In 1979, Neil Young & Crazy Horse released the song “My My, Hey Hey (Into the Black)”. It includes the line, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” The song, by many accounts, details Young’s feelings of becoming less relevant as a rock musician as punk music took over the airwaves.
While Young’s legacy in music is solid and in no risk of fading, the feeling that some trends can eclipse even the most solidly-rooted effort is very real. And interestingly enough, it offers an entry to talk about an emerging—and sometimes surprising—challenge: ally burnout.
The rise of the straight ally (and cis ally) has been tremendous and history-changing. For PFLAG, the ally evolution started in 1973, when our founder, Jeanne Manford, publicly identified herself as an ally to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, establishing herself as the mother of the modern-day ally movement. In the time since her brave stand, allies have united with the LGBT community to affect both legal and cultural change, shifting the dialogue about equality from a “them” issue to an “us” issue.
And this force has been seen in workplaces everywhere. Over the course of the past 10 years, the influx of straight and cis allies in LGBT network groups has been tremendous, resulting in huge growth in support, with allies more often than not outnumbering their LGBT colleagues. Programs to educate and engage allies have expanded (including PFLAG National’s own Straight for Equality project), to the point that the LGBT acronym in workplaces often includes the “A”―for allies.
But the effort is not without challenges: more and more, there’s a conversation growing about “ally burnout”—an interesting problem that actually speaks to the enormous energy invested in ally engagement, and, sometimes, the frustrations that come with it. Additionally, the progress that has been made for the LGBT community (specifically, marriage) has sometimes distracted from the significant challenges that remain (e.g., employment protections) and pushed the misperception that we’re done here and ready for something new.
But what is ally burnout in the first place? And—obviously, and more importantly—how are we going to respond?
To go back to the Neil Young concept, ally burnout is often taking two forms. First, there’s the obvious symptom of burnout—a drop-off from activity and open frustration with efforts that reduce or destroy participation. These are the things that we see, and sometimes they’re seen a little too often. But there’s another side of burnout that we’re often not spotting—the fading away from activity, which is often rooted in frustrations about what is (or isn’t) happening when efforts to build inclusion are made.
At the heart of both is something that we don’t often talk about: expectations. Actually, in this case, missed expectations related to the pace of change, the perceived lack of progress, issue exhaustion and their connections to that quiet burnout that is starting to slow many ally engagement efforts.
While teaching a class recently, we presented participants with different statements to try to help them see how deep these frustrations with missed expectations can run, and how common they are. When statements like, “I can’t believe it’s 2015 and people still say _______.”, “I’m so tired of feeling like the only one who speaks up about __________.”, and “What does __________ mean anyway?” were flashed up on the screen, and people asked to fill in the blank, there was no shortage of responses. And, as one answer followed another, the more than 100 heads in the room nodded in agreement. No experience seemed isolated, and yet this was the first time that people were really talking about having these experiences (without judgement) and knowing that they weren’t alone.
The most interesting twist was this: It wasn’t just the allies who didn’t identify as LGBT who were nodding. As the conversation went on, it became clear that the personal frustration that came from aiming high and sometimes coming back with what felt like only a small return on the effort was universal between the allies and their LGBT colleagues.
And yet nearly no one had actually talked about it openly before. They were concerned that it would seem that their commitment wasn’t real, that they were allies only when it was easy, or that they were ungrateful for the support that was given. No one wanted to talk about these sometimes missed expectations, even though for many, they’d seen it take a toll on engagement levels. We expect the best out of our work, and sadly don’t want to admit how it feels when things don’t go as hoped. And in the end? We often fade away.
So where does that leave us? We can certainly talk about (and we do talk about) the role of active burnout on our ERGs—people have too much to do, they’re not developing leaders and becoming co-chairs for life, their programs are stagnant. But what do we do about the more quiet fade out that is likely to be happening all around us?
The ally-LGBT partnership is our ongoing experiment, and we’re figuring out how to make it work and keep getting stronger. Perhaps it is finally time to actually stop being afraid of talking about how this partnership is going (Will they think I don’t care as much? Will I seem ungrateful for what they’ve done?) and address the frustrations that come with these efforts. And the effort doesn’t have to be complicated.
A colleague of mine—the super-ally to my super-gay self—and I have made a commitment to trade articles (almost daily) that we either don’t understand or find that we’re having strong reactions as we read. The articles about frustrations with allies being in LGBT spaces? They land in her inbox. Blog posts about not getting the politics of LGBTQ+ identities? I find them waiting for me in the morning. And then we talk about it and try to navigate these challenges that sometimes we never thought we’d even have to address because we were so focused on just being seen.
Sometimes we agree, sometimes we don’t, but we leave nothing unsaid. It isn’t personal. We’re willing to be uncomfortable and risk disagreement because it is the only way to make the effort honest and strong by not leaving issues unaddressed. A colleague of mine often does it with books and films about LGBTQ history and culture (and not just the sterilized versions that Hollywood offers). The discussions that ensue with his allies aren’t always easy, but he’s unearthing the issues that, unspoken, are making people fade away rather than stay engaged. It’s about working to create a climate where we can have these conversations without fear.
We’re so serious about getting people to start these discussions at Straight for Equality that we’re actually going to start posting one “Something to Talk About” article each month, starting in January, on the Straight for Equality Facebook feed to help people get their own dialogues going between LGBTs and allies. (If you’d like to be around for the first one, be sure to Like us now.)
Why can’t we ignore it? Just think about this: For many, the LGBT conversation seemed to be resolved when marriage equality became the law of the land. And yet since the first of this year, more than 100 pieces of anti-LGBT legislation (most designed to repeal existing rights) has been introduced in the U.S. More allies are needed to respond, both inside and outside of our workplaces, and we have the opportunity to make them strong now.
Burn out or fade away? We can’t afford either.