Allyship helps everybody: A speech to Como Lake Middle School

(I gave the following speech, more or less, on behalf of the Gender/Sexuality Alliance at Como Lake Middle School on June 6, 2016. This is the GSA’s first year, and these students’ bravery and gumption entirely makes up for their foolhardiness at picking me as a public speaker. If some of the analysis in this speech seems a touch simplistic, imagine yourself in a gymnasium full of 600 sweaty teenagers, and you’ll feel better.)


Good afternoon. My name is Niko, and I’m a writer and a journalist. I’m also an ally.

The Como Lake Gender and Sexuality Alliance asked me to come today to talk about that last word. Ally. But I’m going to start by telling you a story. 

If you’ve taken a social studies class, or read a book about the Second World War, you’ve probably heard of “the Allies.” The allies were the countries that banded together to stand up against Hitler’s plans to conquer all of Europe. There were the Canadians, the British, the Americans, the Russians, the French and a dozen others.

It’s 1941. Hitler’s armies have already spread West to the beaches of Normandy, within sight of the shores of England. My grandmother, living in London, had to turn out her lights and hang blankets over her windows so that she wouldn’t be a target for the German bombers whining overhead. Every morning she would wake up to see that the house next door or the shop down the street had been levelled to rubble.

But the most dangerous tool in Hitler’s arsenal wasn’t not the rows of tanks lining up on the shores of France, or the bombers flying over London every night. The most dangerous weapon were the U-boats. Submarines.

England is an island. To survive, the country needs food, oil, supplies and medicine from Canada and the other colonies. But the boats that bring those supplies are under constant threat from the submarines prowling beneath the surface of the Atlantic. Sailors from Canada make the crossing again and again, knowing that at any moment their ship could be hit by a German torpedo. My grandfather spent the war flying over the ocean in a glass-bottomed plane, staring down for any sign of the submarines.

But the German U-boats had a secret. It was what allowed them to strike without warning or preparation, in perfect coordination. It made it impossible for the allies to predict what was coming next. It was called the Enigma.

The Enigma was a machine, about this big. It had four dials at the top, and a keyboard, like an old-fashioned typewriter. You typed your message in, and the Enigma machine printed out the message in secret code. A message came back, and you reversed the process, and turned the code into a message. And then, every 24 hours, all the operators of the Enigma machines would switch the settings in unison, and the code would change. A new code every 24 hours. Even if British codebreakers cracked the thousands of combinations and figured out the code, the moment the clock struck midnight, the code would change and all their hard work would be useless. The German commanders could send messages to their U-boats directing new attacks every day, and the Allies could do nothing about it.

Then, in 1938, a young mathematician named Alan Turing started working for the British spy command. Alan Turing was a marathon runner. He was the son of a clergyman. He was gay, and he lived in a time when people hated gay people so much that he could tell nobody about it. He was also a genius, and had an idea that would help England defeat the Enigma and win the war.

What if, Turing thought, we didn’t try to break the Enigma code by hand. Enigma is a machine. What if we built a machine to fight it? What if we built a machine that could do thousands of calculations every second, and break the Enigma code again every day in a matter of minutes? What if we built a machine that could think? A mechanical computer.

Turing’s idea worked. He built the Turing machine, and British intelligence was able to crack the Enigma, and predict when and where the U-boats would strike. Historians say that his invention saved millions of lives. If your grandparents lived in Canada or in England, there’s not a bad chance that someone in your family survived because of Alan Turing.

And yet, twelve years later, at the age of 41, Turing was dead. Who killed him? Was it a vengeful Nazi secret agent? Was it a competitor jealous of his mathematical genius? No. It was his allies. The British government.

In 1955, the government discovered that Turing was gay. They gave him a choice. Either go to prison, or take hormones that would sterilize him. He was so passionate about his work on computers that he couldn’t stand going to prison, so he chose the drugs. They send him into a spiraling depression, and a few months later he died.

Raise your hand if you own a computer or a smart phone. That’s what I thought. Almost all of you. Your smart phone is the great, great, great grand child of Turing’s code machine. We all owe some of the most important technology in our lives to him. And who knows, if he had been able to live a full life, how advanced our technology might be right now.

But, in 1955, we didn’t care that Turing had won the war and saved millions of lives. Because he was different.

What does Turing’s story tell us?

It tells us, of course, that discrimination against gay people is unfair. It also tells us that LGBT people have incredible things to offer to us and our world.

But it tells us something more important. And, if you only remember one thing from my speech today, I want you to remember this.

Discrimination hurts everybody. Allyship helps everybody.

Turing had incredible things to teach us. He had gifts that no other human being had. And because we killed him, we not only did an injustice to him, we did an injustice to ourselves.

When I was your age, I was in school at Trafalgar Junior High School in Nelson, British Columbia. We didn’t have a GSA. Nobody talked about homophobia. Nobody talked about transgender people.

I was a skinny, weak, uncoordinated fifteen year old. I was terrible at sports. Like Turing, I was more interested in math and computers. I liked to dance. And to a lot of people in my school, a boy who liked dance and science was unacceptable. I got called gay, and a queer, and a dozen other ugly names I won’t repeat here. And the irony is, I’m a straight person. Even as a straight person, I was bullied for being gay, because I was a bit different.

And that’s not that unusual. I want you to think for a moment. Have you ever heard someone make fun of a boy for wearing pink, or liking dance, or being “girly”, or being bad at sports, or being weak, or having long hair, or crying? Have you ever heard someone make fun of a girl for liking sports too much, or being a “Tomboy”, or having short hair, or acting like a boy, or not wearing makeup or the right clothing? Probably. All of these things are a way of saying someone is being a boy in the wrong way or being a girl in the wrong way. And really, at the heart of it, that’s what homophobia comes down to.

Now it’s possible that the person they were making fun of will turn out to be gay or lesbian or bisexual or trans. Statistically, about five percent of you will. But probably, they were straight, like me. Some Canadian scientists studied this problem, and found that half of LGBT students were bullied for being gay, but a quarter of straight students were too.

So, if you know 3 gay students who are being bullied, you probably also know 24 straight students who are bullied. For being thought to be gay.

Because nobody is perfectly manly, or perfectly womanly. Nobody’s acts perfectly straight. Why? Because there is no such thing. Men cry and wear pink and like dancing. Women lift weights and shave their heads and wear tuxedos. There’s nothing wrong with that. And when we make fun of people for doing those things, we make everyone’s lives a little bit narrower.

Discrimination hurts everybody.

GSA stands for gender sexuality alliance, or sometimes gay/straight alliance. It’s a place where gay and straight students can come together to help each other out. When most people think of a GSA, they think of straight allies who come to help out gay students. To protect them.

But the truth is, we need it to work the other way around as well. We straight people need LGBT people to help us. Because when we bully each other for being tomboys or girly boys or liking dance or having short hair, we are hurting ourselves. And we desperately need to be taught how to do better.

Alan Turing was a genius at computers. But nearly all LGBT people have a kind of genius that we all need. LGBT people often know that it’s OK to have short hair or long hair, that it’s OK to wear pink or blue, that it’s OK play sports or dance ballet, no matter who you are.

When I was in school, I needed a GSA. That’s right. Me, a straight kid, needed a GSA. Because I needed LGBT students to stand up and say, hey, it’s OK to like computers and be skinny and enjoy dancing. And yeah, they probably needed my help too, to stand up and say, “There’s nothing wrong with being gay or lesbian or trans or bisexual.”

Allyship helps everybody.

When I grew up, I stopped being skinny and bad at sports. I still love dancing. And I went to school to become a writer. When I graduated from school, I got an interview with an LGBT magazine called Xtra. In my interview, I told the editor, “Listen, I’m not gay. But I want to write for you, and be a good ally. I think helping LGBT people helps me too.” And that’s how I got my first job.

Since then, I’ve learned a lot about how to be a good ally. Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to remember, because it involves three things you have on your face: Eyes, ears and a mouth.

Let’s talk about eyes first. The first key to being a good ally is keeping your eyes open. And you have to look carefully, because the most damaging kinds of discrimination are invisible. The worst villains don’t wear stormtrooper uniforms, and don’t have horns or fangs. The most dangerous villain isn’t homophobic people, it’s homophobic culture.

What does that mean? Well, what makes culture culture is that it’s invisible. You don’t even notice it’s there. When we live in a homophobic culture, we don’t try to be mean or discriminatory or homophobic. We don’t even notice that we’re doing it. I’ll give you an example.

When you think of a stereotypical gay man, what do you think of? Take a moment to imagine. You’ve all watched TV; I know you can do it. You probably think of a man with a high voice, a limp wrist, feminine posture, a flouncy walk. What about a stereotypical lesbian? You’ll probably think of a woman with short hair, a deep voice, a thick, muscular body, and an aggressive personality.

Now keep those images in mind, and let’s talk about Disney movies. First of all, the Lion King. Yeah, this is a movie about lions, but let’s think about Mustapha, the king, and the villain Scar. What is Mustapha like? He’s big and strong, with a direct and forceful personality, a deep voice and a masculine posture. What about scar? Scar isn’t big and strong like Mustapha. He’s weak and flouncy, with a high voice and a coy, sneaky personality. Mustapha is a straight lion. Scar is a gay lion.

“Now wait a moment,” you’re thinking, “There’s no way Disney meant Scar to be gay.” And yeah, you’re probably right. They didn’t mean to. But that’s the crazy thing about culture. You don’t have to mean to. We learn negative stereotypes about gay men, we store them away in our minds, and then we spit them out when we have to tell a story about lions. We subconsciously make our villains seem gay.

What about lesbians? Well, let’s think about the little mermaid. Our hero, Ariel, is feminine and thin, with long hair, makeup and long eyelashes. She’s a pretty stereotypical straight woman. And what about Ursula, the wicked octopus witch? She’s big, muscular and aggressive, with short hair and a deep voice. She’s an evil lesbian. Intentionally? Of course not. That’s how culture works. It’s invisible.

And this isn’t just about LGBT people. Invisible culture tells us things about men and women too. It tells us, for example, that men are heroes, and women are not. Don’t believe me? Go ahead and name five movies about male superheroes. Done? Pretty easy, right? Now name five movies about female superheroes. Yeah, that’s what I thought. How about five superhero movies where the main character wasn’t a white person? How about one?

The first step in being an ally is paying attention. It’s about looking at invisible culture, and making it visible. That doesn’t mean you can’t watch superhero movies, or Disney movies. But it means paying attention to what you’re seeing, and what it’s telling you.

Being an Ally, step one.

Step two involves your ears. All it takes is listening to people. Sometime in your life, especially if you’re the kind of person who shows up a lot in superhero movies, like me, you’re going to say something that really offends someone. And they’re going to say something like, “Hey Niko, when you called that guy girly, I think that was a really sexist thing to say. Could you please not use that word that way?”

And, oh man, it’s going to be so hard. So hard. Because you’re going to feel like someone is attacking you, and trying to shut you down, and trying to censor you. And you’re going to want to say, “Whatever, you can’t tell me what to say. I didn’t MEAN to offend anyone. You’re just taking it the wrong way.” You’re going to want to say that so bad.

But being an ally means listening. It means being brave enough to say, “Oh, yeah, sorry, I didn’t realize.” That’s all it takes. If you can say those words, you’re halfway there already.

And finally, being an ally takes your mouth. You’ve got to speak up. Because the best thing you can do as an ally is step in and say something when you hear someone say something sexist, or racist, or homophobic. As you pay attention, you’ll get better at recognizing those situations. But I want to focus on just one.

Who here has ever heard someone insult something by calling it “gay.”

Like, “Ugh, that bike he’s riding is soooo gay.”

Whenever you say something like that, you’re feeding that invisible culture that tells us that gay people are villains. You’re making that invisible culture stronger. And remember. Discrimination hurts everybody.

So what do you say when you hear someone call something gay? Here are some ideas.

Well, you could say, “Did you just call that bike gay? What do even mean?”

Or you could say, “Wait, when you say that bike is gay, do you mean it’s gay like Tony award winning actor, Academy award host and star of How I Met Your Mother Neil Patrick Harris? Because he’s pretty awesome. You must really like that bike.”

Or you could say,  “That bike is gay? Wait, do you mean that bike wants to start dating another bike of the same gender, maybe move in together, get married and adopt a kid? Because I don’t think bikes do that, man.”

Or, best of all, you could just say. “Hey. Don’t call things gay as an insult. That’s not cool.”

That’s all there is to it.

So, here’s everything I want to tell you in a nutshell. Discrimination hurts everyone. It hurts gay people. It hurts straight people. It hurts men. It hurts women. And if you want to fight it, you can be an ally. All you have to do is pay attention. Pay attention to the invisible signals that are telling you to discriminate. Listen to what people tell you, especially if they are a kind of person who doesn’t show up in superhero movies. And speak up.

Go out and be good allies.

Thanks a lot for listening