By Dr. Tee Williams
I used to be a very homophobic person. It's not something I consciously wanted or chose for myself. It was something I was given, a perspective I was socialized into at a very young age. For a good part of my life, I was unaware that my internalized homophobia had any meaning or impact beyond myself. That changed when I met Cindy.
Cindy was the facilitator of a training I attended. She was brilliant. She was feisty and compassionate. She didn’t take anyone’s shit. She called us out on our prejudices and stereotypes and challenged us to do better. She was a social-justice rockstar and I developed an instant intellectual crush. After the training was over, we stayed in touch and became friends.
Cindy was white and knew more about racism than any white person I’d ever met. I thought that was amazing. She was also a lesbian. Until I met her, I’d never knowingly been friends with someone who was gay. Cindy-- someone I liked, admired and respected --was a lesbian, someone I’d been taught to detest. This caused an overwhelming feeling of cognitive dissonance. It was confusing as hell. And very uncomfortable. So I did the only thing I think could of: I asked Cindy if she would be willing to have a conversation with me. She said yes.
Intro to Allyship
That conversation happened decades ago. I don’t remember most of it at this point. I do remember this: Cindy said that if my expectation of her, as a white woman, was that she fight against my oppression, her expectation of me as someone who is heterosexual is that I fight against hers. That resonated with me. Deeply. The idea that, at minimum, I should show up to support the people who support me made perfect sense.
This was my very first introduction to the concept of allyship. Since that time, my understanding of allyship has grown; I now understand that the struggle against homophobia is not just Cindy’s struggle, it is my struggle, as well. I understand that being an ally is not something you are, it’s something you do. I understand that while intentions matter to some people, they don’t matter to everyone. I understand that my intentions, no matter how good they are, will never outweigh the impact of my actions. And I understand that I must be accountable for my actions.
The conversation with Cindy was a turning point in my life. Up until that point, I viewed the world primarily through the lens of race. My race, African American, was my most salient identity; it was the identity that I most closely identified with and the lens through which I filtered the world. Talking with Cindy helped me realize how narrow my thinking had been.
All humans belong to multiple social groups simultaneously. Race is but one social category and within that category there are different identities (such as Asian, Black, white, Latino, etc.). But there are other social categories as well: ethnicity, gender, assigned sex, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, religion, age, and ability. All of these categories have their own sets of identities. Some of those identities are targeted by systems of inequality, but some of those identities benefit and receive privilege from those very same systems. And the thing about these benefits and privileges is that they come at the expense of other people-- they aren’t benign.
The Answer Lies Within
My sexual orientation was one of the places where I benefitted and received privilege. Realizing this was heartbreaking, but what made it worse is that it was happening without my knowledge or permission. I never thought about my sexual orientation. I had been ignoring my internalized homophobia because it was an inherent part of how I thought about being heterosexual. And because being heterosexual was "normal," homophobia was "normal." Except it wasn’t, not for me.
Homophobia, any form of oppression for that matter, did not align with my values. Now that I had a better understanding of my multiple identities, living with integrity meant uncovering and divesting myself of the things I’d learned. I struggled with where to start. So I started with a couple questions: Where did all of these thoughts, beliefs and emotions come from? Where did I learn these things? The answer is everywhere. Socialization is the process whereby humans learn to be a member of society. It is also the process in which they learn to be a member of a particular social group. Since humans belong to more than one social group at once, it means that there are multiple socialization processes happening at the same time.
Like every other human, my socialization process started with my family. From the moment I was born, I received messages about being a heterosexual man and what that meant for my sexual orientation from the people who loved and cared for me. As I got older, culture and institutions also participated in my socialization. The schools I attended, the videos I watched, the music I listened to: Everything I interacted with reinforced everything I was initially taught about being heterosexual.
In It Together
Once my eyes were opened, I couldn’t unsee reality. I saw homophobia everywhere. It was overwhelming. And there were times where I struggled to be hopeful. What could I, one single person, do against this overwhelming force? What I didn’t understand at the time is that I was not alone. There were lots of people who stood with me. Cindy was among them. She continued to have conversations with me. It wasn’t always about homophobia or racism, but her willingness to stay connected to me as I struggled through this issue meant the world to me. She didn’t write me off. I wasn’t alone in my fight against homophobia. I wasn’t alone in my fight against racism. I wasn’t alone in my fight against classism. I wasn’t alone.
I embraced the challenge of unlearning homophobia. I learned everything I could. Read everything I could. Researched as often as I could. And I asked questions. Lots and lots of questions. In short, I took responsibility for my own learning so that I could live my life with integrity and so that my actions were in alignment with my values. Today, I’m still on my journey. I’m still on the path to liberation, still practicing self-awareness, still learning and still growing. I didn’t get here alone. I had a lot of help along the way, and I’ll be forever grateful.
Where are you in your journey? Perhaps you are just beginning, as I was when I had my conversation with Cindy. Maybe you’ve been on this journey for a few years. Either way, I’d like you to know you aren’t alone. There are people who struggle with these issues just like you do. There are people who want to do better, just like you. And there are people who are actively working hard to change themselves and the world.
From one flawed human to another, I encourage you, wherever you are, keep doing the work. Show up, even when it’s hard, especially when it’s hard. Bring the best version of yourself to the table and do the work. Do the work of being an ally. Do the work of divesting yourself of the things you’ve internalized. Do the work of confronting your own biases and prejudices.
Do. The. Work.
Dr. Tee Williams
Dr. Tee is an educator, consultant and writer residing in Los Angeles, California. His passion is helping leaders and organizations transform themselves so that together we can collectively transform the world. He loves pitbulls and sci-fi and testing new recipes in the kitchen, but he hates doing dishes. In his free time you can find him wondering why his beard looks so huge on camera and figuring out how to indulge his off-season craving for Tangelos. You can see what Dr. Tee is up to at www.imdrtee.com, and feel free to follow him as he attempts to learn how to use Instagram at @imdrtee.