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No Innocent Bystanders: Becoming an Ally in the Struggle for Justice

No Innocent Bystanders: Becoming an Ally in the Struggle for Justice


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The struggle for justice is ongoing. In answering the biblical call to act justly and love mercifully, can Christians cross lines of privilege to walk humbly not only with God but with their marginalized neighbors as well? No Innocent Bystanders looks at the role of allies in social justice movements and asks what works, what doesn't, and why. It explains what allies legitimately can accomplish, what they can't, and what kind of humility and clarity is required to tell the difference.

This book is a start-up guide for spiritual or religious people who are interested in working for social justice but don't know how or where to begin, drawing on the lessons of history, the framework of Christian ideas, and the insights of contemporary activists. It offers practical guidance on how to meaningfully and mindfully advocate alongside all who struggle for a more just society.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780664262624
Publisher: Westminster John Knox Press
Publication date: 10/11/2017
Pages: 144
Sales rank: 423,809
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x (d)

About the Author

Shannon Craigo-Snell is Professor of Theology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

Christopher J. Doucot is cofounder of the Hartford Catholic Worker community in Hartford, Connecticut.

Read an Excerpt


Understanding the Struggles for LGBTQ Equality and Racial Justice

In order to understand how to be an effective ally, we begin by looking at two movements for justice within the United States: the movement for LGBTQ equality and the struggle for racial justice. Examining the two side by side exposes some of the particular challenges to being an antiracist ally, challenges that are then addressed in following chapters.


The acronym "LGBTQ" stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer or questioning. Sometimes this is seen with an "I" at the end for intersex. In all its forms, this acronym intends to group together people whose sexual orientation and identity do not neatly conform to the standards of the dominant culture, without collapsing them into one homogenous group. The name itself implies solidarity among different groups. The terms within this acronym have to do with gender identity and sexual orientation.


More and more, scientists are discovering that anatomical and biological sex are far more complicated than a simple binary. Many people have both XX and XY chromosomes within different cells in their bodies. Current research indicates that as many as one person in a hundred might have chromosomes that do not conform to the binary understanding of gender as either male or female. Genetic differences make the standard gender binary seem even more inadequate, revealing our bodies to be far more complex.

In spite of this fact, most of us are still taught by the culture in which we live that there are only two genders, and we must fit into one of them. We are also taught how to fit in — how to behave, dress, speak, move, and smile like a girl or like a boy. When historical and cultural forces create specific categories (such as male and female) and push us to live into these categories in specific ways (masculine and feminine behaviors), this is called social construction. Over long periods of time, and often without consciously choosing to do so, human cultures create categories through which we understand our world. Because this happens slowly on a large communal level, and without explicit plans, we don't notice it. We come into a world that already has categories and patterns, and we accept them as normal and natural. The expectations that history and culture have assigned to gender identity provide a prime example of social construction.

Sexual orientation, as we use the term today, includes elements of gender identity as well as sexual and romantic attraction. Sexual orientation is as complicated as gender identity. Various factors contribute to sexual orientation, including genetics, prenatal hormones, and environmental factors. There is no evidence to suggest that "sexual orientation can be taught or learned through social means." Each person is the expert on their own sexual orientation — it is not something that can be decreed from the outside.

While people have always engaged in same-sex activity, the idea that sexual orientation is fundamental to a person's identity emerged much later. In many times and places, the gender to which one was sexually or romantically attracted did not determine how a person was categorized. No one was considered gay or lesbian. People were categorized in many ways — as merchants or servants or members of a particular family — and people within these categories sometimes loved people of the same sex. The categories of gay and lesbian had not yet been socially constructed.

As this has changed in more recent times, sexism has been a driving factor in constructing homosexuality as an identity, rather than an aspect of someone's life, as men who engaged in same-sex love were perceived to be a threat to male dominance over women. The enforcement of rigid, binary genders is a necessary element of the social power and privilege granted to men in the modern West. The primary fear in heterosexism is the blurring of lines that facilitate male dominance. Some straight men experience male homosexuality as threatening their own sense of masculine identity. Other people see the very notion of being transgender as an assault on "natural" categories. LGBTQ equality challenges the idea that traditional categories of sex and gender are natural and unchanging.

Today, the word most commonly used to refer to the oppression of people who are LGBTQ is homophobia. While some individuals do display an irrational fear of LGBTQ persons, the term does not adequately describe the problem it is intended to address. While fear is part of the problem, the larger issue is that our culture is structured to benefit heterosexuals. As the United States is white dominant, white identified, and white centered, it is also straight-centered and straight dominant. This structural and systemic feature of our culture is called heterosexism.

Steps Forward, Steps Back

Before the early twentieth century, people who found same-sex love generally kept it a secret from their friends and family. Homosexuality was seen by most Americans as a rare perversion, so many people were easily deceived; they never imagined that the two spinsters down the street were partners, or that the confirmed bachelor actually had a fulfilling love life. It was only with increased urbanization that LGBTQ people who had been isolated in rural and small town America began to form accepting communities. There were robust gay and lesbian communities in the United States and in parts of Europe. In the United States, black lesbians and gay men were a vital part of the Harlem Renaissance. This established a pattern that prevailed through much of the century: as social forces brought LGBTQ persons more together and more into the open, reactive cultural and religious factors led to their continued persecution. For example, after World War II members of the U.S. military who were identified as gay were dishonorably discharged and unceremoniously dumped in port towns like San Francisco. Being "outed" in this way typically led to the secondary persecution of gay and bisexual men being ostracized by their families and communities back home. Paradoxically, this worked to solidify the formation of accepting neighborhoods and to the notion of a (somewhat) cohesive LGBTQ community.

The 1950s saw a hardening of a particular view of "traditional family values." This consolidation of a strict portrayal of what counts as "normal" (white, middle class, heterosexual, and Christian) was central to the changing economy, which was increasingly dependent on self-contained nuclear families aspiring to similar patterns of consumption. The consolidation of a rigid view of ideal families was also, in part, a response to the perceived threat to American identity posed by the Cold War. In this context, most behavior that deviated from this narrow (heterosexist) norm was seen not only as simply different but also dangerous. It was construed to be a threat to American strength and unity.

At the same time, groups of support and community for LGBTQ persons formed, not just in neighborhoods but also in particular establishments. The Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village was just such a place. Here people who were not welcome in their own families, churches, or social circles formed a space of relative safety and a network of support. For many years places like Stonewall were subject to harassment and violence. Such incidents usually went unreported, because to do so was to bring attention that some members of the community shunned. Yet when the police raided Stonewall in 1969, patrons resisted and neighbors rallied. The Stonewall uprising lasted for three days and received wide media attention, beginning a new phase of LGBTQ life in the United States. Influenced by antiwar activists and the Black Power movement, gay activist organizations began to form almost immediately, including the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance. The first anniversary of the Stonewall riots, June 28, 1970, was marked by Gay Pride marches in Los Angeles and Chicago. During pride marches, LGBTQ people openly celebrated their gender identities and sexual orientations, which both challenged prejudices and fostered community.

While the LGBTQ community made substantial gains during the 1970s, the same decade saw a backlash from conservative Christian groups, bringing renewed energy to heterosexism in the United States. Many ministers and church leaders declared the judgment of God against all forms of same-sex love. A particular way of reading the Bible — a very specific type of interpretation — was used to support this claim. Brief passages of Scripture were plucked out of their historical and literary contexts. Literalist interpretations of those Scriptures were declared to reveal their only possible meaning, with no thought for the Bible's larger message. Thus were LGBTQ persons singled out as under particular divine judgment. This method of interpreting the Bible would have been unrecognizable to many Christians around the world and across the centuries, who believe that the Bible has inexhaustible layers of meaning. It is illuminating that this way of reading Scripture was popularized in America in the context of arguments about slavery. Supporters of slavery picked isolated verses of the Bible that refer to slavery and claimed that these bits of Scripture justified slavery, while abolitionists spoke of the larger meaning of the text in revealing the love of God for all people.

A particularly vital development in the late 1980s was the formation of Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs). Primarily student led, these are groups formed in middle schools and high schools that have fostered support of LGBTQ people. Often the students attempting to form these groups have met with significant resistance from administrators, parents, and school boards. In several states, including Florida, Utah, and California, disputes over the formation of GSAs have been contested in court, even though the formation of GSAs is protected by the First Amendment and the Federal Equal Access Act.

Nevertheless, GSAs have been effective in educating youth about issues related to sexual orientation, which then decreases bullying and harassment in the school community. Activist Jessica Stewart notes, "especially in the case of LGBTQ issues, young people in schools may be vulnerable or excluded. Allies can have a powerful influence in ending bullying or fostering acceptance." In the 1990s, it was common on college campuses to see pink or rainbow-colored stickers on dorm rooms identifying them as a "safe space" for LBGTQ people. Often hosting Coming Out Day celebrations and other events, GSAs create more accepting communities, boost performance and health of LGBTQ students, and have lasting effects on how young people perceive those who are LGBTQ.

One distinctive aspect of GSAs is their embrace of straight allies. Because a primary goal is to create more acceptance among the whole student population, GSAs are not mainly affinity groups for those who identify as LGBTQ, but rather communities designed to include outreach to those who identify as straight. GSAs welcome straight people and provide clear, relatively easy ways to be part of the movement for LGBTQ equality. For example, some GSAs offer buttons with "ally" printed on them. It is easy to affix a button to a backpack. It also has a real effect; the more backpacks with buttons, the less acceptable heterosexist behavior becomes in the community. Social and educational events designed to engage straight people are part of the programming of GSAs. A national organization called the GSA Network reports that in some local GSAs, "straight ally youth comprise the majority of a club."

Due to the efforts of LGBTQ activists, many Christian communities and individual Christians now understand the diversity of gender identity and sexual orientation as part of the blessing of God's creation. LGBTQ people are welcomed in many churches. However, many elements of Christianity continue to contribute to heterosexism. The official teaching of the Roman Catholic church — the largest body of Christians in the world — defines same-sex activity as "are intrinsically disordered." At the same time, there are many Catholics whose consciences, which are the strongest guide for moral action in Catholic theology, dictate full acceptance of LGBTQ people. There are also many LGBTQ Catholics. Many Protestant denominations aim for full inclusivity and celebrate both same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBTQ people. However, other Protestant church communities remain virulently opposed to same-sex love.

In 2003 the Supreme Court found all antisodomy laws to be unconstitutional (though antisodomy laws remain on the books of several states.) Although sexual orientation may not be cause for discrimination in employment by the government, the LGBTQ community has not been definitively declared a protected class of people and is thus subject to discrimination in employment (as well as housing, public accommodations, and credit) in twenty-eight states that do not explicitly include LGBTQ in their anti-discrimination laws. LGBTQ people were not allowed to openly serve in the armed forces until 2011. Same-sex marriage was legalized throughout the United States in 2015. However, since then state legislatures have proposed over one hundred bills to allow discrimination of LGBTQ people in employment, service, and housing. Some of these bills would allow doctors to refuse service to LGBTQ people, while others would legislate that transgender people have to use the bathroom that matches the sex listed on their birth certificate. The effect of the whole wave of proposed legislation is to fight against the recent gains made by the LGBTQ community in the United States.

While reliable statistics on the extent of anti-LGBTQ violence are difficult to gather (and more difficult to assess over time) attacks on LGBTQ persons have been a persistent and shameful feature of American heterosexism. This is highlighted by the "gay bashing" perpetrated by various police forces in the 1960s, the assassination of Harvey Milk — one of America's first openly gay elected officials — in San Francisco in 1978, the brutal murder of Matthew Shepherd in 1998, and the Orlando massacre of 2016. People of color who are LGBTQ are the targets of hate violence more often than white people who are LGBTQ.

The Role of Allies

Allies have been vital to the movement for LGBTQ liberation, and many white, straight people have found it easier to step into the role of ally with LGBTQ communities than with black communities. Looking closely at some of the factors that have smoothed the way for straight people to be allies in the LGBTQ movement can shed light on being an ally more generally, and on why it can be particularly difficult in antiracist work. One significant difference that has ripple effects for allies is that gender identity and sexual orientation pertain to individuals, while race is hereditary and therefore pertains to families.


The individual nature of sexual orientation might be one reason that many people in the struggle for LGBTQ equality have been consistently welcoming to straight allies. People who are LGBTQ have not been able to rely on families that share their oppression. Historically, Black people in the United States have found sources of strength and joy in kinship networks and church communities. Individuals who are LGBTQ have often been cast out of such relationships. Creating other forms of community — whether in the closet or out, with LGBTQ people and with straight people — has been necessary for survival. Sev- eral LGBTQ organizations, including PFLAG and GSAs, have actively welcomed straight allies and invited them to be part of the struggle.


Similarly, because gender identity and sexual orientation pertains to individuals, there are LGBTQ people in nearly everyone's family or close circle of friends. Many people who think that same-sex love is wrong then discover that a person they already know and care for is gay or lesbian. At that moment, two beliefs are in conflict: (1) that same-sex love is perverse and (2) that this beloved individual is LGBTQ and not perverse. The incoherence pressures the person to give up one of these two beliefs. Tragically, many people give up the second belief and reject their friend or family member. Others do not. Many people who find themselves in this moment of conflicted beliefs allow the prior relationship to hold sway. They allow their knowledge of this particular friend or family member to change their minds about same-sex love in general. Consider the early years of PFLAG, when courageous parents who discovered that their children were LGBTQ simply decided to keep loving them. GSA network reports "[s]traight youth are often members of GSAs because they have lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) family or friends."


Excerpted from "No Innocent Bystanders"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Shannon Craigo-Snell and Christopher J. Doucot.
Excerpted by permission of Westminster John Knox Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword by Timothy P. Shriver, vii,
Introduction, 1,
1. Understanding the Struggles for LGBTQ Equality and Racial Justice, 19,
2. Getting Ready to Be an Ally, 51,
3. Resources for Being an Ally, 71,
4. Concrete Steps, 95,
5. Examples to Follow, 120,
An Invitation, 140,
Notes, 142,
For Further Study, 154,
Acknowledgments, 157,

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