Straight student 'allies' herself with GLBT rights

Queers and Allies president advocates working for equality

The most prominent figures in women's rights, such as Susan B. Anthony and Gloria Steinem, are women. The most prominent figures from the civil rights movement, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, are black. So some people might assume that those fighting for the rights of gays and lesbians, whether nationally or on campus, are gay.

Not so at AU. Allison Waithe is straight and president of the AU Queers and Allies club. She works for the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Ally Resource Center and Stonewall Democrats United, a group mobilizing GLBT people to vote for Democratic candidates this year. The latter two take up about 26 hours each week, she says.

She is what is often called an "ally." GLBTA Resource Center Director Mindy Michels defines this term as someone who becomes educated on issues important to the GLBT community and uses one's heterosexuality to stand up against the stigma attached to not being straight.

"I don't get teased necessarily," said Waithe, a cheerful junior with a ready smile, dry wit and blue wristband that reads "Vote Democrat" in white letters. "But people do think I'm gay."

That doesn't bother her much, though. When students see her around campus or in class, they probably think she is straight because that's what people naturally assume about others, she said - so "it's not so horrible if people think I'm gay every once in awhile."

Waithe wasn't always nonchalant. Even as a high school student involved in the gay-straight alliance club at Shaker Heights High School outside of Cleveland. "I was immature as any sophomore was," she said. "I wanted it be absolutely clear that I wasn't gay."

The next year she met a freshman in her high school journalism class who later became her best friend. Before the second semester that year, he came out first as bisexual and later as gay. "He just stopped denying he was gay after awhile," Waithe said. Most of his friends were supportive. Some were not and stopped being friends with him. He is now a freshman at Ohio University, and he and Waithe are still friends.

During the second half of high school, Waithe became more vocal against the homophobia she encountered - even in a city that she says is far more tolerant than D.C.

"I kind of realized that as an ally, I have a unique voice," she said. "I started saying, 'You can't say "That's so gay" because you're attacking someone's identity. That's unfair.'"

When she came to AU, she needed a job and started working in a Federal Work-Study position with the GLBTA Resource Center. She has done a variety of jobs within the office, and worked with programs that bring speakers to classes and connect GLBT prospective students to GLBT students at AU. "She's willing to pitch in wherever she's needed," Michels said.

In what she says is "sort of a coincidence," that job led to her membership in Queers and Allies and an internship this summer with the Stonewall Democrats. As an anthropology major, she said, "I needed an internship that proved I can do something."

During her internship, she worked with a Michigan State University student to start Stonewall Democrats chapters at colleges around the country. She is working with the group through the Nov. 2 election, she said.

"I feel comfortable in the community because I'm knowledgeable about it," Waithe said. However, she does not want to focus her life on working in the GLBT community because she disagrees with "identity-based politics," meaning "politics or movements that are based on one single characteristic."

This would include the women's rights movement, work for racial equality and even for the rights of GLBT people. But since people identify themselves as having a gender, sexual orientation, racial identity and having other characteristics, she said, "identity-based politics" tends to leave some people behind. Eventually she wants to start a coalition that would advocate for everyone's civil rights.

"We should all strive for a world in which no one should be oppressed," Michels said. "Allison works more than anyone I know to make that a reality."

Work on GLBT issues takes up about half the time Waithe spends on extracurricular activities. "I think Queers and Allies is particularly close to her heart," said senior Lauren Zepp, Waithe's "big" sister in the Phi Mu sorority. "She often talks about activities she is planning with Queers and Allies and events she is speaking at."

The club's mission is partially to be a place where students of all sexual orientations can be safe and talk, and partially to educate about issues facing the GLBT community. This is important even though there is much talk about AU's relatively high gay population, members said.

"Whether true or not, we are a large community," said senior Daniel Reeder, a club member who is gay. "We need to make our presence visible."

And allies are a big part of this because they encourage other straight people to get involved, said club member K.T. Thirion, who is a lesbian. "It shows a great deal of the straight community that you won't be assumed to be gay," said Thirion, a freshman.

"It comes down to support," said graduate student Laurie Hughes, a club member who is straight. "In any minority group, they feel like they're on the outside looking in."

Waithe said she will never be completely able to relate to GLBT people because she is not gay. "I've never had the experience of coming out to anyone, so I can't identify with that," she said.

But she can relate to feeling like an outsider because her father is black and her mother is white. Her parents are divorced, and she says that sometimes when she is with her mother, people think she was adopted. "In general, I don't like being conspicuous," she said of being "the black girl with the white mom."

Being an ally is one thing Waithe doesn't mind being vocal about - and she says just having gay friends doesn't qualify.

"Everything that affects straight people affects gay people too," she said. "I think people feel that, 'If I don't want to kill gay people and I have a gay best friend, that's as far as I have to go."

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