Straight allies – who needs them?

By Roisin Rowley-Smith, communications officer

Roisin Rowley Smith

Before I’d even arrived at M & S Bank buildings in Chester for Stonewall’s Straight Allies training I’d struggled with the preparation for the course.  Choosing my role models proved a difficult task. 

Atticus Finch, the lawyer who fought racism in To Kill a Mockingbird was an obvious choice for me.  But shock, horror – rumours abound that he’s become a racist in the Harper Lee’s follow-up book, Go Set a Watchman. How could this be? 

Grayson Perry was another of my choices. The artist never shies away from being himself and has raised awareness of cross-dressing within the art world and beyond.  But do I emulate him?  Not at all.  So, during the training I was relieved to learn more about what defines a role model.  We tend to hone in on different characteristics that we admire in people, so that we can have many role models, who influence us in a variety of ways and in different settings.

What’s that got to do with being a straight ally I hear you cry?  Well, the point is that the room was filled with straight people, keen to support their gay colleagues at work.  And that however modest we might be, we have already started to step up to become role models for others and we should embrace this without fear of failure. 

Stonewall’s research proves that being a straight ally has a critical role to play in creating gay-friendly work places.  Our involvement, often because we are not gay and have no personal agenda, can have a positive influence on the culture of an organisation.  The vast majority of people want their work places to be gay-friendly, for the benefit of everyone, so it’s a win-win situation. 

The Stonewall trainers Michelle and Kate asked us to think about a time when we hid something of ourselves, and how that made us feel.  Again, this was challenging for me.  I like to think of myself as being confident and mature enough to be myself at all times.  But on deeper reflection I realised that sometimes we do hide things, or display a different self, in order to operate within the professional boundaries that exist in the workplace. 

The exercise brought home the tension and frustration and energy it takes to not to be yourself – which some gay people experience every day of their working lives. 

The afternoon started with building a wall of obstacles that might stop us from stepping up as a straight ally when we return to work.  Fear of challenging inappropriate language, lack of our own knowledge about gay issues, or absence of buy-in from senior teams, time and resource constraints and communication issues were just some of the hurdles we felt we may encounter. 

We were then tasked with breaking down the wall, which made us focus on what we can do to counter the issues and succeed as a straight ally.  There were tips on challenging inappropriate language quickly and professionally.  And we shared our own experiences of how best to spread the word on our positive impacts through social media and beyond.

So, in true role model fashion, my task is now to encourage more straight allies at Riverside to help sustain and improve our gay-friendly culture throughout our schemes and offices across the country.