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Beyond the Equal Sign: Being a straight ally involves more than a profile picture

Staff March 28, 2013 Opinion No Comments

My Facebook news feed was a sea of red on Tuesday.

As the Supreme Court commenced oral arguments in Hollingsworth v. Perry, the landmark case on marriage equality challenging the blatantly heterosexist Proposition 8 from California and the federal Defense of Marriage Act, many of my friends changed their profile pictures to a red equal sign, a special version of the Human Rights Campaign logo.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a basic display of allyship spread so quickly. All it took was a few clicks to say, “I favor universal civil rights regardless of sexuality.”

Some people call this “slacktivism” – uploading a picture or sharing a link as a substitute for substantive action against injustice. While there is much more that can and should be done, I can’t agree that these easy actions are akin to doing nothing. Showing even tacit support is better than remaining silent – which, as Andrew Wilson pointed out in the story on page one, is most often counterproductive.

Complacency, however, is different. It’s disgusting to make a red equal sign your profile picture and then act as if you’re the (straight) hero of the queer movement and everything will be wonderful for queer people as long as your virtual friends see you as that little logo.

Straight allyship goes beyond being a decent person and favoring equal rights for our fellow human beings. It doesn’t mean beginning a statement of alliance with “I’m straight, but…” It means listening to the voices of queer people and joining them in active work against the heterosexist power structures under which we live. It means embracing sexuality as something fluid, spiritual and beautiful, not as binary and dictated by stereotypes or mainstream narratives.

Being a straight ally means more than arguing heterosexists are just religious fanatics or that we don’t follow any of the other laws laid out in Leviticus. While those are often true statements (the latter is always true), the stance of straight allies should not be concessional – we should not simply ask people to put their heterosexism aside only on the marriage issue, but rather demand it be rejected in all social, legal and political arenas.
On top of all this, being a straight ally requires an allyship “beyond marriage,” to borrow a phrase from queer activist Nancy Polikoff. Marriage is only one civil right queer people have had to fight for over several decades. But straight people still enjoy an incredible amount of privilege under the heterosexist systems constructed by American law and law in general. Sexual orientation is not covered under equal opportunity legislation, so it’s still legal for a federal contractor to fire someone because they’re queer. Private housing and real estate firms discriminate against queer couples regularly for incredibly arbitrary reasons. Being queer often means automatic disqualification from most federal or local elections. Queer people are victims of numerous hate crimes across the country.

To create true justice out of a heterosexist culture as straight allies, we must change the heterosexist systems that comprise it from the inside out, with marriage equality as a starting point. As Polikoff proclaims, we have to take the rights out of the institution of marriage and put them into a legal system that values all family units, regardless of whether they’re composed of parents and children, siblings, extended relatives or friends. Any people who care enough about each other to live together and provide for each other in some respect should be able to file a joint tax return, visit each other in the hospital and have access to the 1,100-some other rights that come with marriage in our current law.

Additionally, we must simultaneously raise our voices for justice as privileged people and promote the voices of the queer activists who have been doing it much longer than us and have to live in a society that marginalizes them. Our place as straight people is as advocates and allies, not leaders. And qualifying our allyship by beginning, “I’m straight, but…” only perpetuates the problem, as my friend Matthew Jamison noted.
So go ahead – make that red equal sign your profile picture. Watch the Supreme Court for a decision on Hollingsworth v. Perry in June. But remember to engage in activism and allyship offline, too.

Noah Manskar
Editor-in-Chief

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