Central PA's LGBT News Source
By Trum Simmons
What does it mean to be an ally to folks on the LGBTQIAAA+ spectrum? What is the role of the ally in supporting those on the spectrum?
I’ve been an active ally for many years, beginning in the early 70s, and I’d like to share some of my experiences through the decades. This is only my experience, and there is no one way to be an ally, although some general principles can be extrapolated.
In the 70s I was married to a woman who was active in The National Organization for Women (NOW), and my first serious work as an ally was to support the lesbian contingent of that group.
My then wife came home with all kinds of information and stories about the struggles that lesbians and cis (straight) women were having in developing policy and strategy in that part of the feminist movement.
What a learning experience for both of us! Talking with lesbians about their life experiences was eye-opening, not to mention rather stressful in the conversations about how they felt marginalized by some of NOW’s straight leadership.
As many of you know, I taught at HACC for 40-plus years, and the first HACC student who came out to me did so in 1980. He wanted to talk about his life and how he felt being a minority at the college. This was back in the day, so he didn’t want to come out to the class, nor did he want to write about his experience in the student newspaper, called The Fourth Estate (TFE).
As the 80s progressed, TFE covered LGBTQ issues extensively and we had a couple of gay staff members who wrote about their experiences. Of course, with Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority in the national news, we had a lot of opportunities to do so.
The HIV/AIDS epidemic also offered many opportunities to talk about what it meant to be gay at HACC and in the U.S. in general. We covered the South-Central AIDS Assistant Network (SCAAN), interviewing men diagnosed with HIV/AIDS who were glad to help educate the campus about their health challenges.
Fast forward to the 90s, when the first LGBT student organization was approved by HACC’s student government. The Pink Triangle was approved by a vote of 9-3-3 (3 abstentions), and I began to advise the group a couple of years later.
I advised that group for some 15 years (it became ALLIES eventually), and its first president was a trans woman. That same woman, Alberta Hamm (known to many Central Voice readers), ran for and became the student government president in 2003, and we have been close friends ever since.
In 2000 I developed the HACC Humanities course Introduction to Lesbian and Gay Studies, and have taught it ever since. The class has always had a mix of LGBTQ+ people as well as cis straight allies, and in class discussions over the years we have all learned so much from one another.
As an elder at Market Square Presbyterian Church in Harrisburg, I was on the committee that made sure we added the words “sexual orientation” to the church mission statement, which says that we welcome everyone, no matter who they are.
These are some of my experiences as an ally to everyone on the LGBTQ spectrum, and I have been fortunate to have a career in a community college, or as I like to call it, the people’s college. I’ve been fortunate to have a wide circle of diverse friends in the central Pennsylvania area. I know I’ve been blessed.
I’ve always followed local, state and national news, and not just because I was a student journalist and journalism professor. I believe all citizens need to know what is going on around them, both at the immediate and national level. Reading about LGBTQ issues in our communities should make everyone an ally.
What does it mean to be a good ally? Have I been one? I believe so, but I have also made many mistakes along the way. I’ve had many lessons to learn.
As I said earlier, there is no one way to be an ally, but there are certain components we can identify. Allies need to know what’s going on, for starters. We need to become educated about LGBTQ issues, which include understanding the ongoing systemic oppression of people on the spectrum and that not everyone experiences oppression in the same way.
We need to take risks. We need to be vulnerable, because sometimes we try too hard to be helpful and end up not being so.
Most of all, allies have to be there for our LGBTQ sisters and brothers. We need to have their back. All people need someone who has their back, because being fully human means being empathetic and caring for all our fellow humans.
Trum Simmons is a professor at Harrisburg Area Community College.