Are LGBT allies all a lie?

I heard the term ‘ally’ pop up a number of times during debates over LGBT+ inclusivity in the workplace at a recent Diversity & Inclusion conference. There was a clear emphasis on encouraging people/employees to show their support for the LGBT+ community. This is great, right?

At a similar time, Absolut graced us with a new campaign which attempts to ‘recruit’ more ‘LGBT+ allies’. In true Absolut form, the physical product of the ‘Drop of Love’ campaign is a limited edition bottle. For this, Absolut traveled to hate marches around the world, collected their signs and extracted the ink to be used on their own bottles. The message? Love conquers hate. While this message is powerful (if overworked), it’s the ‘ally recruitment’ aspect of the campaign which I struggle to get my head around.

As this word crops up more and more in the corporate world and mainstream media, I can’t help but wonder; what purpose do ‘allies’ actually serve?

The war of the words

For context, ‘ally’ is a term used to describe someone who supports the fair treatment in society of people who identify as LGBT+. This is positive, progressive and it would be wrong to underestimate how vital this support is.

However, to me the word ‘ally’ has always been associated with war. It conjures an image of two sides battling relentlessly for what they believe is right. In dictionary examples, sentences using this word are (almost entirely) military related, referring to some sort of political conflict. For example, Cambridge Online Dictionary kindly reminds us that ‘Cuba became an ally of the Soviet Union in the 1950s.’ I can’t speak for all gay males, but I would rather my interest in men was pared down to something a little less warmongering...

I worry that while equality and inclusivity are the ultimate goals, such aggressive connotations could redirect us blindly down a dangerous path.

The fact is that while we intend to unite straight people with the LGBT+ community, giving this support its own label puts both groups in a completely separate box. This goes against the entire principle of inclusivity and that’s where I get stuck.

For some, labels can provide a sense of belonging. For others, they take away the feeling of freedom. Is it possible to have both? I spoke to author and blogger Ben Brooks-Dutton about the terminology and he had his own view on the words I was using.

When I asked Ben about his connection to the LGBT+ community, Ben - a heterosexual male - explained that the idea of ‘communities’ is not something he often considers. To him, the word stirs up a notion of ‘them-and-us-ness’. He reminds me that communities, by definition, are made up of people with a particular characteristic in common. This cannot happen without a degree of exclusion.  

I would never dismiss the idea of communities completely. There are areas all over the world where LGBT+ people would be at serious risk without their unity and privacy. Even in places where being LGBT+ is celebrated, the feeling of ‘not being alone’ cannot be underestimated. However, as we preach inclusivity at a time when sexuality and gender are becoming increasingly fluid, maybe we should reassess the criteria of our own ‘communities’. As Ben wisely suggests; “We need to look beyond who we choose to sleep with, what colour our skin is, or how we choose to live our lives to discover other values that we have in common.”

The Absolut campaign in my Junk

I spoke briefly about the Drop of Love campaign by Absolut, which works with Stonewall to recruit ‘Absolut Allies’. The entire concept intrigued me so I decided to delve a bit deeper. It seems that Absolut and Stonewall have teamed up to ‘create a guide that will empower you to become an Absolut Ally.’ Ignoring how I already feel about the word ‘ally’, I thought, this sounds pretty good, I can’t wait to learn how to support my fellow LGBT+ peers!

I just have one problem...WHERE IS THIS GUIDE?! There is no link to the famed document and nothing to download, but apparently if one is ‘curious’ they can sign themselves up.

Ok, that’s fine I guess.

The ‘recruitment’, ‘pledge’ or ‘sign up’ process is like any other online form; name, email, date of birth - all the usual bits and pieces.

Ah, but of course it is mandatory that one politely ticks ‘yes please’ to receiving info about Absolut products, events and offers - neatly disguised by the question ‘would you like to?’ Well, no I wouldn’t like to; but I can’t progress with my quest to find the sacred guide or my ‘pledge’ without. I bite my tongue and accept the terms, hoping to receive some clues in my inbox as to where this guide might be.

Alas, it took a few days but I did finally receive an email from Absolut directing me on how to begin my journey as an ally (although I think I already qualify). The email ended up in ‘Junk’, which I only spotted because I set out to look for it. This is a problem in itself; an email in my Junk folder does not scream ‘need-to-know information’. What’s more, i’m sure many people would have forgotten their ‘pledge’ by the time the email came around!

In reality, direct online access or a PDF download would have much more reach and longevity; something which can be easily shared, celebrated and learnt from as a result. What use is an email which I might never read?

In Absolut fairness, the Junk location of the email does not reflect its contents, which actually provided some really useful links and made valuable points on staying informed about LGBT+ issues. However, what irritates me still is the necessity of signing up for marketing emails in order pledge your position as an ‘ally’.

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Absolut’s partnership with Stonewall is fantastic and they clearly have genuinely beneficial guidance to share. I just feel like Absolut have put some annoying obstacles in the way which make it hard to access and are unhelpful for the cause. ‘Allies’ is not an exclusive club, and guidance on becoming an ally should not imply that. We should all have the opportunity to learn, regardless of whether we check our Junk mail or want to give away our email in the first place. People want to support each other and they want to show that support. Offering the title of ‘Ally’ in exchange for marketing communications feels exploitative of this.

My worry is that people (and companies) are able to neatly gift wrap their ‘support’ with rainbow paper before sticking on the solid label of ‘ally’, without truly understanding what this means to the LGBT community.

Now what?

If we are going to create a network of allies, we need to make sure the title has a standard. A smaller group of heterosexual people who genuinely stand for and integrate with LGBT+ people - with or without a label - means a lot more than a huge database of people with a rainbow lanyard and no idea.

I asked Sophia Matveeva, CEO of fashion brand Enty what she thinks being an ally should involve. She told me that it consists of two parts: being and doing. Being referring to one’s beliefs and doing referring to the actions you take to hold up that belief. “To be a true ally, you have to act in line with your beliefs. Nice thoughts alone are not enough.”

This does happen, and the media recently had a field day when England cricket captain Joe Root called out Shannon Gabriel on an alleged homophobic comment. I am pretty sure that Root hasn’t signed up to be an Absolute Ally, and he has probably inspired more people to stand up for LGBT+ equality than a bottle of vodka ever could.  

We need to see more campaigns and programmes which really inspire actions, rather than the affirmation of a title.

Chris PearceLGBT+, allies, marketing