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Allyship takes more than a rainbow flag. rainbow washing does more harm than good.

Updated: Mar 4

How businesses can go beyond tokenistic allyship (rainbow washing) and promote genuine inclusion of LGBT+ communities

Content Warning: Discussions of transphobic actions.

Rainbow flags

Recently, you may have seen many businesses celebrating World Pride or Midsumma Festival with displays to promote LGBTIQA+ inclusion. From shops, to airlines, it seems like rainbow flags have been everywhere, signalling to customers that this business is an ally to the LGBTIQA+ community.

It’s great to see businesses wanting to create inclusive environments and make people feel safe through their display of allyship. However, not all allyship is created equal, and there is a crucial difference between tokenistic allyship and genuine allyship.

Take airlines for example. You may have seen more than one Australian airline altering their logo to feature the rainbow pride flag this month. And yet if a non-binary person goes to buy a ticket, they are likely to find themselves unable to select the gender neutral title ‘Mx’, or a gender other than male or female. In fact, as each of those forms are a required field, they’re actually forced to select a title and gender that doesn’t match how they identify.

An online form that online provides the gender options of "male" or "female".

Now one might argue that for flights, the passenger details have to match one’s identity documents and thus they keep these outdated options. But take a look at your licence or passport. You won’t find a written title anywhere, and intersex and non-binary folks who’ve gone through the process of officially updating IDs are allowed to list X as the sex marker on their passport.

So if our government issued identity documents allow for this, why haven’t airlines caught up? Particularly those who want to be inclusive?

At Let’s Talk About X, we truly value allyship. Companies play a key role in creating inclusive environments for LGBT+ people through the efforts they make, but they need to understand the difference between tokenistic and genuine allyship. They need to go beyond simply displaying a flag, and ensure they work towards creating a truly inclusive environment.

What is Allyship?

Allyship is the act of using one's privilege to support and advocate for a marginalized group, such as people of colour, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, people with disabilities. We’re strong believers in allyship at Let’s Talk About X, and train people to be better allies for members of LGBTIQA+ communities.

In the context of LGBTIQA+ rights and inclusion, allyship involves actively working to create safe and welcoming environments for members of these communities. It takes a lot of listening and learning, in order to understand people’s experiences and the barriers they face. It also takes the strength to challenge these barriers and work to break down the structures and systems in our society that discriminate.

Genuine allyship isn’t easy. It’s hard work. It takes a willingness to acknowledge your own privilege, and sometimes that’s hard to look at. It takes courage to step aside and help give someone else a go. It can be risky to call things out and challenge the status quo.

It’s difficult to be a genuine ally

At times, allyship can be exhausting. At times it can feel unsafe. People can be resistant to change, making it feel like you’re pushing a huge weight uphill. Knockbacks can hurt. People’s racism, ableism and unwillingness to acknowledge problems can hurt. But as an ally, you push on anyway, because you realise that it can’t hurt you half as badly as it hurts people who are part of those groups.

The problem is, when something is difficult, people often try to take shortcuts. They want to appear to be allies, without actually doing any of the hard work, or making any of the changes needed to improve the lives of those from marginalised groups. Instead, they engage in tokenistic displays of allyship.

What is tokenistic allyship?

Tokenistic allyship is when someone claims to be an ally to a certain group, but their actions do not match their words. Tokenistic allyship often involves surface-level gestures that are designed to give the appearance of support, but do not actually contribute to meaningful change. An example of tokenistic allyship is rainbow washing.

It’s not just individuals who can be guilty of tokenistic allyship. Organisations are often the worst culprits, aiming to present an image of LGBTIQA+ inclusion, without actually making any changes to improve the experiences of any LGBTIQA+ people.

When it comes to LGBTIQA+ inclusion, we see this all the time and it’s central to why we started Let’s Talk About X. We’re not shy in calling it out. We’re not about helping people tick boxes and appear to be doing something. All of our training is designed to equip people with strategies to create meaningful change.

Here are some examples of tokenistic allyship we’ve seen from organisations such as schools and companies:

  • Changing a logo to feature a rainbow flag during Pride Month, but not taking any other action to support LGBTIQA+ people

  • Fundraising for, or donating to an LGBT+ charity to "tick a box," without actually learning about what members of these communities face, or engaging with them

  • Celebrating days such as ‘wear it purple’ or ‘trans awareness day’, without doing anything to promote inclusion the rest of the year

  • Displaying posters to promote trans inclusion, without providing basic facilities for gender diverse people such as all gender bathrooms

  • Displaying a rainbow flag in a shop window or listing a business as LGBT+ friendly on Google, without training staff to avoid misgendering customers

  • Leaders making LGBT+ issues about themselves, rather than listening to the experiences and needs of LGBT+ individuals they’re supposed to serve (for example, “I run an inclusive workplace” rather than “what can I do to make our workplace even more inclusive?”).

What’s wrong with tokenistic allyship?

Surely, doing something is better than doing nothing right? So if a company wants to display a pride flag without doing anything else, I’d forgive you for wondering what the harm is in that.

However, tokenistic allyship can be harmful to LGBTIQA+ people because it creates a false sense of support without actually addressing the issues that impact the community. It can also perpetuate harmful stereotypes and reinforce the status quo, rather than promoting meaningful change.

Let’s look at schools for instance. These days many schools seek to promote inclusion with a club or society for LGBTIQA+ students and allies. I worked at a school that had one of these clubs. The mantra was to help students celebrate their identities. The school wanted to be seen to be inclusive. To be seen to accept LGBTIQA+ students.

The club held a celebration at lunch time during Trans Awareness Week. This was all done with the apparent support of the principal. Overall, a few younger students and staff showed up, but their small celebration had very little impact on the wider school community. What it did achieve, however, was in making the students feel a sense of acceptance and safety - and that’s what’s dangerous.

In an environment that isn’t actually safe or inclusive, it’s dangerous to put up this façade.

During Trans Awareness Week, one of the gender diverse students felt safe enough to come to school and show the world who she is, wearing the school dress, rather than the shorts and shirt prescribed based on the gender she was enrolled as. On that very day, she was yelled at for wearing the ‘wrong’ uniform, by the principal of the school.

Imagine the devastation a young person must feel when they realise their school isn’t safe at all. When they realise that despite the posters and celebrations, they’re not accepted. Token gestures such as posters, announcements and celebrations mean nothing when LGBTIQA+ people are not supported by meaningful change to policies and structures that exclude us.

That’s why tokenistic allyship simply isn’t good enough. A rainbow poster is not a substitute for an inclusive uniform policy or access to all gender bathrooms. It’s not a substitute for training teachers to use language that affirms a student’s identity.

Another problem with displays of tokenstic allyship is when businesses use it to profit off ‘the pink dollar’. They use surface level gestures such as displaying pride flags and making social media posts during pride month to attract LGBTIQA+ customers, hoping to cash in on this market without actually doing anything meaningful to support members of these communities.

We’re calling on organisations to be better than this and start making meaningful change.

How to be a genuine ally

Genuine allyship is important because it creates meaningful change and supports LGBTIQA+ individuals in tangible ways. It helps to create safe and welcoming environments where LGBTIQA+ people can thrive, and promotes greater understanding and acceptance of LGBTIQA+ experiences.

Here are some ways to practise genuine allyship for people from LGBTIQA+ communities:

1. Speak up when someone uses homophobic or transphobic language

At Let’s Talk About X, we believe in calling people in, rather than calling them out. One way of doing this is to ask something along the lines of: Did you know when you say …, it can make people feel … because …?

A gentle reminder like this is non-confrontational and encourages empathy. It’s educational and explanatory, rather than critical, but of course, the success of calling someone in is largely dependent on the tone in which you do it. An angry, condescending or sarcastic tone is likely to get the other person’s hackles up and render the calling in futile, so it’s ok to pick your timing - not all moments are the right moment.

Sometimes, you have to wait to discuss a homophobic or transphobic comment with someone until you feel you’re able to do it productively. Sometimes you simply don’t feel safe to call someone out, because you’re afraid they might be violent, aggressive or verbally abusive. It’s okay to protect yourself in these instances. Allies do what they can, when they can and need to admit that they can’t fight every battle.

2. Educate yourself on LGBTIQA+ issues and experiences

Start by listening to those around you and being open to learning from what they share. Of course, you can’t expect everyone to want to share, so don’t go around asking every LGBTIQA+ person in your life about the discrimination they’ve faced. When people do offer insight however, pay attention and let them do the talking.

Widen your bubble by doing some research. Seek out people with lived experiences and find out what they are saying. What are they calling for? What struggles are they facing? How do they think others can help?

Remember that LGBTIQA+ people are not one community, but are diverse, with broad ranging experiences. A white, gay person is likely to have had completely different experiences from a trans person of colour, or an intersex person. Just because you know a lot about one community, doesn’t mean you’re an expert on everyone’s experiences. Seek out diverse voices and learn what you can from them. Online platforms like Instagram, LinkedIn and TikTok are great for finding advocates from different groups who share their experiences.

3. Amplify the voices of LGBTIQA+ people

A simple way to start is by sharing posts from LGBTIQA+ organisations and advocates to widen their reach, but don’t just stop there. Amplifying is about creating space for marginalised groups to have their voices heard, so look for opportunities to do this.

Should Jill, a cis-female from HR, really be giving that induction on the importance of using gender neutral language with customers, or could that be outsourced to a trans person with lived experience of being misgendered?

Those keen to help people from LGBTIQA+ communities, who have done a lot of work in educating themselves, need to be careful not to take over. Rather than making assumptions or speaking for LGBTIQA+ people, focus on supporting them to speak for themselves.

4. Take concrete actions to support LGBTIQA+ people

Attend a rally, advocate for policies that promote inclusion and equality, do your research and consider the rights of people from these groups when casting your vote on election day.

Wear a pronoun pin to remind others that gender can’t be assumed based on appearance, and discuss their importance when people ask about it.

Advocate for policies that support LGBTIQA+ people, by taking actions such as promoting them on your social media, writing to your local MP, or calling the principal of your children’s school.

Within your workplace, update your systems to make them inclusive. For example, when collecting information about staff or customers, make sure you have more options than just Mr/Ms/Mrs and Male/Female/Prefer not to say. If you notice a form that’s not inclusive in your day to day life, for example at the doctor’s office, consider sending them an email asking that they update their options to be more inclusive.

A boarding pass with the title "Mr" when it should be the gender neutral "Mx".

5. Support businesses owned or run by LGBTIQA+ people

In a post-Covid landscape, small businesses are feeling the pressure more than ever. At least every now and then, consider swapping out some of the big players like Kmart and Target and buying things from small, LGBTIQA+ owned businesses instead.

We of course think that our stuff is great, but you can also find a range of other LGBTIQA+ owned businesses throughout Australia. This list is a great place to start.

6. Invest in training for yourself or your workplace

At Let’s Talk About X, we know that there are so many people out there who do their best and really want to support those from LGBTIQA+ communities. But without adequate training, this is doomed to fail, leaving customers and clients feeling unwelcome and excluded.

Take the fitness industry for example. Mel (he/they) has lost count of the number of reformer pilates studios they’ve visited once and never gone back to because the instructor has referred to everyone in the room as ‘ladies’. Of course, the instructors are never trying to be transphobic or exclude him. They just haven’t been provided with adequate training. They lack the understanding that gender shouldn’t be assumed based on physical appearance, and haven’t been taught the skill of using gender neutral language when delivering a class.

That’s why it’s so important that business owners invest in training for themselves and their staff, so they don’t risk losing clients because they’ve unknowingly excluded a whole group of people.

Create meaningful change for LGBTIQA+ people through genuine allyship

Genuine allyship may take time and hard work, but it’s also incredibly rewarding. Don’t just put up a flag or wear a rainbow lanyard, be a force for good and help improve people's lives by working to be an ally.

Keen to learn more about how to be an ally for LGBTIQA+ communities? Let’s Talk About X runs online training in consent and LGBTIQA+ inclusion for schools and workplaces.


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