Season 3 Episode 11:
“Allyship Requires Risk”

Phil: Hey, this is Phil, AKA Corinne.

Alex: And I’m Alex Berg. And you are listening to the I’m From Driftwood Podcast. If you just can’t get enough of I’m From Driftwood, go check out it’s YouTube channel. The stories have tens of millions of views and over a hundred thousand subscribers and a new story is uploaded every week. You can also browse every story it’s ever published since it launched in 2009. Speaking of stories, let’s get to today’s episode.

Phil: So today we’re talking about allies and the first story we’re going to hear about is a woman named Rosa.

Rosa: When people ask me what I am, if I’m LGBTQA, what am I? I tell people I’m neither. I don’t identify by my sexuality. I’m a mother and a grandmother. I was raised Catholic, I’m still very much Catholic. And I went to Catholic school and I was going to be a nun, but that went by the wayside when I met Enrique. And so with Enrique, he was my first everything. First kiss, first date, first everything, fell in love with him. We got married and we ended up having children.

But honestly, I mean, there was no marriage there and Enrique was gay, and he never came out of the closet, but the signs were all there. Being a good Mexican wife, I refused to see those signs. I just figured I could carry the family by doing what I had been taught to do. One morning, he came home and he told me I can’t do this anymore. And he abandoned the family and I found things like pictures and love letters and the like, and at that point for me, the face of gay was Enrique. And I really hated him. And it followed that I hated anyone who was gay, his lovers and anybody else. And I honestly agreed that anyone who was gay should go to hell.

I was upset because my heart had been broken. I was abandoned with two little daughters, two infants. I had debt just all the way through the roof. And it was really a difficult time for me, but having my background, my upbringing, being raised Catholic and being and devout, I realized that I couldn’t let a lie be the basis of my life, including the lie that he was all bad. It was through a lot of prayer and retreats and talking to people that I trusted as spiritual advisors. And what I understood after a while was that Enrique was not a demon or an angel. He wasn’t a Saint. He was not a sinner. He was just a plain old human being. And so that was really important because I knew that for the rest of my life, I was going to be looking at the faces of those two little girls and I was going to see Enrique. And so as a Latina especially, family is very important to us. And no one can tell us that there is ever any reason to not love our children.

When my youngest daughter Cecilia was in high school, she came out to me. And what happened was that my daughter, Cecilia, is a really emotional person. If she’s happy, the whole world is happy. Everybody is singing. It looks like a scene from Enchanted, she’s cooking. Everything’s great. But if she is not happy, we all know, the dogs hide, the clouds, cover the sky, and we’re just careful around her. So she came home one day when she was in high school and she was just quiet, just didn’t say anything. And I thought that was kind of strange.

She came up to me and she said, mom, I’ve got something to tell you, but don’t get mad. I thought she was pregnant. She started crying and she was just falling apart in front of me. And I got scared. I thought, what if she’s hooked on drugs? What if she burned a drug dealer? I mean, all kinds of crazy nonsense was having a hard time talking and getting the words out. And she told me, “Mom don’t hate me. I date girls. I like girls. Don’t hate me.” And that was pretty hard because for me, I would do anything for my kids. I think to myself, I would even die for my kids. And there would be no way I could hate them. I don’t understand this whole thing of a parent hating their kids. I don’t get it.

But she was in front of me believing with all her heart that I was going to hate her. We talked, I told her, “Miha, I love you now the way I loved you before you told me, and the way I’ll love you until I die. You’re my jewel. You’re my gift from God.” What concerned me was that growing up, because she had been abandoned, she resented her father intensely. And it hurt me to see that it must have been so hard for her to struggle with knowing that she’s lesbian and somehow connecting that some part of her father was inside of her.

Although I don’t think because he was gay and she’s lesbian, that meant that that part of him was inside of her. I mean, it’s just who she is, but I could feel that’s what she associated. And so it must have just been a struggle. It must have been painful for her to have admitted to herself that she is lesbian. I counseled her on love and commitment and trust and having self respect for herself. I mean, all of these things that you’re supposed to tell your children, and I think I did okay. Except for one thing that I told her, and that was careful who you tell. And I feel badly having told her, careful who you tell. I told her out of fear, but there’s something wrong with that. Something very wrong. If she had been straight, would never have told my daughter, careful who you tell, and it’s got to change. We can’t be worried that our kids are going to be harmed because of who they love.

Phil: The idea of forgiveness for some people, when they had been wrong so badly, she was definitely wronged. You could see why she had that hatred, why she held onto it. She didn’t let that hatred consume her because she knew that it was a direct line to what her relationship with her kids was going to be like. And she loved her kids so much. So she knew I can let this go. I can let this go. That is, to me, I think that is the ultimate love of a mother. Yeah. You know what I mean? That is amazing.

Alex: Yeah. And also there are just so many layers of this story to unpack. I mean, you said journey quite a journey on so many levels and you can have that empathy for her that at the time it felt to her what Enrique was doing was deeply selfish to abandon your family and your young children, and to leave them in this really precarious financial state. Completely understandable why she was having all of these feelings. I was thinking about how tough it must have been just to be in that situation at that time. At a time when obviously Enrique couldn’t just be out about who he was either and the choice, the calculus a person has to make to like abandon their family. I mean, it’s so much. And then for her, it became his sexual orientation becomes very intertwined with the abandonment for her.

Him identifying as gay and leaving her, it just becomes so enmeshed together that for her, it’s like impossible to separate these two things, this act that who knows for him was maybe an act of self-preservation or survival. For her, it’s very selfish. And an act that leaves her so desperate. And then her daughter has this complicated relationship potentially with her own sexual orientation because of the stuff that her dad put her through.

I related to this story on a personal level, because we have a member of my family who also came out and had to leave their nuclear family for a time at a time that was a time period that was extremely homophobic, that where they lived in Philadelphia it was not going to fly at all.

And I think that it’s interesting to hear this story because I think that my mom’s feelings about my coming out became very tied up in a lot of the emotions she felt around this person’s own experience. And so that when I came out, I think it was really triggering for my mother. Because it brought her back to the trauma of that time of abandonment and alienation and isolation and that fear. When that person in our family came out, it was at the time a life ruining move because of what was happening culturally. It was still such a deeply homophobic time. And so I think also I can relate when I hear Rosa say she wanted to almost protect her daughter by telling her not to come out. Because you’re afraid and you can’t control what’s going to happen.

That really hit home for me personally. I know I’ve been in situations. I remember once I was going to this family dinner and my great aunt Esther was going to be there. She was in her eighties. And I remember my dad told me not to talk about being LGBTQ. That if she asked if I was dating someone just to lie or say no, nobody’s special. And at the time I was dating the person who became my wife.

And it was so devastating to have one of those moments where you’re put back into the closet by someone you love. And of course my dad apologized and we had long conversations about why it was so upsetting. Also, I didn’t lie at dinner. I talked to my aunt Esther about everything. And of course she didn’t miss a beat and was totally fine about it. It’s always who are you protecting here? The 80 plus year old woman was down with everything. She didn’t care. So it just reminded me of my own experiences that I had, because I understand when parents are upset that their kid is LGBTQ plus, because they want to protect the kid. But you can’t and who are you protecting them from?

Phil: And I think this is where you have to kind of do your work. Just like I feel like Rosa did her work, you have to sit with what it is you’re grappling with and then pull it apart. Because otherwise, like you said, it all becomes one thing. You have to pull it apart and look at it and really understand it. So you said about your dad, what’s really happening here? Who are you trying to protect? And honestly, I think you should give some people more credit than you’re giving them sometimes. Sometimes people will surprise you, like your aunt.

Alex: Yeah, go Aunt Esther!

Phil: And Aunt Esther killed it and was like, sure, that’s fine. She’s fine. What was that about really? It’s always like, is this me, or am I really trying to protect someone from something? Is this really what I’m really trying to do? And I think that’s when you really have to sit with something and really pull it apart and be like, okay, where’s my part in this? And how am I really feeling about this? And let me not tell a story about somebody that I actually don’t have. I’m making a story here.

Alex: You could hear when Rosa was also talking about hearing when her daughter came out, this was also a wake up call for her, but you could really hear the love that she has for her daughter. And just how that love and attachment to her daughter almost seemed to open her eyes to be more accepting of her daughter.

It was really this wake up call where she had to start to parse out was it all the feelings about Enrique and how him being gay and him being somebody who abandoned her family, how those were two different things. That being gay, Enrique clearly had some character flaws, being gay was not one of them. So how she had to learn how to separate that for herself, I guess.

Phil: So it makes me transition to the other story because I think there’s a common thread here. So the next story is from Jean-Claire.

Jean-Claire: When I was a baby, I had a mommy and a daddy and a Bernie. Bernie met my parents at university of Chicago. When they were in graduate school, he was studying history of religion. He was a theologian and he was a passionate Episcopalian who lived with us while he was working on his PhD and his doctorate doctoral thesis, which I hear took forever. When I was little, when I was four or five years old, I went to people’s houses visiting, and I would say, “Where’s your Bernie?” Because I thought everybody had a Bernie. And as I got older and I was in high school and then in college, I got to know my Bernie as a more fully formed person, not just someone who loved me and took care of me, but someone who I in turn cared about and loved.

When I finished college and I was living on my own, I ran into Bernie, just on an accident in our neighborhood. We lived near each other and he introduced me to a friend who he said, “Well, this is Joe.” And it was at that point, I realized that he had relationships that couldn’t be talked about or weren’t talked about that weren’t acknowledged. And I realized at that moment that he was living his life in the closet, although I probably didn’t even have those words. I felt shame at that moment because he was introducing me to someone who’s really important to him, but it wasn’t introduced in that way. When I was older and I was pregnant with my own child, the really unthinkable thing happened. And that was that Bernie passed away. It was really sudden, and he was really young. He was 63. He had just retired from an incredible career as a teacher. And I was both grief stricken and I was also in the process of helping to plan his memorial.

Friends and family came together and asked me to create a memorial booklet that would honor his life, that would be a collection of stories from his friends and family and former students. And I was looking at all of these stories. I was six months pregnant with my daughter and it was the summer time in Chicago, which is very hot and humid. I remember sitting on the floor in my living room with all of these stories all over the floor in paper, in handwritten scrolls and in printed out emails. And I sat there and I remember thinking a whole range of emotions, including frustration and shame, because what was apparent to me is that there were huge pieces of his life missing that were not reflected in these stories. There were just the most incredible outpouring of love and memories of a life that was so incredible. And there were no stories about who his loves were. Something just like clicked or changed in me that this was not right.

I called someone that I knew as a long time partner of Bernie’s. And I asked him to contribute stories to fill in the gaps of Bernie’s life. Of course, he was thrilled to be asked to share all of these stories. So I collected stories from him that filled in those holes. And I asked him if he would please come to the memorial and could I bring him as a guest of honor?

So I got in the car with my belly out to here and I drove to apartment and I brought him to the service and I sat him down with my family and Bernie’s extended family in a seat of honor that I felt appropriate and something that Bernie would’ve really appreciated, but more importantly honored the people that loved Bernie and Bernie loved.

That memorial changed me because I promised to myself that I would connect how I feel and think to what I say and what actions I take. And that shows up as not just going to a pride parade to enjoy the spectacle, but actually walking in the parade with my friends and family and coworkers. It shows up as putting up a pride flag in my office, a very simple thing that sends a very specific message to my coworkers, that this is a safe place to be out and to be supported and celebrated for all the ways in which we should as individuals.

Those are just some ways in which I try to walk in this world differently since Bernie’s passing and be the person I want to be because of him. I was pregnant when Bernie passed and my husband and I had a bunch of names on a list. When Bernie passed, Mark just turned to me and said, “Well, of course her name is Bernadine.” That meant a lot to me. And I think she has a great name, and because that name comes with a great legacy of someone who puts so much good in this world and passed it on her.

Phil: Going back to what I was saying before we got into this story, I think what I love about this is when you take a something like queerness or homosexuality or gayness or whatever it is, and you put a human face on it with a human that you love, you have to look at it a little differently. I mean, I’m sure she knew gay people. She knew queer people, whatever, but she was just like, “Bernie was queer,” or “Bernie was gay. And Bernie was my guy. I love this man. So this is not just an issue that doesn’t affect me or doesn’t mean anything to me now I’m taking it on, in this more personal way with being an ally, making myself a safe space for other people or other LGBTQI people.”

I think that’s the underlying thread that I love about allyship. I think you even saw that in Rosa’s story. It’s her daughter, she got okay with it really, maybe before her daughter, but with her daughter, she really was like, “I got to get okay with this. This person that I love, that means the world to me is telling me that they’re a lesbian and I need to be okay with that.” And I think you see that in Jean-Claire’s story as well.

Alex: These were some of my favorite stories I think that we’ve heard, which surprised me, because I think that the term ally has become such a catchall phrase and it’s become a term that has really lost its meaning in a lot of ways, because it’s just become so diluted, I feel like.

Phil: I was going to say the exact same thing. Okay. It’s lost its power.

Alex: Yes. Yeah. Because it’s like, what does it even mean anymore? I feel like people do a lot of performative gestures and call it allyship or corporations are calling themselves allies. I think.

Phil: I think we know why.

Alex: Yeah. Because now it’s this catchall that I don’t know, they touched me because I feel like I’m so jaded when it comes to that term. And it was actually people who there are actions behind the things that they were doing. And it was just really beautiful and unexpected. And I feel like this Bernie story, one of the things that stuck with me about Jean-Claire was when she said that when Bernie introduced this person that was clearly his partner or someone he was dating, had a romantic relationship with, she realized the shame that he must have experienced. It was this eye opening moment. It was so interesting to me to also think of it in that term of you’re identifying this shame that this person is experiencing, you’re young, you’re not just like registering that this is a relationship, but that there’s something happening there socially for her where she’s like, “Oh this is a piece of you that you have to hide and you feel maybe bad about.” Because shame is a negative emotion.

Phil: Yes. It’s interesting because she talks about shame, but she talks about maybe that he was ashamed. She felt shame at not realizing that and not really being able to see that earlier and celebrate that with him. And I think that speaks to how she wanted to love him in his totality. She wanted to love him as a complete individual. Just like when she was sitting on the floor trying to put together pieces of his life, she’s like, this is not all of it. We’re missing things here. And I love this person and I want to bring to his memorial a complete picture of what his life was not. I don’t want to hide any parts of it because there was no need for, he shouldn’t have had to hide any of that. He should have been able to love who he wanted to love and also be an amazing theologian and do the amazing things.

I mean, she talks about all these people who came across this man and how wonderful he was and how great I’m like, well, so we know that he’s a great person, but also he was a gay man and we should see all of that. All of that should be part of honoring his life. So how do you honor a life? You honor a life and it’s completeness, not in pieces. And to be honest with you, this is going off a little bit of a tangent, but I think sometimes when you think about what it means to go and speak at a memorial or to speak when someone has passed away, people want to talk about all the great things. It’s almost like they’re rewriting this person’s life. They get rid of everything wrong. I’m like, it’s all them. And if you want to memorialize them, memorialize them as a whole person, we have to appreciate all of it. Not just amazing freaking parts. That’s not realistic.

Alex: Yeah. It’s not realistic. And only honoring this one part of Bernie’s life would’ve also been sanitizing this piece of him. The inflection point on this story is that she goes on to name her daughter, who she was pregnant with when Bernie passed away. She names her daughter I think Bernadine, Bernie for short, which is so sweet. And I just thought such a lovely ending. But I think that there is this element of sadness to this story it’s that Bernie never knows that people are on honoring the fullness of who he was like that. He had kept himself so siloed off again as compartmentalized, having to keep these parts of you so separate and independent. And I think it’s really beautiful that she honored him, but it also made me a little sad because I was like, it’s a little after the fact with him.

Phil: Like, why couldn’t we do this while he was alive? But it’s a shame because you’re right. I mean, just from the beginning of the story, you hear her talk about this man with so much like love. do you remember the part when she goes, “I go to people’s my friend’s house and be like, where’s your Bernie? Why don’t you have a Bernie?” Come on, how sweet was that?

Alex: That was really sweet.

Phil: It’s such a beautiful story of someone that just loved her and was almost an extension of her parents in some ways, the way you hear her talk about it. But you’re right, it’s a shame because it didn’t happen while he was around to see it and to really appreciate and to know that like he had a huge ally and somebody who was just going to have his back and celebrate love the way he wanted to love.

Alex: Yeah. I mean, these stories are, between Rosa and Jean-Claire, are so different in that the circumstances, the people, everything about it is so different. The fact that Bernie is this almost uncle figure, whereas Rosa is talking about her husband and then her daughter. But at the same time, I think the big thread is that both of these people were so emotionally invested at the end in the LGBTQ people in their lives and then are really living their words with their support for… Jean-Claire even says that for her, she really wants her life to reflect the way that she felt about Bernie and doesn’t want other people to experience that sense of like hiding part of themselves. And then Rosa, you can hear just by how outspoken she is and how passionate she is about her support for her daughter. And then also the acknowledging where she got it wrong as well.

Phil: Listening to these stories, I’d say makes you feel a little more hope. It brings back a little more hope in allyship. We’re talking about like people who actually had experiences that change how they walk through the world and what kind of a space they make for queer people or LGBTQIA people. And I think that it’s so uplifting to hear these stories. I mean, even if there’s a ting of sadness with like Jean-Claire’s story, it’s still an uplifting element to it of just being she was dead on I am going to honor this man. I’m going to find his partner. I’m going to bring him to this, this ceremony. And I’m going to make sure that everyone knows that this was his partner and that let him contribute stories so that we see and honor his life in its completeness.

Let’s be honest. There was a time when allyship, I don’t know if we all feel this way, but there was a time when allyship was extremely important. We were like, we need the allies, because we needed them to join the fight. And I’m not saying we don’t, we still do, but I think that we don’t think about that so much anymore.

Alex: Yeah. I think you’re right. Yeah. Gosh, we’ve gotten to this point where, and I think it depends like where you are and what we’re talking about within the LGBTQ plus community where it’s almost like passe to identify yourself as an ally. Isn’t that kind of funny? I think of people I’ve encountered who are like, I am an ally and I’m just like, okay.

Phil: I feel like that’s so nineties.

Alex: Yes, exactly. But I’m just being so jaded. It is so important and so wonderful. And I also am thinking about how, in other places around the country, what that actually means. I think right now, when I think about being a bisexual person or a queer-identified person or gay or lesbian, I think that when you think of somebody saying that they’re a gay ally, it feels very old fashioned to say something like that.

Phil: I get it.

Alex: But when I think of a lot of the anti-trans rhetoric that’s happening and anti-trans bills that are happening across the country, and I think of a place that is trying to pass or has passed these vitriolically anti-trans bills that impact children. And I think about the parents who have not felt called to this fight who are now showing up to these hearings and giving testimonies about their kids and who are the only voice there in wherever they’re living like that. To me, I feel like also brings new meaning to the idea of being an ally.

Phil: I think you’re right, the term has gotten diluted. It doesn’t hold the power used to, but there are small acts of allyship that are very impactful. Like take for instance, if I go someplace and I’m out with friends and this is the thing that happens, which I literally feel like I just want to jump out of my skin sometimes when this happens, when people come over to table and it’s me and some of my friends and most of them are female identified and they’re like ladies and I’m literally shocked out of my system. And are you serious right now? And somebody at the table is like, “I think you could use a different term.” Right? Or this person leaves me, like he really needs to work on his gender neutral language.

That is an act of allyship. And that means something to me because it’s I feel seen in that. So you’re right. We have crappy allyship lite, and then you have the real stuff that is these quiet acts of I stand with you. And those are important. They’re important. They’re really important.

Alex: I was watching this panel once that I think it was Imara Jones who is as a journalist who runs TransLash Media was saying that when you think of the, and this is my very bad regurgitation of the phrase, so I don’t want to get it wrong. But I believe what was said was that when you think of the Allied Forces in NATO, they weren’t just like, “We’re allies.” And they were done and that was it. It was they actually went and fought with the other people they showed up and they fought with them. And I think that’s why sometimes now we hear the term accomplice, because actually, when you think about the kind of allyship, it like requires risk.

Phil: Yes it does.

Alex: So thinking of do Jean-Claire was like, I’m going to call Bernie’s former partner or whatever, and invite them. Jean Claire could have been faced isolation and alienation from family. Same with Rosa also coming from a deeply religious background. She could have been pushed out of her religious community, et cetera. And I think that’s why sometimes the thing that’s getting lost these days is that it feels like sincere allyship requires also risk because you are also sticking your neck out in a way that is making people uncomfortable or inconvenient, or you are the one parent at the school board saying that you believe trans kids should get to use the bathrooms that align with their sense of self. I feel like there is the element of risk that people of that identity would also experience if they spoke up for themselves.

Phil: I mean, you just said a word. That was really good. I love that.

Alex: Thank you.

Phil: Yeah. The risk element. Wow. And I think that’s why we’re so turned off by that phrase now, because now it seems as though the allyship, there is no risk attached to it at all. It’s almost like in name and nothing else. So its just very different.

Alex: Well, credit to Imara Jones for helping me think about that.

Phil: I love that. Shout out to Imara Jones. Wonderful.

The allyship in these two stories came from people who aren’t LGBTQIA themselves, obviously, as allies are not, but they became allies because of the people they love. It’s like these are human beings that these people loved and because of that, they needed to love them for all of the parts of who they were, including being lesbian, gay, whatever that is.

Alex: I think my big takeaway is similarly, the journey, the piece that nobody is born fully understanding all of these things. And that I think a lot of times, if you are somebody who spends way too much time on social media, like I do, a lot of times, we like to pretend that people are born this way and understand, are at the graduate level of any conversation. And what I appreciate about this is that we got to see the journey and that change is possible. Evolution is possible. And what is even the point of caring about these issues if you don’t believe that people can change?

Phil: The I’m From Driftwood podcast is hosted by Phil AKA Corrine.

Alex: And Alex Berg and is produced by Anddy Egan-Thorpe. It’s recorded as part of I’m From Driftwood, the LGBTQIA+ story archive.

Phil: It’s mission is to send a life saving message to queer and trans people everywhere. You are not alone.

Alex: I’m From Driftwood’s founder and executive director is Nathan Manske. It’s program director is Damien Mittlefehldt.

Phil: Our score is provided by Elevate Audio.

Alex: The stories you heard today are available in their entirety plus thousands more at

Phil: You can also follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube.

Alex: Or subscribe to our podcast wherever you get your podcasts.

Phil: This program is supported in part by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.

Alex: In partnership with the city council.

Phil: Additional funding is provided by the Humanities New York Sharp Grant with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Federal American Rescue Plan Act.

Alex: Thanks for listening, y’all.

Previous Episode

S3 : E10

LGBTQIA+ History

Some people might think that the LGBTQIA+ rights movement began with the Stonewall Riots. To be sure, it was a major event - but the movement began long before that....

Next Episode

S3 : E12

Out in the Workplace

Are you out at work? It’s easier for some people than others....

Sharing your story can change someone's life. Interested in learning more?