What Good Allies Do
I’ve written a lot about bad allies. Allies that talk about inclusion as they separate us into piles. Allies that validate the opposition by framing our existence as a debate. Allies that invite us to join in an arena but then place us in a pen of caveats that prevent us from really being part of a group. Allyish behaviour, allyish feminism, allyish politics. It’s everywhere.
I talk about allyish behaviour because a lot of potentially good allies fall into that trap and need to understand what they’re doing is harmful. It’s a pill that’s hard to swallow when you see yourself as accepting, tolerant and progressive. People don’t like to hear about the ugliness of their words and deeds. It causes friction. Sometimes, you meet a person that really gets it. I was fortunate to come into contact with one such a person in October 2017.
Artist Daisy Cox approached the Transoxford support group with a crazy idea: she wanted to paint transgender women. She was a 3rd year student at Oxford Brookes University and this was her idea for her senior composition. I ended up emailing Ms Cox to seek the answer that was on everyone’s mind when the request was posted: why? Painting transgender images is a dangerous place to go. Body image is hard for women at the best of times and being transgender adds a layer of complexity that aggravates everything.
"THERE WAS AN ADDITIONAL FEAR WITH THIS PARTICULAR IDEA IN THAT PEOPLE USE QUEER BODIES AS A WAY TO ERASE TRANSGENDER PEOPLE."
There was an additional fear with this particular idea in that people use queer bodies as a way to erase transgender people. Penis and vagina, they chant. Like kindergarteners who have a new idea. As though what we hear when we’re six remains set in stone as truth and natural law forever. A nude portrait of a transgender person runs the risk of defining us according to our bodies and reinforcing the idea that gender is in the jeans: take them off and then you know.
The reply I got was riddled with problems: sex swap talk, ‘born as a…’, ‘choose to be…’. What got me interested in her proposal was the bit about stereotyping and how we can challenge that in art. My reply was fairly curt, as I recall. Most of the words were used to correct the language she was using. But I was intrigued. To my delight, she came back with a thank you for setting it straight.
That’s the first thing allies do: they listen. They appreciate it when someone takes the time and they fix the problems in their own language and behaviour. Daisy did that, and she did it immediately. She didn’t need me to ‘just give her time’. There was no discussion; she had nothing to say but thank you.
Later in the process, I mentioned to Daisy that her outreach to transgender people probably wasn’t taken kindly. Transgender people learn to distrust quickly. Enemies are everywhere, and allyish behaviour of people who claim to be friends hardens us. The community is often closed to outsiders, and for good reason: people get killed. “You probably got a range of response from suspicion to open hostility,” I said to her as we reflected on the project and its aims. She nodded with a smile.
That’s the second thing allies do: they endure distrust. They don’t take it personally. They work with what they’re given and engage with those who will, even if that engagement is anger. Yes, Daisy was trying to do an important thing - a thing she didn’t really understand was so important at the time of its inception. Yes, the transgender people she met with were blunt in their response. Daisy didn’t play the martyr. She followed the first rule, listened, then she used what she learned to engage further without showing upset at our suspicion and hostility.
Daisy was constantly asking me to look over bits of text and provide notes for the project. She had her ideas and those were made clear, but she used our words. She asked how I felt about a particular idea for the presentation and would take what I said on board. Many of the things discussed didn’t make it into the final exhibit but that didn’t matter; design discussions often wander into ideas that are never given form.
"ALLIES MAKE SPACE FOR A PEOPLE RATHER THAN TRAMPLE THEM TRYING TO ‘FIX’ WHAT THEY SEE."
That’s the third thing allies do: they don’t speak for us. They provide a platform for us to use our own voices. Her exhibit, her work. Our words. Our bodies. Her presence was nearly invisible in the final product - perhaps my one criticism of her work, but that was mitigated by the expressiveness of the images she produced. A good ally recognises that it’s not their place to impose their ideas on a disadvantaged group. Allies make space for a people rather than trample them trying to ‘fix’ what they see.
By the end of the project, Daisy was speaking a new language. Same messages as the start, but she had joined the transgender discourse community and was able to navigate complex discussions on art, transgender visibility, and feminism without using allyish language. She did this in a few short months, and I’m pretty sure she did it by putting the work into learning. I threw several articles at her - some of mine, some others - and I know she took the time to absorb some of them (though all might have been a trial!) just from the way she approached the topic. As the exchange developed, she wanted my views on the male gaze and feminism in art. The conversations didn’t feel like I was talking for transgender people; I was a female artist speaking with another female artist about issues female artists face.
That’s the fourth thing allies do: they integrate. They find their place alongside us and engage on what common ground they find. They don’t separate us from themselves; they don’t sort us into a pile. They take our feelings and thoughts on common topics as fellows. Daisy’s conversations with me were one woman to another. My voice became stronger in the exchange when we talked about written words as that’s my craft. It became stronger when we talked about transgender issues because that’s my experience. This happens to all people with recognised experience or expertise in an area, and Daisy’s authority over her craft and experience similarly gained strength as we wandered over those topics.
In this process, Daisy Cox was the perfect ally. She came to us with nothing but idle curiosity, but she listened and quickly discovered how fraught the issues were. She didn’t get angry with us for being wary and, when she found people who would engage with her, she gave us space for our voices to be heard. By the end, she managed to join us as an equal, a collaborator. I know I’m not the only participant that hopes we haven’t heard the last of her.