“He doesn’t look like a gay.”
This was September 2016. The comment was whispered to me at a volume anyone within twenty yards could have heard, including probably the man it referred to. What was I, as someone who calls myself an ally, going to do?
Let me set the scene. I was helping out with the administration of an amateur sporting event where everything is run by unpaid volunteers. The event attracted nearly four hundred people and around twenty offered to help. Two of us had the job of collecting score cards from participants once they had finished for the day. The woman with me was cheerfully greeting each person, checking their cards were complete and thanking them. The last man in the queue came forward and she dealt with him in exactly the same way as she had everyone else, then came out with the statement above as he was walking away.
My first reaction was amazement: I had never heard anyone actually say something like this before. Perhaps I am sheltered: I work in a big, diverse office in London, with a thriving LGBT network. What also struck me was that there had been no criticism in her tone: it was an observation, a passing remark. She might just as well have said
“he doesn’t look like a piano player/ Ferrari driver/ Frenchman”.
I’m sure if I’d asked her, she would have said that she had no problems with anyone being gay.
I had only met this woman a few minutes before. For the time we had been together, she had seemed pleasant enough, if you excused the fact that everything she said was at megaphone volume. She was a fellow-volunteer: that made her a rare and precious thing for an organisation that often struggled to find enough people to do all the necessary tasks. If I upset her, she might stop helping and it would become even more difficult to find people in future.
In the end, I think it was the sheer banality of the comment that made me respond.
“Well, what should a gay person look like then?”
I don’t think my reply gets many points for wit and style but at that moment, just getting something out seemed most important.
What she did next was interesting: she stared at me for a moment, then said:
It was the classic reaction of a teenager even though she must have been in her sixties and probably retired.
My amazement was beginning to border on irritation.
“Well, why should he look any different?”
She didn’t answer this but that’s because we needed to deal with a sudden influx of people wanting to hand things in. We worked alongside each other for a few more minutes, then the rush was over and I was called away to do something else.
For the rest of the day I saw her around and pondered her remark and reaction. It made me think that very few people probably ever listened to anything she said. Had I got through to her? Maybe for a second. Would she do it again? Almost certainly.
That made me wonder whether there had been any point in my intervention. And this is the dilemma of the ally – you want to help but what can you do beyond your own behaviour?
Unfortunately, it isn’t always obvious. Your gut reaction is that you do not want to stand by and do nothing but at the back of your mind there is the worry that you might do the wrong something. At all times, I’m conscious that I do not want to appear to be speaking for a community I do not represent because there has been vocal criticism that it demeans the recipients by implying they are not capable of speaking for themselves. This brings with it a nervousness about speaking up at all (over and above any natural British reserve about ‘not making a fuss’). I would welcome any thoughts on what the best support allies can offer. I was encouraged by the recent campaign on inclusive workplaces: their point was that ‘inclusion starts with hello’: with that principle of dignity for all, you cannot go far wrong.
Alex Clare is the author of He’s Gone, featuring DI Robyn Bailley, a trans woman.
Chat to Alex on Twitter at @_alexandraclare.