Interview: How to Be a Straight Ally
Interview: How to Be a Straight Ally
by Emma Tattenbaum-Fine
My late godmother, whom I called “Tante” (which means “Auntie” in Yiddish), wore a T-shirt to gay pride parades when she attended (she always attended) with me and my two mommies. Her T-shirt said “Straight but not narrow,” and it fascinated me as an 8-year-old. She wasn’t gay, but she knew it was her responsibility as a straight person to stand with gay couples and gay families.
I was a profoundly nerdy child, so if you gave me a play on words, I was likely to hang onto it. So “Straight but not narrow” clung to my memory just like that tight T-shirt clung to my Tante.
And when I fell for boys (I fell very late and very hard) in early college, I assessed my newfound identity as a woman who definitely liked men. That’s when Tante’s T-shirt came back to me. There was a name for what I was: a name besides “That girl with two moms” and the more trendy and recent “Queerspawn.” My new title was “ally.”
It seems so obvious that I would be an ally to my parents and to my community of theater-making LGBTQ peers and colleagues, but taking something for granted isn’t the same as actually doing it. What does it actually mean to be a straight ally? What does it mean in an active, everyday way, like when you’re out and about doing things? How do you buy groceries like an ally? Host a dinner party like an ally? Peel a potato like an ally? (I’m a little hungry so there is a definite theme to these examples.)
I called in a correspondent for this one: my friend’s mom. Her name is Brenda. She has two grown gay sons and, like me, she is a straight ally to the people most dear to her in the whole world.
Here is a massively condensed and somewhat scripted version of our very fun and, for me, eye-opening 45-minute phone conversation.
Brenda, what was it like when your second son came out?
Brenda: When Justin came out, the bomb dropped. Andrew had been in New York when he came out the year before, but that didn’t feel immediate to us. But Justin was at home, and when you live in the suburbs of Georgia like we do, the first thing people ask when your son goes to college is “Does he have a girlfriend?” People measure success based on that.
My husband and I just knew that we needed some support. We found a terrific counselor as well as PFLAG (an organization that provides information for parents of LGBT kids). Our counselor was just right for us: church-based, but not religious. (My father was a minister and my husband also grew up going to church every Sunday.)
Tell me about your experience at Atlanta Gay Pride and how it redefined for you the critical role of “Mother as Ally.”
Brenda: It all started on MARTA (Atlanta’s public transportation), which I rode with my husband on the way to the parade carrying a giant sign that said, “I love my gay sons.” Men started coming up to me and saying things like, “Can I take your picture to send to my mom? She doesn’t speak to me, but I want her to see you.” Or, “I wish my mom was like you.” All these grown men in jockstraps and all kinds of outfits wanted hugs and wanted to take their pictures with me.
I was a basket case at the end of the day. I was an emotional wreck. I just went to the parade to support Justin, but that day was one of the most transforming times of my life.
You introduced me to the idea of “coming out with your kids.” What does that mean?
Brenda: Our counselor gave us an assignment at our very first session: “Come out to 10 of your closest friends. Let them know that your sons are gay.” This was terrific advice. Our friends were just fine with it and it’s true that you must come out with your kids. It’s very bad juju if you lead a double life, with your kids coming out and you staying closeted. Remember that it’s harder for your kids than it is for you, no matter what you’re feeling.
None of our friends gave us the cold shoulder, so then I was able to relax. But you come to realize, even if they had—“Hey, if you don’t like me and my kids…go away.”
The most important thing for gay kids to remember is patience. Be patient with your parents. You had to decide when and how to come out, and so do they.
Brenda Neisler is now retired after 32 years as a high school media specialist. During that time, she identified her classroom as a SAFE space (with a rainbow sticker) and students came to her with their struggles and difficult stories. This affirmed for her the critical role that allies must play in the lives of LGBTQ youth.
Emma Tattenbaum-Fine is a comedian with two moms who writes for The Huffington Post. Her comedy has been featured on Jezebel, BustMagazine.com, Gawker; in Time Out NY and Comedy Central’s Indecision 2012 in Tribeca. She has appeared on PoliticsNation with Al Sharpton, with Reggie Watts in a web series for JASH and also on Amy Poehler's Smart Girls at the Party. She has created content for Google's Original Channels, Funny or Die, and as a sketch comedian with a residency at YouTube's NY studios. Visit her at www.emmatattenbaumfine.com.