Clinically reviewed by Dr. Chris Mosunic, PhD, RD, CDCES, MBA

How to tell your family and friends what LGBTQ+ allyship means to you

by Kells McPhillips

“Ally” comes from the old French word, “alier,” meaning to combine or unite. In modern times, the word “allyship” still speaks to how we show up, stand up, and advocate for every member of our communities.

However, allyship isn’t one-size-fits-all. As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, you may have a unique perspective on the characteristics of a strong support system. Discovering what those characteristics are—and communicating them to your loved ones—can be a huge step in looking out for yourself.

What is allyship?

“Allyship is similar to a deep understanding,” explains Aaron C. Martin, LMFT, an LGBTQ+ therapist. “It’s a desire for you to know what makes me different from others and normalize these differences.” Allyship is not bypassing those differences, but rather recognizing and holding space for them, he adds.

“There are lots of ways to demonstrate your allyship. It might mean standing up for us when we're not there, advocating alongside us at the protests, or even something as simple as offering a listening ear when we need to vent about the harm done by the latest transphobic legislation,” says Queer psychologist Dr. Kerry McBroome, PsyD.

Remember: Everyone sees allyship slightly differently, so don’t be afraid to define the term for yourself. Here’s how to do that.

How to define allyship for yourself

Take a moment alone to think or write in a journal. Ask yourself: What do you really desire in your allies? How do they make you feel? How do they act? What do they do in your company and in your absence to look out for you?

For example, Dr. McBroome, a member of the LGBTQ+ community, says that she craves friends who will listen to her frustrations. “Oftentimes, as queer women, we are taught to swallow our anger. I know who my allies are based on whether I can express my emotions around them. If I can trust you to hear me out without getting defensive or shutting down, I know I can turn to you for support,” she says.

Try to be non-judgemental as you reflect on what this term means to you. “You may find that allyship means more to you than just acceptance. It may be more about active support, advocacy, and standing up against discrimination,” says Becca Reed, LCSW, PMH-C.

Communicating allyship with your friends and family

Once you have a clear idea of the support you’re looking for, you’re ready to start a dialogue with the people closest to you. Remember that there’s no rush to do this. Take your time, check in with yourself, and prioritize self-care as you’re having these discussions.

Step 1: Create internal boundaries

“Communicating allyship to others is also a practice of creating internal boundaries,” says Martin. “Ask yourself, to what degree is this person close to me in my life, and how do I want them to show up for me?”

You may find that you want to talk to the people you see on a regular basis first, while talking to your extended family may not be a priority. “It doesn’t necessarily matter to me if my distant family member creates space for me to talk about what’s going on in my life in relation to my queer identity,” shares Martin. “Conversely, it matters very much to me that my best friend creates space to talk about my romantic life, workplace strife, or political distress—and I would hope I do the same for them.”

Once again, there’s no “right” answer; there’s only the answer that feels right to you right now. In your notebook, make a list of the people who you feel compelled to talk to first, and who you can skip for now, or forever.

Step 2: Tell your friends and family about what allyship means to you, being as specific as possible

Now it’s time to talk to your people. Come prepared with what allyship means to you and the specific actions you hope to see from your loved one. “Make it clear that at the heart of allyship is a deep empathy and respect for others’ experiences and identities,” Reed says. “It’s about creating a safe and supportive environment for everyone to be their truest selves.”

As the conversation goes on, try to offer specific examples of support. Maybe you’d love your mom to attend protests with you and learn LGBTQ+-inclusive language. “Communicating my needs is a very vulnerable place to be in. I am essentially asking my friend or family member to step-up. Ultimately though, I am asking this from them because I care about them—and our relationship to one another—quite a bit,” says Martin.

Step 3: Keep the dialogue going

Of course, you’ll want to continue the allyship discussion throughout the course of your relationships. If, eventually, you hit a roadblock and one of your friend’s or family member’s actions feels unsafe, don’t be afraid to let them know. “Clear is kind and unclear is unkind,” says Dr. McBroome. “Your friends and loved ones shouldn't have to wonder if you feel supported by them or not. Telling them how you feel doesn't have to become a confrontation, especially if you approach them directly. As an example: ‘When you did not call out our coworker on her homophobia, I felt like you didn't have my back.’”

Keep reminding yourself why this open dialogue with your community is so important.

“Navigating the stress and trauma of modern-day life leaves many of us in the queer community feeling confused and isolated,” says Dr. McBroome. “This is where allyship comes in handy. Your support can have a huge positive impact on the LGBTQ+ people in your life.”

Over time, you’ll find that you truly feel united with the people around you and protected by your own strong boundaries.

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