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queer perspectives : becoming an Ally

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A few weeks ago I wrote in my article ‘My Inclusive and Supportive Workplace‘ of my anticipation and enthusiasm for attending Ally Network training at the university where I work. The Ally Network at my workplace consists of staff members, ‘Allies,’ that offer non-judgemental support for LBGTQI staff and students on issues such as discrimination, harassment and homophobia. I attended the training and found it a very informative, thought provoking and introspective experience.

To begin the training session, everyone in the room was asked why they wanted to become an Ally. There was a variety of reasons for attending – some wanted to expand their knowledge of equity; others wanted to know more about the Ally Network, and some wanted to be better equipped to support students, family members or friends who identify as LGBTQI.  I was nervous about revealing why I was at the training. I stumbled over my words a little and the presenter gave me time to gather my thoughts. I came out to everyone in the room. And it was because of my positive experiences of being out at work that I wanted to be an Ally. I said I wanted to offer support for other LGBTQI individuals coming out at work or encountering harassment. The presenter thanked me for sharing this with the group. As the others in the room gave their reasons, I noticed that my heart was still pounding. It was a big deal, I had never come out to that many people. In the days following the training I thought about how I had outed myself. I used the term ‘gay’ instead of ‘lesbian’ to describe my sexual orientation. ‘Gay’ is a term I rarely use to describe myself, but I felt more comfortable using this than ‘lesbian.’ I don’t like hearing myself voice this word aloud. However, I have no problem calling myself a lesbian when writing a post on my blog or on social media. Perhaps I have some unresolved issues with the term ‘lesbian?’

The training session was then split into two parts – a presentation by Pride In Diversity, a national benchmarking organisation on workplace inclusivity, and Q&A sessions with students from the Queer Collective and current Allies. The presentation laid the groundwork for becoming an Ally covering appropriate and inappropriate terminology; types of discrimination encountered by LGBTQI individuals, and the coming out process. We were also given a chance to work through scenarios involving homophobic, transphobic or discriminatory language and how we would respond.

The section on appropriate and inappropriate terms forced me to think about the terms I use to describe myself and others. I used to use ‘gay community’ to describe the LGBTQI community because ‘gay’ rolls off the tongue much easier than ‘LGBTQI.’ However, ‘gay community’ is an inappropriate term as it is not inclusive of all the sexual orientations, gender identities and biological sex covered by the acronym LGBTQI. I am endeavouring to use the phrase ‘queer community’ when speaking about the LGBTQI community in conversation. ‘Queer’ is a far more inclusive term and it rolls of the tongue easier than LGBTQI! I have also stopped using ‘sexuality’ to describe my lesbianism. I realise now that for myself ‘sexuality’ could describe both my female sexuality and my lesbian sexuality which are not one and the same. ‘Sexual orientation’ is a more suitable term to describe one’s attraction to the same, opposite or both sexes. The section on the coming out process, including psychological and social aspects, also resonated with me. It described the mental anguish I experienced while realising my attraction to women and coming out firstly as a bisexual then as a lesbian. In the description of the process I also sensed understanding and recognition of what LGBTQI individuals experience when coming out.

Q&A sessions with members of the student Queer Collective and Allies followed the formal presentation. Members of the Queer Collective spoke of their own experiences being LGBTQI including coming out, homophobic abuse and acceptance. The students were of diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and biological sex and gave a truly ‘rainbow’ representation of LGBTQI people. Three Allies spoke about their positive and empowering experiences as Allies, a bursary  supporting study expenses for LGBTQI students, and a research study examining the experiences of LGBTQI students on campus.

As the training session wrapped up, the female staff members at the table where I sat thanked me for sharing my experiences as a lesbian. I hoped I had contributed to their understanding of the experiences of LGBTQI people. Armed with my own experiences and with knowledge from the training session I hope be a good Ally to fellow LGBTQI staff and students.

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