You’ve probably heard about the Grammy’s mass wedding to the tune of “Same Love” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, and if your Facebook feed is anything like mine, it hasn’t stopped exploding in controversy since Sunday. If your Facebook isn’t like mine, the arguments are twofold: First, a mass wedding turns marriage into a gimmick, and second, why is a straight, cisgender white male suddenly the face of the LGBT movement?
The performance was moving, I’ll admit, but I agree with the first point: No matter the context–whether the Grammy’s or a Tel Aviv Pride Parade–I think mass, publicized weddings trivialize the significance of an individual couple being bound to each other. But I’m a romantic, what else would I think? Either way, I don’t particular mind the mass wedding–it happened, it was celebrated, and for the people there, what an amazing experience–and can you think of all the stories they now have to share!
So the real conversation is about Macklemore. About an ally of the LGBT community who, by definition of being an ally, is actually not one of us. And that’s problematic.
Or is it?
I’m laughing at myself as I write this because, up until May, my standard declaration of listening habits was “I like most kinds of music, except rap.” But then a few friends of mine introduced me to Macklemore (specifically through his song “Can’t Hold Us”) and, initially liking it, I perused further, stumbled upon his songs “Same Love” and “A Wake,” and found I really love his music. So I can’t say “except rap” all that much anymore, but since I don’t generally explore music beyond my library, he’s the only rap artist I currently listen to. There is nothing wrong with that, mind you, but it is–for me–still rather amusing.
In any case, where to begin? I guess the biggest complaint is that he’s trying to be a voice for the LGBT community (or if he’s not trying, he’s perceived that way), but he isn’t a member of the LGBT community. His straight privilege allows him to speak about these issues, but doesn’t give him a valid perspective on what it means to be gay–so why, they say, is he suddenly the face of the movement? Some others expand on this notion by claiming his music cites racial oppression, wrongfully uses offensive language, and more vitriol I personally think is unfounded, but at least for today, my focus is pretty much on this: Should we burn Macklemore at the stake for being too much of a public ally?
The pursuit of equality is a conversation – and that conversation stops if we stop talking.
Unfortunately, there’s no direct answer, so let’s muse about things for a bit and see what conclusions we come to.
I’ve read a lot of heated conversations on the matter, and by far, one of the things that irks me the most is when someone says “being an ally is just being a decent person,” a statement usually followed by “why should we praise them for what’s default?” Except this is not true. And I mean really not true. Being a decent person means respecting others, being kind and considerate, acting honestly and holding onto your integrity. Being an ally is more than just “being decent”–it means supporting a cause, it means taking action, it means doing something. “Being decent” is passive, and sure, many people who claim to be allies are rather passive at the margins, but let’s be clear: A true ally isn’t passive.
The truth is, it’s pretty hard to be an ally.
I try to be an ally to a lot of groups–and I think, in many cases, that trying is the most action I’m able to muster. I’ve got too many very close friends who’ve been victims of domestic and sexual abuse–but how can I express my love and appreciation for them in being an ally? I can listen to their experiences, I can give them a shoulder to lean on if they need it, but how am I supposed to “BE AN ALLY” if all I’ve got is love and no direction?
I try to be an ally for racial oppression, but I feel I fall short in too many ways. I’ve got a number of friends who identify differently than I do, but when we get together, we don’t talk about race–we talk about life, our interests, what’s going on, or why we still haven’t been able to make our plans for lunch actually happen. Racism goes a long way back, and it’s hard to recognize my own privileges–these pin missiles I fire unknowingly, in ignorance and good intentions–without people helping me to get there. I don’t know where to begin on my own. I don’t know which sources are reliable and which ones are just inflammatory. How can I take this desire and turn it into action–tangible, meaningful action–if I have no idea what that’s supposed to look like?
Being an ally should mean something. It should go beyond being a decent human being. I am a decent human being–but that doesn’t make me an ally. There are issues I know nothing about. There are causes I don’t know how to advocate for. There are so many ways I could grow and learn and share myself with others, but most of these ways I don’t know about because they haven’t been imagined or slipped into creation yet. Someday they might. Someday I hope they will. And when it comes, I hope I’m ready.
But I’ll need help to get there. I can listen, and I can listen until my ears fall off, but if no one’s talking, if no one’s making their voice heard, no amount of listening on my part is going to matter.
Some of you reading this probably just decided I’m blaming bad allies on the groups those allies are trying to help–or less abstractly, that I’m blaming the LGBT community for Macklemore and others “being bad allies.” And that’s completely right–but also completely ignorant to the point I’m making. So let me break it down with a more human example, one freed of the commercialism and money-drive that, let’s be honest, probably compels a lot more celebrities than we want to believe to be allies for groups they don’t belong to.
I discovered very early on in my process of coming out that the best thing I could do to help others understand was to communicate with them: If they asked questions (even offensive, asinine, and mind-numbingly dumb ones), I’d answer them. I wouldn’t shut them out, because if I shut them out, then I’ve shut them out from the entire LGBT community. In this one instant, I realized, in this one point in time when there’s potential to build a bridge between people, when there’s potential to open another’s heart and mind–in this moment the power to change the tide toward or against equality is in my hands, not theirs. But if I withhold that promise of better things to come, so do they, and both of us suffer.
So I answer their questions. I explain why some things are hurtful when they say them (many of them didn’t know); I explain why misconceptions are actually misconceptions (many of them didn’t know); and if the dialogue lasts long enough, I might even slip in a few lines saying “these are good things to do in the future,” but it doesn’t always get there–and even if it doesn’t, I’ve at least made a difference. I’ve informed someone, shared a bit of my experience with them, and hopefully helped them to start their journey on the trail from ignorant bystander to decent person and ultimately to true ally.
But if I turn them off before they get the chance, I’m not only hurting myself, I’m insulting them. It’s not their fault they don’t know any better–that’s like saying a child who doesn’t know how to read doesn’t deserve to be taught because that child can’t read already. It’s a deplorable double standard that has got to end.
I believe it rests on us–members of the LGBT community–to create strong allies outside of our community. That means we have to speak out and speak up; we have to let our voices be heard, and when our voices aren’t heard, we shouldn’t complain about privilege or “bad allies,” but speak louder and speak longer.
Instead of complaining about Macklemore and pointing to all the queer hip-hop artists who haven’t gotten any recognition, why not write him and let him know directly? Why not play those artists’ music to your friends and help spread their words? The pursuit of equality is a conversation–and that conversations stops if we stop talking. When people turn to complaining, turn to trolling Facebook pages and status updates, to posting someone else’s blogs about why this matters and just letting it float there for the world to see–that’s not talking. That’s falling silent and becoming complacent. That doesn’t build allies in our neighbors. That only turns them off to ever truly listening to what we have to say.
The power to change the tide toward or against equality is in my hands, not theirs.
There’s still much to be said about what it means to be an ally, who is an ally, and perhaps most importantly whether allies should be the public faces of a movement–real or perceived–or if the moment the public puts them there, we should shoot them down and revoke their standing as cherished allies. Those are questions that may not have answers, and at this moment I certainly don’t have any, but this at least is a damn good place to start.
For me, I will continue enjoying Macklemore’s music. I like it. I like the beat, the lyrics, and the messages he shares–I can relate to them. I can speak them and feel their truth as mine. In an ideal world, it would be awesome if the “face of the gay movement” were a gay person, but if that were always the case, would there even need to be a gay movement at all–or would that assume that the equality we’re fighting for is actually already there? Sure, maybe it’s a little messed up if you think too hard about it, but to invalidate the contributions a person has made because of their identity is no worse than what has been done to us.
If you want someone to be an ally, you must help lead them to become an ally.
If you wish to lead someone to become an ally, you must first start the conversation.
And if you want to start that conversation, you must first be willing not only to share your experience, but also to listen to theirs. Maybe now their voice is riddled with the rhymes of privilege and ignorance, but if you aren’t willing to help them understand what real equality sounds like, they’ll never be able to join our song–as friends or allies.