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This Pride, be a good person, not just an ‘ally’

It's Pride time, and I've been thinking about the idea of an "ally," or someone who wants to support a marginalized group to which they don't belong. The concept is both appealing and fraught, and I've been wondering where it comes from, what it's good for, and where to go from here.

The first bit is easy enough: All roads lead to PFLAG, formerly known as "Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays." The organization dates back to 1972, when a woman named Jeanne Manford walked with her son Monty in New York's Pride parade.

Inundated with requests from marchers to talk to their hostile parents, Ms. Manford started an outreach group. To PFLAG, Ms. Manford is "the mother of the ally movement," the original model for a straight person who believed in queer human rights and was willing to say so.

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It's a beautiful idea, one that gave purpose to early supporters of lesbians and gays. As a broad concept, it's also been useful to others, including white people who reject racism and men who believe that women are equal, too.

But just as PFLAG rebranded itself to modernize – dropping its long name for an acronym that didn't ignore transgender issues, for example – "ally," too, might need some reconsidering.

Various forms of surface-level social justice have become profitable since the dangerous, radical days of those early Pride marches and it's now fairly easy to show up for the fun stuff while not doing much of consequence.

Take the pop singer Katy Perry, who was accused earlier this month of "performative allyship" after an apology for past instances of racism (dressing up as a geisha, fetishizing black women's hair). Her penitence seemed empty, a costume of political consciousness worn to sell concert tickets, then taken off before anything meaningful had been done.

Saying sorry after making a mistake is a good first step and this stuff is hard, so allies should always be ready to apologize and learn. What's equally important is what comes next, which generally includes yielding both attention and cash.

That said, money isn't enough either: Corporate sponsorship was one of the concerns cited by a group called No Justice No Pride when it stopped Washington's June 10 parade.

Asking organizers to prioritize trans, racialized and two-spirit concerns, the group demanded refusing sponsorship from defence contractors such as Lockheed Martin and financial giants such as Wells Fargo, which benefits from mass incarceration and private prisons through its investments.

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No Justice No Pride also wants the elimination of uniformed police in the march, an echo of last summer's Toronto Pride shutdown by Black Lives Matter.

This weekend's Toronto parade won't include uniformed officers; other BLM requests, including the re-institution of the festival's South Asian stage, were also fulfilled. Meanwhile, Philadelphia's newly unveiled Pride flag features brown and black stripes in recognition that many racially diverse people are also LGBTQ.

Allegiance isn't simple when communities are challenged to confront prejudice from within, not just without, and both disagreement and support followed all of these actions. It's equally complicated to be an ally – or maybe, 45 years after PFLAG showed up, it's time to update the term.

I've heard that post-"ally," the aim is to be an "accomplice" – someone fully invested, rather than able to walk away when things get tough. This reinforces a personal belief that the main reason for straight people to hate homophobia (et cetera) is because poisonous prejudices hurt us all.

On the other hand, "accomplice" sounds a bit goofy, as if we're all cat burglars in black turtlenecks out to steal human rights, the most valuable jewels of all.

Plus, as a 58-year-old PFLAG mom recently pointed out to me, there's already a word for someone who does more than talk: "activist," which is as preferred and rejected as the other two terms.

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Maybe the answer is to get a tattoo of the letter "a" and then move on. Oh allies, you were just trying to help and now everybody's mad.

Remember: The real goal is to be a good person, such as Jeanne Manford, who hit the streets out of love for her son and a sense of justice. As is usually the case, actions speak louder than words.

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About the Author
Journalist and editor

Denise Balkissoon is an editor in the Globe’s Life section and a columnist in Comment. The National Magazine Award-winning writer is also a co-founder of The Ethnic Aisle, a blog about race and ethnicity in the Greater Toronto Area. More

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