People do not necessarily divide uncomplicatedly into one or the other side of the gay-straight dichotomy. What this suggests is that, rather than merely describing a contrast that already and inherently exists, this dichotomy actually participates in maintaining that contrast by naming heterosexual or straight identity as the norm, and positioning homosexual or LGBT+ identity in opposition to that norm. By focusing attention on the status of allies as members of the normative identity category, the concept of straight allies sharpens the contrast that is reinforced by the gay-straight dichotomy. Thus, while straight allies are often celebrated for working to close, or at least bridge, the gap between those who do and do not identify as LGBT, the very concept of straight allies works to maintain that distance.
Straight privilege permeates the relationship between straight allies and LGBT+ communities. One example of this is the expectation by many allies and potential allies that LGBT+ communities are, or at least should be, as available to straight allies and potential allies as they are to people who identify as LGBT+. A related example of straight privilege is that, despite the belief that these communities should always welcome them, straight allies are free to abandon the cause when it becomes inconvenient or dangerous to be associated with folks who identify as LGBT+. Indeed, this freedom to abandon the cause seems to be the justification for yet a third example of straight privilege, which is the level of appreciation their support typically generates, which in turn seems to reinforce yet another example of privilege, which is the steadfast belief held by so many straight allies that their opinions about LGBT+ issues matter.
Expectation of acceptance by LGBT+ communities
Although open displays of affection by those in relationships that do not conform to normative standards are risky outside of designated safe areas, such as gay and lesbian nightclubs, straight privilege means having the freedom of self-expression virtually anywhere.
A particularly poignant example of this is the growing popularity of pride celebrations as events where people, including more and more presumably straight people with each passing year, get to take a break from worrying about how they might be perceived by others.
While many folks are happy to make LGBT+ safe spaces as inclusive of straight people as they are of LGBT+ people, there are some who resent this intrusion. Jay Barmann, for example, wants to know “When, exactly, did Pride become a party for straight teens?” (Barmann, 2015). Similarly, “It’s a bit rich to see Pride being appropriated by the straight community. It’s like you can’t help it, just slowly sucking every life form of ours away to make it your own,” notes Charles White, who also adds, “Well done: yet another thing to steal from us. We can’t even have fucking Pride as our own” (White, 2015).
Freedom to abandon LGBT+ communities
Despite their infiltration of various LGBT+ safe places, straight allies seem eager to retain their straight identities. Indeed, asserting their status as straight allies (with the emphasis on “straight”) reinforces their straight privilege. Even without describing allies as “straight,” however, asserting their status as allies to (rather than as members of) LGBT+ communities also reinforces their straight privilege. Consider the example set by the many high school and college students who have established or are working toward establishing gay-straight alliances on their campuses. Their hard work and cooperative efforts notwithstanding, it is worth asking what benefit is connected to conveying with such clarity and conviction that at least some of the members of these organizations identify as straight. One possibility is that doing so makes it easier to recruit straight allies, precisely because identifying them as allies allows them to distance themselves from the very people with whom they are claiming solidarity.
Part of what concerns White and the other commenters who have broken tradition by being openly critical of allies, is the recognition that, when and if it would benefit them to do so, allies have the freedom to abandon whatever commitment they currently display toward LGBT+ communities. According to this reasoning, straight allies experience the advantages associated with straight privilege and avoid the disadvantages associated with LGBT+ oppression, and simply do not have the same stake in LGBT+ issues. Instead, White suggests, their current attention to LGBT+ issues is but a fad, and asks “When it ceases to be cool, when Macklemore finally retires (please God soon), will you give up on us?” (White, 2015).
Expectation of appreciation from LGBT+ communities
Macklemore, is half of the hip hop-inspired pop music duo from Washington State, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. Their first hit was a wildly successful song that glorified thrift store shopping as a fun and economical alternative to buying overpriced new crap. Although “Thrift Shop,” and the second single, “Can’t Hold Us,” both reached no. 1 on the Billboard Top 100 in 2013, it was a third single from the same album, The Heist, that caught the attention of LGBT+ communities. The song “Same Love,” languishing for weeks in the awkward no. 11 spot, was written as a tribute to Macklemore’s gay uncles.
In addition to winning just about every award for which they were eligible, including a somewhat controversial Grammy for Best Rap Album,4 Macklemore & Ryan Lewis caught the attention and praise of LGBT+ communities.
Some suggest that there is a phenomenon, which Princess Harmony Rodriguez has referred to as “ally theater,” whereby self-proclaimed and self-congratulatory allies perform the role, particularly on social media, of a good ally, presumably for the sake of the praise they subsequently receive. This expectation of praise is yet another expression of straight privilege, as it is straight privilege that provides allies with the perception that the support they supply is supererogatory,5 and therefore praiseworthy.
Freedom to express opinions of LGBT+ communities
Finally, it is a particularly powerful expression of privilege that the support provided by straight allies typically amounts merely to expressions of approval.
Such presumptions of pertinence are presented primarily by people who possess some degree of privilege. Consider how strange it would have seemed in the Jim Crow South for Blacks to indicate that it would not be repulsive for them to share a water fountain with whites. Consider how strange it would seem for hourly employees to suggest to the owner of the company that they approve of the owner receiving a higher income than the hourly workers. Consider how strange it would seem for students to express their belief that it is acceptable for the teacher to select the test questions.
Such examples would seem strange because, in each case, approval is being offered by those who lack a level of privilege that would deem their approval or disapproval of others relevant. In other words, straight allies are in a position to presume that their approval matters, precisely because they are in a position to presume that their disapproval would matter.
This is an extract from the second edition of Feminism is Queer, written by Mimi Marinucci.