activism, social change, and the lives of activists as opposed to the force of a group political action.) I cannot pinpoint a moment when ideas of how to best organize shifted, but I would not be the first to suggest that the majority of movements that have obtained serious success in recent history have largely followed in the steps of the 1960s Civil Rights movement.
Inside the discussion of “Who Is an Ally?,” leading from a piece by Micki McEyla, we see an appeal on the part of the person outside of the group under discussion (IE: the other, who is assumed to be part of the heterosexual majority as opposed to the marginalized gay and lesbian subject). Allyship is given contemporary definition and form through a discussion of Washington and Evans’s Beyond Tolerance, a guide on being an ally to the lesbian and gay community of the 1980s. As McElya points out, all the benefits of allyship are presented as primarily benefitting the ally. One of the primary motivations of allyship is, half-jokingly, the boon to culture and richness of life that the ally will be able to lay claim to enjoying, to be “invited to some of the most fun parties, have some of the best foods, play some of the best sports, have some of the best intellectual discussion, and experience some of the best music in the world, because everyone knows that lesbian and gay people are good at all of these things.” The appeal to exceptionalism–we deserve our rights and your respect because we are just so damn good at what we do–serves a purpose, but it also lays the groundwork for another series of problems within the proclaimed-exceptional community: burnout, self-consciousness, impostor syndrome, and perfectionism for fear of letting everyone else down. If constant exceptionalism is what it takes to convince someone they should support the rights of others, then we are all in a very unstable boat.
I would argue that allyship, like friendship and many other social interactions, comes down to certain ethical questions that we will not be able to answer definitively: What do we owe to each other? At what point do we have a responsibility beyond our own interests to support the rights of others? Do our deeper motivations for helping another person validate or invalidate our good works? When do we get to call ourselves a friend or an ally? And, perhaps the most difficult and troubling question for those who proclaim their ally status, At what point can a person or a group deny the status of “ally” to an individual?
“Who is an Ally?” begins with a discussion on the nature of naming within the LGBT+ community and what has become known as the “alphabet soup” problem. Jonathan Rauch, in a 2019 article cited by McEyla, suggests that the problem of too many letters (LGBTQIAA+) can be solved by replacing them with the singular letter “Q.” The problem, of course, is that any attempt at renaming or reworking the name of a group is inherently going to cause as much conflict as the original name. “Rauch noted that the ‘Q’ would be derived from ‘queer,’ itself an increasingly common term of inclusion in popular discourse, it would be sheared of the word’s ugly history and more recent ‘radical baggage.'” Leaving aside the reactionary aura of the phrase “radical baggage,” I want to challenge the idea that replacing a word with a single letter inherently changes the history of the word or the effect of the letter. The abbreviating of a word short-circuits the speaking or enacting of the word, but it does not erase the word itself. In critical discussion of racist and pejorative language, particularly in light of the ongoing acts of racist violence against Black and Asian-American communities that prompted part of this very discussion, there is often a tendency to redact a slur or profanity, or to cover up all but the first and last letters with asterisks and dashes. I found two examples in a copy of the NY Daily News I purchased the night before these remarks were delivered and I include them below:
“‘I’m going to hurt somebody,’ Ooi said the man snarled. ‘I’m going to f–k somebody up.”
-“Together, They Fight the Hate,” NY Daily News, 30 March, 2021, pg 10.
“A witness at the end of the minutelong [sic] video ca be heard claiming the victim called the suspect the N-word.”
-“Another Beatdown of Asian on Subway,” NY Daily News, 30 March, 2021, pg. 11
Here we see both the abbreviation of the word “fuck,” as well as the short-handing of a racial slur. This act in reporting places the writer or speaker on an awkward footing, allowing them to “say it without saying it,” as it were. The ghost of the slur and profanity remain in the space between the letters, which we as readers fill in. It does not eliminate the “baggage” of these words: in fact, it re-enforces their history on the reader. (There is also the unfortunate fact that the QAnon theory is sometimes referred to simply as “Q” in online spaces. Given the history (both past and ongoing) of presenting LGBT+ people as sexual predators, this dovetailing of self-naming and conspiracy theory is very poorly timed.
Rauch’s idea does, in fact, bring to the forefront an important point about reclaiming and reworking words, particularly words that have a “baggage,” like Queer. Queer, as a term, is always the mark of the outsider or the Other. The outsider term comes with a space of questioning: the outsider is defined as being apart from the assumed normal structure of a community or group in one or more ways, and is defined, stereotyped, and penalized for not fitting into what is viewed as “normal.” Toni Morrison defines the process of Othering as follows:
“What is the nature of Othering’s comfort, its allure, its power (social, psychological, or economical? Is it the thrill of belonging–which implies being pat of something bigger than one’s solo self, and therefore stronger? My initial view leans towards the social/psychological need for a “stranger,” an Other in order to define the estranged self (the crowd seeker is always the lonely one.”
-Toni Morrison, The Origin of Others, pgs. 15-16.
Rarely do those defining Otherness turn that same gaze upon themselves and seek to define, in a meaningful way, “What is normal?” Normal is assumed, Other or Queer is presented in contrast, or in negative relief to, the assumption. Therefore, it is also important to question or queer the assumptive definition of a term that is being claimed, reused, and held by individuals seeking to meet under a word. In “Critically Queer,” Judith Butler lays out the argument for continued analysis of the way in which these words are used:
“Who is represented by which use of the term, and who is excluded? For whom does the term present an impossible conflict between racial, ethnic, or religious affiliation and sexual politics? What kinds of policies are enabled by what kinds of usages, and which are backgrounded or erased from view? In this sense, the genealogical critique of the queer subject will be central to queer politics to the extent that it constitutes a self-critical dimension within activism, a persistent reminder to take the time to consider the exclusionary force of one of activism’s most treasured contemporary premises.
“If the term queer is to be a site of collective contestation… it will have to remain that which is, in the present, never fully owned, but always and only redeployed, twisted, queered from a prior usage and in the direction of urgent and expanding political purposes. This also means that it will doubtlessly have to be yielded in favor of terms that do that political work more effectively.” (Butler 172)
In this way, we have to consider not only “Queer” but “Ally,” as well as any other term deployed for the purposes of political organizing. Ally comes with the implication that the user is standing with, but separate from, a group. (This is why many–myself included–have been somewhat mystified by the arguments of including allies in the LGBT+ umbrella: one does not become a member of the Black community by being an Ally in support of Black Lives Matter.) Butler is well aware that words, once released into the world, are no longer entirely under our control. They can be played with, played against, recut, reworked, remixed, redefined, and given meaning beyond our intent or understanding–sometimes within reason, sometimes (as in the case of certain interpretations of Butler’s Gender Trouble, mentioned in “Critically Queer”) with the clear intent of misunderstanding from a closed mind. Indeed, in the semi-satirical book, You Can Keep that to Yourself: A Comprehensive List of What Not to Say to Black People, for Well-Intentioned People of Pallor, the author, Adam Smyer, says that the first term that should be thrown out of the lexicon is, in fact, “Ally.”
“Well-intentioned people of pallor went seamlessly from not seeing color to being allies. Bein part of the problem was never considered. And, really, ‘ally’ was fine for a while. It was aspirational. But now ‘I’m an ally’ is the ‘Don’t hurt me!’ of our time” (11).
Smyer’s book moves between a humorous approach and a sense of genuine frustration–at both rhetorical strategies and the very realistic silencing and unwillingness to have a deep conversation about the issues effecting people of color in the United States. Smyer performs an act of informing the (presumed pale) reader of a term, the context in which it is used, the problem with the term, the context, and the use, and why it should be, in effect, cancelled. This represents, in a simple way, the critical strategies called for by Butler in “Critically Queer.”
In the same way, we can see a connection between Smyer’s work and the now-infamous New Statesman interview between Alona Ferber and Judith Butler, in which Butler replies to Ferber’s questions with refutations of the way the questions were constructed while still answering the question in direct, fairly simple language. (The straightforwardness of Butler’s replies, after spending so much time with “Critically Queer,” might still remain the most shocking part of this exchange for me.) This interview comes across as an example of critical engagement in “real time” as well as an application of the theories in “Critically Queer,” from her question about what is assumed in the use of the phrase “mainstream feminism” to the discussion of the term “TERF”:
“I am not aware that terf is used as a slur. I wonder what name self-declared feminists who wish to exclude trans women from women’s spaces would be called? If they do favor exclusion, why not call them exclusionary? If they understand themselves as belonging to that strain of radical feminism that opposes gender reassignment, why not call them radical feminists?”
“Feminism has always been committed to the proposition that the social meanings of what it is to be a man or a woman are not yet settled. We tell histories about what it meant to be a woman at a certain time and place, and we track the transformation of those categories over time.”
A significant portion of the works engaged with in the lead-up to this lecture are about the question of identity, either being defined by things outside of ourselves, or through identities we take on and claim for ourselves. This brings with it baggage: what constitutes proclaiming yourself as a member of a group, and what makes your membership valid or invalid? In the case of Allyship, there remains a question of what constitutes “being an Ally.” As Colleen Clemens states in her essay “Ally or Accomplice,” while one may hear accomplice and think about crime, the original meaning of the word conveys a sense of cooperation—and not in a criminal sense.” This past summer, many of us witnessed the limits of allyship in light of the global pandemic and crack down on protests and acts of civil disobedience in the face of state-sanctioned violence in major cities. The ongoing crisis of COVID-19 and the ongoing crisis in hate crimes, abuse of police power, and ongoing intimidation and suppression of voting rights in the aftermath of the 2020 election, has forced some using the language of allyship into a corner. To proclaim that one is an Ally is to say that one supports and stands with a group: to say that one is an accomplice is to say that one is going to aid a group. To proclaim that one is an Ally to this or that cause without substantive action is, in fact, mere performance, enacted for the benefit of the Ally alone. I suggest that to say that one is an ally without offering any kind of proof is to enter into the same ghostly space as the letters removed from an abbreviated slur: one is making an appearance without really being there.
The move from Ally to Accomplice follows Butler’s idea that terms “will doubtlessly have to be yielded in favor of terms that do political work more effectively” (172). An accomplice might not have been central to the action at hand, but is enmeshed with the work of the targeted group or actor one is standing with. This removes a barrier of protection on the part of the accomplice–one cannot entirely walk away, one must take a risk in being included in repercussions stemming from protest action–and promotes a more-substantial affinity between the outsider and the group.
What are we willing to risk when we say that we stand with another person, particularly when we stand to gain little to nothing for doing so? We must ask what our purpose is, where our soul lies with our sense of justice and critical thought, and grow from that point, using what tools we have, and seeking new means of connection to others.