Allies That Aren't Allies but Could Be Allies

How the friend of a bigot isn’t an ally and what allies can do to avoid being allyish.

I am fortunate in my allies. My cisgender friends are universally accepting, supportive and protective of me. They are keen to avoid missteps and check in on me from time to time to make sure they’re ‘getting it right.’ When things go wrong, they want me to tell them what it was so they know to avoid things in the future. They do raise questions and challenge certain things, but they do it in a respectful and generally academic way - it’s a hypothetical interest, or a possible alternative. But there are lines they know not to cross.

As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, I’ve been reaching out to old friends from previous stages in life. And, true to myself, I rarely announce my old name in these reconnections. Just add a friend request, usually over Facebook, and say hello. Been a while, how have you been? Most of these encounters have been reasonably positive, most haven’t needed me to disclose anything - they either see my mum or brothers or remember my surname. They figure it out.


Rejection is inevitable and it did finally come to me when connecting with an old friend a little while ago. She didn’t recognise me; she told me I had her confused with someone else, which was somewhat gratifying. I then went ahead and told her my old name and said I was pretty sure I had the right person. The response I got?

So ur [sic] one of those people with a mental disorder and had your private parts altered because you know what you are better than [sic] our creator?

I knew this would happen eventually. I said so. But it still made my stomach sour and my heart sink. It took me a little while before I could respond - what do you say? I met an enemy I never knew I had. There was no reasoning or arguing with this person. I just had to take my leave and move on. I was about to when a second text came:

I'm sorry, that was my bf that just wrote that, we have very different opinions on the issue. I'm happy for you and wish you the best.

OK, so I was still pretty upset about the first and, actually, this follow up didn’t make it better. I took my leave as planned. I found no ally here, despite her assurances. Whatever else my old friend might be, she wasn’t my friend anymore.

With some removal from the incident, I realise that it was her attempt to salvage the situation that upset me more than the initial bigotry. Whether I can live my life without pain is an issue she feels she can have an opinion on. Her second line was a dismissal: she didn’t want to talk to me. Her boyfriend held a disgusting view that invalidated a class of human being, but she was happy to date him anyway because, in her way, she agreed with him far enough to rationalise our suffering down to an issue to be debated. I don’t think she was happy for me. I think she was tolerating me and waiting for me to go away, but with an arm extended - which was bizarre.

So she was offering friendship, but on the condition that I accept that her bigoted boyfriend wasn’t actually a bigot, my life was a debate that could be resolved and we could all have our bigotry - it’s an opinion! Oh and saying all that, I should be warm inside that she’s happy for me. All the best, chick! May the best person win. Oh and go away please, you make my bigoted boyfriend uncomfortable. But she’s not a bigot. She’s got a different opinion on an issue.


There is a term for this that Allison Washington possibly-probably-maybe invented in a private conversation with me about this incident: ‘allyish.’ My verification of that credit is based on a five minute trip to Google, so if someone else has used this term please chime in the comments! I’d love to learn. My old school friend was being allyish when she gave me that backhanded apology and expected me to accept her happiness and well wishes. She was trying to be an ally, but wasn’t - but she could have been.

Setting aside the fact that a true ally probably wouldn’t be personally involved with a person like that in the first place, there were ways she could have been a true ally in this scenario. She could have written something more like so:

I’m so sorry for that, that was my boyfriend. I think what he said was disgusting and I’m glad that you’re being true to yourself.

In this response, the boyfriend’s ideas are dismissed as rubbish and the class of human I belong to isn’t called an ‘issue’ or a ‘debate.’ The distancing from ideas is unequivocal and the well wishing is actually phrased in a way that not only feels genuine but also dismisses the boyfriend even more. I would have carried on talking to her at that point. That she’s still dating this scumbag is allyish, but she’s managed to respond as a true ally and avoid any allyish language.

Thing is, there are plenty of people like this. People who call themselves allies - or, at least, don’t think they’re enemies - but continue to invalidate us by classing our plight as a debate or issue. People who are willing to give bigots like this person’s boyfriend room to speak in the name of balanced reporting. People who insist they aren’t bigots, but are happy to tolerate the bigotry of others - even support them in life, politics, and faith.

A bad ally is in some ways more damaging than an opponent. Just as feminism can’t be successful without the participation of men, transgender activism can’t succeed without the active involvement of cisgender people. Maybe it shouldn’t, but it’s down to us to show them what things are the words and deeds of a true ally and what is unacceptably allyish. There are many allies out there who are allyish rather than allied. But they could be allies. We can teach them by rejecting backhands like the one my friend gave me.

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Clara Barnhurst
Clara Barnhurst


Thanks for chiming in ColleenM!

I absolutely agree that our best weapon in this is confronting people with ourselves. It’s also a complicated decision, whether to engage. As you say, sometimes we just have to. Other times it’s helpful but we need to make that call whether we have the energy, time, or ability to really stay engaged.

It just doesn’t always work out, you know?


I have come to see that part of my responsibility is the help others learn the truth about this transgender phenomenon. I won't say I'm educating them because I think that is a bit condescending. But, I do point them towards places where they can learn the truth fron a credible third party and get past all the misinformation which permeates the popular media and conservative talk shows. On the other hand, I have had to educate 8 or 9 therapists during my lifetime. Fortunately my current therapist, who is helping me work through my transition, does not need educating. Since I am highly visible in my business community and known by hundreds of local and national business people, I must often talk with people who are mis-informed. Those relationships are important to me, personally, and to my financial well being. Of the 80 or so business associates with whom I've had long conversations about my transition, I've only had one person who rejected me outright and refused to listen. I am a conservative Christian. After taking time to talk with people who are in leadership positions in my church, I find that they typically respond by saying I've shown them a different way to view this phenomenon. That doesn't mean I've persuaded them to a new perspective. It only means they are reexamining their presuppositions.


Thanks for the shout-out, Clara. <3

Clara Barnhurst
Clara Barnhurst


Yup. But I don't have a better idea! I would have liked to catch up with my old school friend but it wasn't really possible off the back of that and I wasn't willing to renew a relationship on the basis of fixing her ideas. That would do both of us a disservice.


What hurts Clara is when we still care for this person and to then find out that their love was conditional.