Jac Tomlins says we need to make it easier for people to be allies

Jac Tomlins took to the stage at Better Together 2023 introducing herself as “an old dyke from way back” and delivered a bold message on how LGBTIQA+ communities need to be better at creating pathways for engagement with allies.

So Loquacious · Better Together 2023 Jac Tomlins

I want to start a conversation.

I want to start a conversation about change — about how we create the change that makes the world, or our small part of it — better for queer folk.

I’m standing in a room full of change-makers. Everyone here is making the world better for our community — by being at this conference, by being out in the world, by the work you do in your organisations and communities. And some days that’s incredibly difficult and I know, all too well, it can take its toll. I know lots of us have been hurt and that can make this work especially hard.

I came out as a baby-dyke almost 40 years ago and I’ve been helping to create change alongside you and many others ever since. And lately I’ve been reflecting on those 40 years; not so much on what we changed (which is a lot), but how we did that change. And I’ve also been thinking about the cost, the impact — on me, on you, on our collective mental health.

And with so much more we still want to change, I’ve been wondering if there are things we could do differently, things that might make us more effective change-makers and, maybe, even reduce the toll on our mental health.

What I’m about to say might be challenging; it will certainly raise a lot of questions, but it’s a conversation I’ve been having with a lot of advocates over the past couple of years, and I think it’s a conversation we all need to have.

Change happens in a lot of ways but, critically, it happens at the intersection of the queer community and the non-queer community. How we engage with the non-queer community directly affects how successful we are in effecting positive change for us.

And right now, I don’t think we’re doing that very well.

I think we can do it better and I think we need to do it better.

I know that there are many, many horribly queerphobic people out there who are never going to change, and I actually think we shouldn’t waste our energies trying. But they are absolutely not the majority and there is a vast ‘movable middle’ out there — our neighbours, colleagues, family members, people we play sport or study with — people who want to be our allies, and people who, with the right sort of engagement — will become our allies.

But right now we don’t make it easy for them. In fact, often, we make it more difficult.

We ask — actually, we demand — that they do a whole bunch of things.

We ask them to use, correctly and consistently, language and definitions and terminology that we don’t as a community even agree on ourselves, and that change on an almost weekly basis.

We ask them to educate themselves about our lived experience and not rely on us to educate them. And that means they’ve got to get their head around the L and the G and the B and the T and the I and the Q and the A and whatever else we continue to add to that list.

We ask them to learn about the concept of intersectionality and to understand the complexity and impact of race, ethnicity, cultural background, disability, age, First Nations status — and more. Even when we don’t always do that ourselves.

We ask them to abandon or disregard concepts and ideas that they might reasonably have believed were fixed, defined and irrefutable, and to do so without time to think, process and reassess.

We ask them to cast aside their deeply held religious beliefs, and we are certainly not above ridiculing and denigrating those beliefs. And sometimes we forget that many of our own community have a religious faith, too.

We ask them to question or deny their long-standing, fundamental core values and traditions, and we don’t think twice about dismissing or riding rough-shod over those values.

We demand their respect, when we don’t always give it.

And when they don’t do these things, or when they get them ‘wrong’, or when they don’t do them quickly enough, or well enough, or in the ‘right’ way, we berate them. We attack, we criticise, we dismiss.

I think we are making it unnecessarily difficult for the very people who are eager to support us, and I think when we do these things, we alienate our allies. I think we need to do this differently.

I think we need to listen and hear more.

I think we need to assume good intentions more often.

I think we need to create a safe space for everyone, including non-queer people.

I think we need to see their effort and motivation.

I think we need to understand their fears.

I think we need to allow space and time for their questions.

I think we need to respect how important their faith is to them.

I think we need to try to understand their core values.

I think we need to see their families and cultural backgrounds.

I think we need to acknowledge that what we ask can sometimes be challenging.

I think we need to address the impact of our trauma on how we work.

I think we need to sometimes sit with our own discomfort.

I think we need to give them time to process and change.

And if you’re thinking, I’m sounding like some kind of apologist for straight people or homophobes — or that this is all a little naive — let me assure you that is not the case. This is not some kind of turn the other cheek philosophy; it’s not about letting queer phobia go unchallenged; and it’s not about letting people hide, or deny or dissemble.

It’s not about letting people off the hook — quite the opposite, in fact.

And it comes from a place of strength, not weakness.

I’m saying all this because strategically it’s what works.

This is about how we engage with the people who actively want to support us; it’s about how we work with them not against them; how we support them to support us.

But it’s also about how we shift those people who still aren’t there yet. It’s about creating an environment in which our opponents become a little less confident in the surety of their position and are ready to consider an alternative view. It’s about instilling the slightest of doubt in their own minds and then offering a different perspective.

It’s about giving them a sense of safety so they can change their mind.

It’s how we create the change we want to see in the world. It’s based on those almost 40 years of change-making I mentioned at the start.

And, though there’s not time for it here, it’s absolutely backed up by the science of neuropsychology and the evidence about how people change.

I believe this is how we take people on a journey with us; it’s how we move them in our direction; it’s how we get them from no to yes — and that’s how we build that change we all want to see.

But truly, I believe that working in this way can also be better for us — the advocates. I believe it can actually lessen the negative impact, and support positive mental health.

I think we might find that it is less exhausting and more sustainable than constantly being in fight mode.

I think we might find that we have more control of the process and a greater sense of agency.

I think we might find ourselves on the back foot less often and more able to be proactive.

I think we might find it helps us be a little more detached and creates a greater sense of safety.

I think we might find there is less resistance out there and more engagement than we thought.

I think we might discover there is less queer phobia in the world and a lot more just plain ignorance.

I think we might be affirmed by what we achieve and rewarded by our successes.

And you might not think of it as advocacy or fighting, but it absolutely is and, I think in the end it’s actually more effective.

For me, working this way has certainly reduced the toll it’s taken on my mental health without a doubt. It’s given me greater capacity and long-term sustainability. But, most of all, it’s helped me turn some of that hurt into healing.

Follow Jac Tomlins on Medium.

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Better Together explores the current issues facing the LGBTIQA+ movement in Australia. Delegates representing Australia’s diverse LGBTIQA+ communities and organisations have come together to share ideas and experiences, learn from each other, forge alliances and ultimately work together to build a better world for LGBTIQA+ Australians.

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