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Rethinking the Language of Allyship

Photo by Joel Muniz on Unsplash

Editor's note: We acknowledge with gratitude Ezrica Bennett's special reporting for Spectrum during Pride month. In addition to her reflections below, her other articles are available here

What truly encompasses allyship? This question has permeated my thoughts throughout the past month as I delved into the narratives and encounters shared by members of the LGBTQ community. Immersed in their profoundly personal stories of self-discovery and acceptance or in articles chronicling the isolation and prejudice they face, I couldn't escape the harsh reality that navigating the human experiences of sexuality and identity is no simple feat. The complexities of this exploration increase exponentially when intertwining one's values and faith. Supporting individuals as family or friends as they embark on their journey is also challenging. It is especially difficult because the language employed to define and promote allyship is not only outdated but restrictive in its very essence. Yet being an ally to a member of any marginalized group reflects the heart of God and emulates Jesus’s actions while here on earth. As a testament to the many remarkable individuals and their inspiring narratives that have crossed my path this month, I feel compelled to share some of the invaluable lessons I have gleaned. These insights have shaped my commitment to becoming a more compassionate ally and a genuine friend to those I encounter on this transformative journey. Before I share my perspectives, I want to highlight the life and legacy of John and Carolyn Wilt. Together, they embody what it looks like to be both a supportive family member of someone in the queer community and an ally. 

The Wilts’ Story

John and Carolyn Wilt faced significant changes when their son, who had kept his sexuality concealed, finally embraced his identity as a gay person. For many years, their son did not openly embrace his sexuality. The Wilts recounted to me how he came out to them only after they initiated a conversation with him. When their son was 24 and visiting for a Christmas break, they sat him down and said, “We have a question.” To which he responded, “Are you ready for the answer?” In a lovingly open dialogue, they asked him if he was gay, and he confirmed he was. The Wilts emphasized that their son's sexual identity did not have a negative effect on their relationship. However, they admitted that despite being accepting of their son's sexuality, they were still bewildered and uncertain about navigating this new territory. Their son had wanted to come out at 15, but he held back due to his father's habit of making jokes about gay people and his mother's devout faith—he did not want to embarrass her. This fear kept him silent for many years. Carolyn lamented, “We could have had an additional ten years with him living as his authentic self.” Both John and Carolyn acknowledged their naivety and lack of understanding at the time.

Their son would pass away 25 years later at age 49, but he did experience the joy and safety of having parents who fully accepted and supported him. Their dedication to supporting their child extended even beyond his passing as they took on the role of coaching other families on how to navigate their children's sexual and gender identities. For 42 years, the Wilts led an Adventist marriage encounter program, hosting weekend workshops nationwide for couples, which equipped them with the skills to help individuals discover their true selves and communicate effectively. Five years ago, they redirected their focus to work with family members and friends through Kinship, developing a six-hour weekend workshop aimed at fostering open communication within families. “We don't give them answers; we give them tools to learn how to talk to each other,” said John. They describe this method as building bridges of loving communication between family members. The group caters to families throughout the US and across the world. The Wilts exemplify what it means to be allies and are committed to empowering others in this role.

When I asked what advice they would give to someone struggling with allyship, John offered two key points. First, he encouraged individuals to question their inherited knowledge and challenge the beliefs they have acquired from their upbringing and religious institutions. “People tend to trust what they have learned inherently. I love to ask, ‘How do you know what you don't know, and how do you know that what you know is correct or accurate?’ ” he shared. Second, he emphasized the importance of increasing awareness. “Supporting a member of the community is an act of increasing awareness for the family members, and it is an act of increasing awareness of one's faith,” he explained. The Wilts will continue serving families through Kinship. It is their honor and joy, they say, to help families navigate these life circumstances and emerge learning to love each other better.

The Wilts serve as an exemplary embodiment of unconditional love, reminding us that the journey of loving another human being is complex, with its fair share of failures and disappointments. Their candidness about their past shortcomings and subsequent commitment to understanding and growth offer valuable lessons for all of us. They demonstrate that, while allyship may not come naturally to everyone, it is a skill anyone can learn. 

Engaging with the Wilts’ story and several others during my month of reporting has prompted me to redefine and deepen my own understanding of allyship. I offer the following reflections from what I have learned. 

Get clear on your values: It is often easy to misconstrue the notion of allyship as a compromise of personal values. On the contrary, fostering a healthy alliance necessitates a profound comprehension of one’s own principles. It entails delving into the roots of your convictions and asking challenging questions such as: Are my values shaped by my upbringing or entrenched in traditional norms? Do I have an unconscious or conscious bias that influences my decision-making? Furthermore, do these values align with the essence of Christ’s character, or are they molded by interpretations from the pulpit? Gaining clarity on one’s values demands sincere introspection, yet such a process ultimately empowers people to support others in a manner that respects both themselves and those they seek to uplift.

Step outside of your perspective: The validity of an experience should not be dismissed simply because it lies beyond one’s understanding. Similarly, it is necessary to recognize that each of our realities may differ from that of others. We inadvertently impose limitations upon ourselves by restricting our perspective solely to our own narratives. It is crucial to acknowledge that the richness of life lies in embracing the diverse array of experiences beyond our own.

Embrace the art of listening: The act of empathetic listening is the only way to bridge the gap between your lived experience and someone else's. There is an undeniable power in hearing the stories of people whose lives diverge significantly from your own. Equally significant is the ability to recognize and acknowledge the reality experienced by others without passing judgment. In the journey of supporting others, it becomes essential to cultivate the capacity to accept their experiences without labeling them as either good or bad. 

Validating someone's experience is not the same as agreeing with them. There is sometimes a palpable fear of validating someone else's experience. Nonetheless, you can validate that someone has an experience or has feelings, even if you are uncertain if you support their choices. The language of validation sounds something like this:

“Oh, I can see how that must've been hard.” 

“I'm sorry that you experienced that.”

“How did that experience make you feel?” 

“I agree that that must've been difficult.” 

“Tell me more about that.” 

“Thank you for sharing your perspective.”  

Validating someone's story does not necessarily imply agreeing with them. Validation is a powerful act that honors their narrative and recognizes their worth. It acknowledges that although you may be unfamiliar with their circumstances or would make different choices, you still respect their agency and believe they deserve to be heard. Validation is an acknowledgment of worthiness. In the example set by Christ when he interacted with Zacchaeus. Jesus demonstrated validation by inviting Zacchaeus into his presence, truly listening to and seeing him. This experience of love ultimately made a significant impact on Zacchaeus's life. 

Don't hide behind theory. Many of the standards by which we judge others often stem from theoretical assumptions. We formulate notions of how we would act if we were in someone else's position without truly understanding the authentic experiences of those who occupy those positions. It becomes all too effortless to pass judgments, prescribing what others should or should not do, without immersing ourselves in the genuine pain carried by these individuals. It is a familiar refrain that we judge ourselves based on our intentions while judging others solely by their actions. How many of us have genuinely opened our lives and spheres to members of the LGBTQ community? How many of us have sincerely listened to their struggles and perspectives? What then gives us the authority to dictate the best course of action for their lives? In his relationship with humanity, Christ could have chosen to maintain distance and insist, “Overcome sin, and you will attain eternal life.” However, instead of merely proclaiming that we should overcome sin, he chose to become one of us, to experience embodied life firsthand. He faced hardships and trials, just as we do. He deliberately opted to undergo what we would in order to become a more compassionate ally and advocate on our behalf. Until we genuinely dwell among people and actively immerse ourselves in their experiences, all our proposed solutions remain mere theories, lacking substantial weight or impact.

Embrace the spectrum and honor the continuum of growth. Like many things, allyship exists along a spectrum and takes on various forms for different individuals. That's perfectly acceptable. The prospect of adopting a specific label can sometimes feel overwhelming. However, it's crucial to recognize that each of us has agency in responding to the invitation to be allies. What being an ally looks like at a particular moment in our journeys is as unique to each person as the diversity of our experiences and perspectives. The key lies in consistently taking steps toward enhancing our ability to love and support others effectively. At any given moment, there may be aspects you readily accept while still actively working to unlearn, rethink, or reframe specific ideas. Supporting others to the best of your ability in the present moment while remaining open to personal growth exemplifies an act of grace that acknowledges the ever-evolving lives of marginalized communities. As part of living and growing, we all undergo transformations, and it is both safe and necessary to reassess our values and redefine our narratives periodically. This fluidity is an inherent part of the human experience.

To be an ally is to embody the actions of Christ. As we strive to honor and uplift all of God's children, we inherently honor him. Recognizing that loving people is a complex and imperfect endeavor is essential. However, the messiness and challenges it entails are integral to the journey toward true allyship.

Ezrica Bennett is a writer, public speaker, and coach passionate about working with young adults to help them navigate life and faith. She is also committed to helping churches, and church leaders, find innovative ways to integrate young adults into church leadership and empower them to honor God's calling on their lives.

Title photo by Joel Muniz on Unsplash.

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