(Without knowing anything)
Last week a good friend had me over for dinner. He and his wife were great company, and we enjoyed chatting about all sorts of things, both funny and serious; and I came away feeling really encouraged by them.
In particular, I felt really seen and loved in my journey as a single gay Christian. Occasionally you have these beautiful moments of feeling the verbal equivalent of a warm hug (since real-life hugs are off limits at the moment) where a conversation just leaves you feeling really cared for—really embraced.
I’ve been trying to reflect on what made that conversation such an encouraging experience for me. People often ask me what they could do better to become more supportive allies to their gay friends, so I’m trying to pay more attention to these ‘warm hug conversations’ where I feel really loved, trying to put a finger on what makes these moments special.
And you know what I’ve realised? There’s really nothing that special about it. It’s dead easy. In fact, it’s so easy that anyone could do it.
My mate probably doesn’t even think of himself as a good ally, and he often confesses to me that he feels like he doesn’t know nearly enough about issues like singleness and sexuality to even know how to start being a supportive friend or pastor.
But the thing is: he already is a supportive friend even while knowing very little about the issues.
He’s a good ally because he loves well.
See, I’ve come to realise: I don’t want friends who are experts in issues. I just want people to help me feel loved. People sometimes feel like they have to be experts to start a conversation about sexuality and they feel anxiety about saying the wrong thing, so they end up keeping silent which is the most harmful thing. Other people do a lot of reading and feel like they are experts on the issues, and they try to show how woke they are, but chances are they’ve still only spent a fraction of the time thinking through things that any gay teenager has spent years grappling with.
But I think a great ally is just the kind of friend who humbly listens and learns. You don’t need to know anything to listen and learn. All you need is a love for your friend and genuine curiosity to learn more of their story.
Sometimes the people who aren’t the experts are the ones who make the best friends.
Here are some of the things my mate does well that make him a surprisingly great ally:
He listens well
You know those people who make you feel like you’re the only person that exists when you’re talking to them? There’s a special gift in being so present that you show someone you are totally, fully with them in that moment.
Sometimes the ‘woke’ allies have read so many books and listened to so many podcasts that they think they ‘get’ you. They can explain your experiences with their rich knowledge of sociology, psychology, and theological anthropology. It’s hard to listen deeply when you think you’ve heard this story dozens of times.
But an everyday straight Aussie bloke actually has a special capacity to listen attentively without drawing their own conclusions, because chances are this kind of experience is totally foreign to them. My friend makes me feel like the expert of my own experience, and that is such an empowering feeling. When we chat he gives me the gift of his full attention. For me, being listened to makes me feel seen and loved.
Part of listening well is paying so much attention that these stories and emotions imprint themselves on your long-term memory. When my mate refers to a passing comment I made in a conversation last year or shares something meaningful he read on my blog, it makes me feel that he really, genuinely cares. I know he cares because he remember the little things; he works hard to connect those fragments of my story to the big picture because he genuinely wants to know me as a whole person. That in itself is a life-giving experience for me.
He shows genuine curiosity
Perhaps one of the things I find most encouraging about this friend is that he so naturally asks great follow-up questions. These questions allay my fears about over-sharing and affirm that it’s okay to be vulnerable… in fact, it’s welcomed and appreciated.
There’s this phenomenon called a “vulnerability hangover” that often deters people from sharing authentically. After you’ve bared your heart and shared something personal, even if it felt good to confide in someone in that moment, you often wake up the next morning with regret and self-loathing. “Did I really say all that?” “I wonder what they think of me now.” “How can I face them today and pretend everything is normal again?” It’s easy for those insecurities to spin out of control in the aftermath of personal disclosure.
But when a friend steps towards you the next day, asking questions with genuine curiosity, it assures you that you’ve done the right thing. They actually do want to know the real you, and they weren’t freaked out by what you shared. Questions are powerful.
And here’s where a total noob has a massive advantage: the less you know about sexuality, the more opportunity you have to show genuine curiosity to your friend. Maybe we’re the first gay friend you’ve ever had, so when we came out to you, you had no idea how to respond. But you can turn that into a strength! You can journey alongside your friend, inviting them to share more of themselves with you, giving them permission to keep on talking to you about the ups and downs of their experience. Every question you ask reveals a sincere desire to know and understand them more deeply. Some of the moments that stand out to me are when friends asked me really specific questions that made me feel seen, like:
- “What was it like coming out to your parents?”
- “When did you realise you were gay?”
- “So what’s your ‘type’?”
- “What does it feel like going to weddings as a celibate single guy?”
Remember: we don’t need experts to teach us; we need friends to love us.*
He initiates deep conversations
Closely related to asking good questions is having follow-up conversations. It’s exhausting and costly to always be the one initiating deep conversations, so having friends who take the lead sometimes is incredibly life-giving. If a same-sex attracted person has chosen to confide in you, it probably took a huge amount of courage to get to that point, and after that initial conversation they are probably watching and waiting to see how you will react. As far as we’re concerned, the ball is in your court now, and we’re waiting to see whether we’ve freaked you out or whether you’re still comfortable connecting deeply with us.
Many straight Christians never initiate a second conversation. They might still be friendly and warm to us, but they keep silence on the subject and pretend the conversation never happened. You might think it’s out of respect for your friend’s privacy and you can justify it by saying you “don’t want to pry,” but if someone has confided in you, it’s pretty clear that they’ve deliberately invited you into that part of their life. Don’t leave them hanging.
My friend often abruptly starts conversations with “so I was thinking about that thing you said last week ___.” I’ve grown to love this. It starts to feel like our friendship isn’t a series of isolated conversations but is one ongoing conversation where we journey alongside each other and continue sharing our life and faith with each other.
Lots of gay people feel like we’re always the ones to initiate deep conversations, and it gets really exhausting after a while. We quickly feel like we’re being too intense and are making people uncomfortable (even if other people perceive us as having a gift for authenticity). So when a straight ally friend reciprocates and takes turns of initiating deep conversation (about sexuality or anything else), it’s deeply rejuvenating.
We’re tired of shallow small talk and insincerity, and sometimes we’re just waiting for someone to finally ask “How are you holding up at the moment?” before we can finally remove the façade and breathe freely again.
He matches the vibe
Maybe you’re getting the impression that we just want intense conversations all the time, but one of the things I love about this friend is that after a deep and meaningful conversation over morning tea, we can go straight back to sending each other memes during class. While others might put me in a box as a Suffering Gay™ and only have intense conversations of pitying my plight, my mate is able to match the vibe of what I’m sharing: showing empathy when it’s appropriate but also laughing at my gay jokes and enjoying more light-hearted chats when that’s the current mood.
If I had to make one critique of well-meaning Christian allies, it’s that in their efforts to empathise with gay Christians’ suffering, they’ve forgotten how to relate to us as ordinary, fun-loving human beings. It’s almost like the more books they’ve read about minority experiences of marginalisation, trauma, spiritual abuse, and statistics about LGBTIQ youth suicide rates, the more they see us as our trauma. I recently heard a talk on ministry to same-sex attracted Christians where the speaker kept referring to us as “people who struggle with sexuality,” – as if gay people are the only ones who “struggle with sexuality.” We are so often defined by our struggles that everyone in the room instantly understood that this euphemism referred specifically to gay people.
But where an average Joe does better than a well-read ‘woke’ ally is that they can more easily see us as whole people. When we have a conversation with them, they can match the vibe without filtering everything through a lens of hardship and oppression. Because my mate doesn’t know many other gay Christians, he’s less likely to project those experiences onto me and more likely to see me just as Matthew Ventura. He’s great at matching the vibe of the conversation, whether that’s personal vulnerability or immature banter. (Find yourself a man who can do both.)
My hope is that straight people reading this will realise how much meaningful support they can offer simply by being a loving presence: by listening well, remembering, asking follow-up questions, initiating deep conversations, and treating us as whole people by matching the vibe. You can excel at all these things even even while being completely clueless about gay people as long as you have a heart that genuinely cares about getting to know us through our friendship.
I hope some people reading this realise that many of the things they’re already doing are deeply valuable to us, and that this encourages you that the ‘little’ things you do like asking questions with curiosity actually help us feel loved. Thank you. We feel your love, and we love you too.
2 thoughts on “How to be an Amazing Ally”
* When I say “we don’t need experts to teach us; we need friends to love us,” I’m not actually letting experts off the hook! If someone is in a professional caring role such as a pastor or counsellor, they absolutely do have a duty of care to provide informed pastoral care. However, becoming informed sometimes looks less like reading theological textbooks and more like sitting down with someone to learn their story. Or, for a hard-hitting combo, do what my old pastor did: he sat down with me for coffee after I came out to him, asked good follow-up questions and matched the vibe, then asked which book I’d recommend to help him further understand my experience. Since reading that book, he’s come back for some great follow-up conversations (and recommended that book to most of his friends!).
Thanks Matt. I really enjoy your blog and just want to encourage you to keep sharing about your life and experiences. I’m a straight, female Christian in her early 50’s so I really value your insights. Your honesty and vulnerability is deeply appreciated. God bless you!