Craig M. McGill, Commission for LGBTQA Advising and Advocacy Member
Despite recent sociopolitical gains for the Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender/Queer/Asexual (LGBTQA) community, the fight for fair treatment and healthy development of all individuals continues. While LGBTQA-identified working professionals have a vested interest in equal rights, enlisting the help of non-LGBTQA-identified individuals is crucial. An ally “works to end oppression in his or her personal and professional life through support of, and as an advocate with and for, the oppressed population” (Washington & Evans, 1991, p. 195). The notion of allies is not new, and there are many non-LGBTQA-identified people fighting hard for equality of all people.
To begin filling a gap in the advising literature regarding ally advocacy training and development, I have contacted a small number of academic advisors and asked them to reflect on their roles as allies and how that impacts their work as both administrators and advisors. Because people are at different stages, I asked participants to consider where they were in the process of allyhood. To give these advisors full comfort of a safe disclosure, they will not be identified by name. Many advisors “are willing to be supportive but often just do not know how” (Participant B) and may feel they lack the resources to advocate.
The Commission for LGBTQA Advising and Advocacy will sponsor a webinar in January 2014 that will overview the research on ally development models, the difference between heterosexism and homophobia, and delineation of roles and responsibilities for allies. Although the study participant responses touch upon those issues, the purpose of this article is to begin to explore the needs of advisors working with LGBTQA students so that in the face of homophobia/bi-phobia/trans-phobia and heterosexism, we can better advocate for our advisees.
Although the present discussion of ally advocacy is situated in the LGBTQA community, it is worth noting that much of what is discussed here can be applied to better serve any student from any underprivileged or disenfranchised social location.
In the survey responses, the following themes emerged: allyhood formation, training and development, and altering advising approaches. First, allyhood formation was discovered by some participants through advocating for other disadvantaged people:
My experience as an ally has been shaped by my training as a rape victim advocate. During that time, I reexamined some of my unacknowledged assumptions about ‘fault,’ ‘blame,’ and ‘responsibility.’ The self-educational process gave me the vision I needed to not only support victims but to advocate on their behalf. I’m currently in that educational process regarding LGBTA issues/working with LGBTA students. I need to become a better-informed ally so I can move towards advocacy (Participant A).
As “an equity issue,” this participant broadened the definition of diversity “to look beyond the traditional categories of race, ethnicity, religion… sexual orientation is as much a part of an individual’s identity as other features” (Participant A).
The need to ably confront misperceptions or mistreatment was also evident in responses. Participant B was concerned with “confronting those around me regarding their behavior/comments that demonstrate bias or discrimination of any kind. While I can address these things with students, I often find it more difficult to address with colleagues or superiors.” Participant A experienced a work disturbance in which she was directly confronted with ethical concerns:
Several years ago, a gay colleague was attending a meeting. His partner called the front desk, identifying himself as John’s partner, to leave a message for him. The receptionist kept repeating out loud, ‘his partner called’ (heavy emphasis on partner). It was obvious to those within earshot that the receptionist disapproved of the relationship. I was annoyed at her insistence; asked her to keep her voice down. I wish that I had addressed the real issue –not the raised voice but the disapproval she was expressing. This was a fairness issue (she would not have reacted similarly if the minority member of an interracial couple had called), but my first reaction was to remind her of office etiquette. I’m not sure I was even aware that I had opted to take the path of least resistance… (Participant A).
The above anecdote illustrates a foundational challenge to allyhood: it is often requires withstanding the course of least resistance. Anyone may be able to refrain from uttering homophobic expressions, but how many people are equipped to address those comments?
Being better equipped involves bolstering allyhood through training and development, the second theme. Participant B said, “I would like to raise my own awareness and be able to confront those that are less tolerant. I also strive to become a resource to those struggling with their identity.” Participant C expressed the need for Safe Zone training: “I currently work at an institution where a Safe Space program or Ally development training is not readily available for staff and faculty. A few years ago (before I was at the institution), there was training but there is currently no one on campus who deems it a priority, it seems. I have asked numerous times about doing a Safe Space or Ally training and it never goes anywhere.” To deal with this lack of training or institutional commitment, Participant C drew upon the resources of other schools: “When I saw a stack of Safe Space cards at a different institution, I took one and hung it in my office. I felt like I needed at least something to show my support” (Participant C).
Even if SafeZone training is offered at an institution, Participant A believes it is not enough to go through it once. It must be ongoing and available for all student support personnel. In lamenting the lack of institutional support for ally development, Participant C recommends a more extensive training effort for academic advisors: “I wish there was another avenue for ally development…I suspect that I am not alone. I think NACADA could be a great resource for this, it’s just figuring out how to make it happen.” [In addition to the webinar this winter, the commission for LGBTQA Advocacy is currently working toward online trainings for advisors.]
The third theme deals with altering or becoming aware of advising approaches. Participant B noted, “Advisors need to be cognizant of their biases, be willing to admit to them, [and] work on overcoming them in order to deal with the wide variety of students they come in contact with in their work.” At times, this involves putting personal feelings of discomfort aside and focusing on the student who sits in front of us: “As advisors, we need to meet students where they are and to be willing to support them in all aspects of their lives. I can think of many instances when I’ve been uncomfortable talking with a student about ‘what’s going on,’ but I have not let my initial feelings dictate my interactions with/advocacy on behalf of that student ” (Participant A). Participant B says that in order to best serve students, “always remain open-minded and willing to listen to others. What we so often do is make assumptions and we do not really listen to what is going on for a particular individual, what experiences have shaped who they are and influenced their identity development in various aspects.”
The process of being an ally is certainly not easy and many participants conveyed fears, apprehension, and uncertainty. Participant B expressed “a fear that superiors will judge and penalize you for being an advocate even at a large institution that promotes inclusion and diversity.” Sometimes this fear dealt more with being ill-equipped: “I worry because I haven’t had training and much of what I have learned is from my experience with friends and colleagues in the LGBT community, limited theory in college coursework, and from my own personal research. I want all students to feel that I am someone they can trust and…who can help them grow” (Participant C). This lack of confidence may ultimately impact Participant C’s ability to challenge the status quo: “I feel like I have some knowledge, but not enough to make an impact.”
But participants also recognized that they could make a difference. Participant B said: “Advisors often do not feel they have the power to change things on their campuses; they do not realize their impact as an ally can be widespread through their interactions and the way they conduct themselves with all students they come in contact with.” However, in making an impact on students’ lives, it is important “to make sure that it’s a positive difference” (Participant A).
When faced with people who we do not understand because they are different from us, it is all too easy to think as little as possible about that difference; thinking about why we are uncomfortable is uncomfortable in and of itself. Attempting to cope by not coping with these dissonances stunts development and causes us to miss opportunities to grow. Perhaps we feel guilt or shame. But rather than feeling guilt or shame, the participants made it clear that helpers in any profession should recognize that experiencing discomfort from difference is normal, maybe even natural. But processing that reaction—and learning from it—is essential for growth. Like any process, allyhood is ongoing and must be continually re-evaluated: “…it is critical to find individual(s) that you feel comfortable sharing your journey with and be honest about your feelings and let them know how they can help” (Participant B).
Craig M. McGill
Academic Advisor, Department of English
College of Arts and Sciences
Florida International University
Washington, J., & Evans, N. J. (1991). Becoming an ally. Beyond tolerance: Gays, lesbians, and bisexuals on campus, 195-204.
Cite this article using APA style as: McGill, C. (2013, December). LGBTAQ allyhood: Academic advisors reflect. Academic Advising Today, 36(4). Retrieved from [insert url here]