New Research Explains What It Takes To Be A Real LGBT Ally

Professor Jacqueline M. Chen helps us understand what it means to be a true ally to the LGBT community.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | May 22, 2023

A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology explores what helps the numerically marginalized LGBT community feel more accepted and included in society.

I recently spoke with Jacqueline M. Chen, assistant professor at the University of Utah, to learn more about how acts of support by the cis-gender and straight community are received by LGBT individuals. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of LGBT allyship and how did you study it?

In earlier research, I studied how people decide whether an organization (like a university or business) has achieved diversity. In this work, I had found that underrepresented racial minorities in particular think about diversity as both:

  • Representation (the number of minorities in an organization)
  • Inclusion (the extent to which minorities in the organization feel included)

I thought this was interesting because it suggests that organizations must focus on inclusion in order to maximize how diverse they are perceived to be.

Building on this work, I observed that it's particularly important for members of marginalized groups who are likely to stay in the numeric minority – including LGBT individuals – to feel included. This observation inspired me to understand how straight, cisgender people can become good allies to the LGBT community.

Can you give a brief understanding of 'allyship' and its components? How is it different from providing general support?

Our research documented that allyship consists of three components:

  1. being accepting (or non-prejudiced)
  2. taking action (speaking up against discrimination and inequalities)
  3. being humble (acknowledging your own shortcomings and making an effort to improve)

Being a good ally is not the same as being generally supportive, though they are certainly related concepts.

Being generally supportive is about your willingness to help an individual when they are in need, such as when a family member or friend is grieving a loss or having a difficult time at work.

Being a good ally is about affirming the person's sexual or gender identity, demonstrating that you accept and validate this aspect of the person, taking actions to reduce any personal biases that you might have, and even speaking up to stop systemic biases such as discriminatory policies as well.

In the real world, these constructs probably co-occur (the same person who is supportive might be a pretty good ally), but we can also imagine situations where a person could be incredibly supportive (e.g., a family member who wants to help in times of need) but not a good ally (explicitly disapproves of LGBT identities).

Did you find any difference between self-proclaimed allyship and LGBT-perceived allyship of straight individuals?

We recruited pairs of roommates where one person was LGBT-identified and the other wasn't, and we asked both people to rate the non-LGBT roommate's level of allyship.

Interestingly, self-perceived allyship and roommate's perception of allyship were pretty highly correlated but not perfectly so. People seem to be fairly accurate in their self-assessments of allyship, though they are generally worse at rating their own levels of humility compared to their levels of acceptance and action.

Also, these pairs of people were roommates who chose to live together (mostly friendship pairs) and so the results could have been different if we surveyed pairs of coworkers or family members, where the relationships might not be as close or voluntary.

Can you talk a little bit about how your research investigated the impact of allyship for LGBT individuals on their intrapersonal and interpersonal relationships? What did you find?

We conducted a series of surveys to examine how perceived allyship of people around LGBT individuals correlated with some intra-personal outcomes.

For example, in one survey, we asked LGBT participants to nominate one friend, one family member, and one coworker with whom they have regular contact. Then we asked how good of allies these individuals were. We also asked the LGBT individuals to report on their mental well-being (stress levels, life satisfaction, and self-esteem) and the quality of their relationships with the three people that they named.

When LGBT individuals reported that their close others, in particular friends and family, were good allies, they also had better relationships with those people and better mental health.

In another study, the roommate study that I mentioned above, we followed pairs of roommates (on LGBT-identified and one not) over the course of six weeks during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown. Each week, the LGBT participant would complete a survey about their mental well-being, their relationship with their roommate, and their roommate's level of allyship.

We found interesting patterns that when the LGBT participant perceived their roommate to be a good ally, they experienced increased mental well-being and a better relationship with their roommate the following week.

You mention that for an LGBT individual, having allies is tightly related to their mental health and well-being. Can you expand on that?

There is a large body of work showing that LGBT individuals on average have lower mental health than straight, cisgender individuals.

This is not surprising because there is a lot of privilege in society that comes with being straight or cisgender, and on the flip side that means that LGBT individuals are confronted with discrimination, sometimes from individual people and sometimes from systems in place (e.g., workplace or government policies that are anti-LGBT).

Having the people close to you be good allies can help reduce the stress that comes from facing these barriers. This could happen directly (for example, because an ally speaks up against an anti-LGBT workplace policy and it is changed) or indirectly (for example, because having acceptance from close others provides you increased strength to face microaggressions against you from other people).

What are the practical takeaways from your research that can help people become better allies?

Family relationships have some room for improvement, in that they were rated the lowest on allyship (especially the action component) and they have a strong association with LGBT individuals' mental well-being.

So practically speaking, it would be valuable to look within your family context and work on demonstrating allyship to family members who are LGBT-identified. Or even trying to educate other family members to become better allies.

Sometimes people might not be aware that their lack of allyship actually matters for a loved one's mental wellbeing.

Do you have any words of wisdom for people who self-proclaim as allies for LGBT individuals bur don't necessarily go the extra yard?

It is important to remember that allyship is multifaceted; it's not just about accepting LGBT individuals (that's the first step) but also about taking action (speaking out against discrimination even if it's personally costly to you) and having humility about your possible blindspots.

In addition, I find it important to think about allyship as a process - one that you are continually working on for self-improvement. One's "allyship" is not permanently earned, it is something we should work to maintain and improve over time.