Seth Cohen
Applying Optimistic Thinking to Complex Community Challenges

The moral imperative of being better LGBTQ allies

It's about more than supporting gay marriage and it takes more than sharing a Facebook post

“I say I am an ally. But am I being an ally?”

That was the question running through my mind as I sat among 50 LGBTQ activists at a conference in Salzburg, Austria, earlier this year. The gathering, part of the Schusterman Family Foundation-sponsored Connection Points initiative, was a summit of Jewish LGBTQ activists from around the world. As the only straight, cisgender male at the conference, I did my best to explain my presence at the event and express my affiliation to the LGBTQ community as a committed ally who demonstrates my support through action.

But as the conference wore on, I found myself increasingly asking: “Am I?” “Do I?”

As I spoke the words, I had no doubt that they were sincere. But in this environment, where my experience was completely different from those around me, I struggled to understand my capability to authentically and empathically support their community.

My experience and the questions it prompted have served as a source of reflection as we enter LGBT History Month, a time for us to contemplate where the LGTBQ community has been, how far it has come and all the heroes, sung and unsung, who helped get it where it is today. Like so many civil rights struggles throughout history, the LGBTQ rights movement has been, and continues to be, driven by those within the community facing discrimination. But history has also shown us the significant power that is often wielded by that community’s strongest allies.

For example, in 2013, musicians Macklemore and Ryan Lewis released “Same Love,” a song that powerfully tackles issues of LGBTQ equality, and its massive success defied the conventions of Top 40 hip-hop. By confronting LGBTQ equality in a musical genre often known for its pejorative treatment of the gay community, Macklemore stepped far outside his comfort zone — a space defined by Judith Barwick, author of Danger in the Comfort Zone, as “a behavioral state within which a person operates in an anxiety-neutral position”.

Indeed, the triumph of “Same Love” is a stark example of the benefits of pushing yourself in this way: into what many call “productive discomfort,” a constructive shift away from what’s easy that can be a powerful catalyst for self-reflection and, ultimately, action. Which poses the question: What does it mean to be an ally? Do allies have a moral imperative to move beyond their comfort zones and embrace productive discomfort?

Prior to this summer’s conference, I was confident in my status as an ally: I was a strong advocate for marriage equality and signed petitions, posted on social media and supported my friends and colleagues who were personally impacted by the issue. I voted for candidates, supported companies and endorsed activists who championed the cause. But marriage equality was in my comfort zone. My efforts, for all that they were productive, were undeniably familiar.

As I have come to learn, being an LGBTQ ally is about more than supporting gay marriage. It’s also about advocating for less widely known but equally essential causes, like those that pertain to transgender equality. Bathroom rights, for example, are not just a matter of principle but one of personal safety. Ensuring that the transgender community has bathroom access equal to cisgender men and women — and creating legal frameworks that consistently protect transgender individuals from harassment — is a moral imperative.

But being an advocate for bathroom access requires more than sharing a Facebook post, an action well within the confines of my comfort zone. It means expressing to business owners, managers and even my own office landlord that non-binary bathroom access is important to me as a customer and visitor. It means becoming more knowledgeable and outspoken about the issues. It means publicly and practically advocating for laws that protect employees from discrimination.

While I wouldn’t classify these actions as uncomfortable, each of them will take me an additional step past my comfort zone. And until these lesser-known issues become as pervasively advocated as marriage equality, I know that my personal advocacy has the potential to push those around me into a space of productive discomfort, allowing them to assess their own capabilities as allies and as stewards of the moral imperative that comes with that responsibility.

Importantly, being an ally also means listening — actively and with intention. There’s great power in being an ally and stepping outside of one’s comfort zone, but there’s also great power in listening to, supporting and ensuring that those who are often ignored have a space for their voices to be heard.

When it comes to actions and listening, who better than us in the Jewish community to help take on the role of steward — to be leaders in pushing past our comfort zones to create positive change? Our experiences and our history have fueled our commitment to fairness, compassion and open-mindedness, values that call upon us to fervently denounce injustice. But even more than that, we believe in the importance of action, of tackling this injustice where it lives. The concept of naaseh v’nishmah (do first, understand later) defines Judaism as a tradition of deed rather than intention. Indeed, it was this tradition that compelled Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel to walk arm-in-arm with Martin Luther King, Jr., in Selma at the height of the civil rights movement, “praying with his feet” and putting into action the Jewish values he preached every day.

To be sure, the moral imperative to be an ally to the LGTBQ community aligns with the Jewish community and our broader society’s basic appreciation of human dignity, equality and safety. But this truth on its own is not enough to incite the action we need, and it once again prompts the question: though we say we are allies, are we? And more importantly, how can we be better allies? The answers may push us past our comfort zones and into a place of productive discomfort.

And that’s a great place to start.

About the Author
Seth Cohen is the Chief Impact Officer of Forbes and the founder of Applied Optimism, a global consulting and community design lab that helps organizations and leaders design and apply optimistic solutions to complex challenges.
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