Book Review: The Savvy Ally
It’s June, and that means it’s Pride Month. Stores, government buildings, and websites are awash in Gilbert Baker’s rainbow flag. Parades and marches and other commemorations this year are a mix of virtual and in-person, as the world tries to get back to ‘normal’.
For those of us who are not part of the LGBTQ+ community, it’s hard sometimes to know how to support our family, friends and coworkers. At a time when violence against the community is much too common, waving a rainbow flag feels inadequate. Let’s face it: not everyone is a hardcore activist, willing to march in the streets and risk arrest. But you don’t have to be that kind of activist to be an ally. You just need a guidebook.
That’s why Jeannie Gainsburg’s informative and entertaining book, The Savvy Ally: A Guide for Becoming a Skilled LGBTQ+ Advocate, is such a breath of fresh air. Published in March, 2020, just as the pandemic hit, you may have missed it. That’s why I wanted to highlight it here during Pride.
Gainsburg begins with an assumption: that the reader wants to be an ally. So don’t expect her to tell you all the reasons why you should. What she does explain, in an often-funny, conversational style that packs in a lot of practical information, is how to do it.
The general attitude towards the LGBTQ+ community has changed for the better at lightning-speed, but sometimes allies are intimidated by those changes, particularly in language. Confused about the meaning of the letters LGBTQ? Confused about pronouns?
Gainsburg assures anyone who is reluctant to speak out for fear of using the wrong word or letters that they should not fear being imperfect in their support. If you’re unsure of how to address someone, ask them. If you’re unsure how best to use your voice, your position, or your privilege, ask. The goal is to be a consistent, effective ally. Perfection is not a requirement.
A lot of this is really based on respect, which seems simplistic, but it’s not. It requires allies who are willing to step back and not try to be the center of attention: the LGBTQ+ community is perfectly capable of representing itself. It requires allies who will not be offended if their use of words is occasionally corrected. It requires allies who are open-minded and willing to learn. In other words: it’s not about you.
It took me many years to realize the power I have as an ally to the LGBTQ+ community. Then a friend emailed me to say that his son had just come out as gay, and though they’d already had ‘the talk’ about sex, my friend knew nothing about gay sex. Could I help him? Of course I did, and was glad to do it. Allies are not just there to support the LGBTQ+ community, but to advocate, educate and enlighten those on the outside. Gainsburg shows the many ways we can - and must - do that, because silent support is not an option.
What I appreciate about this book - though I already knew a lot of the material - was that she covers everything. You’ll learn that ‘coming out’ is not a one-and-done announcement, but a fluid, often complicated series of decisions. Confused about gender identity? She’ll explain it. Not sure how to respond to people who are less open minded than you are? She has great suggestions for her readers. If you want to do more and learn more, not just during Pride month but all year long, this is the book for you.
To be fair, she had my attention on the first page, recounting a story from her childhood:
“When I was ten, my mother leaned across the table at Serendipity, a restaurant in Manhattan, and said to me, ‘Did you know that all the waiters here are gay?’ My conclusion: Gay men are nice, clean, polite people who bring you fantastic food. These were clearly superior human beings.”
Well, not all of them are superior. And not all superior human beings are gay men. But I can name a few names.
The Savvy Ally: A Guide to Becoming a Skilled LGBTQ+ Advocate by Jeannie Gainsburg is available wherever books are sold (so get it from your favorite indie bookstore). Learn more about Jeannie, her presentations, and her work at savvyallyaction.com.