A few years ago, Laura Cousineau was about to introduce herself to members of the Alliance for Full Acceptance (AFFA), a local group that advocates for gay rights. But she wasn't quite sure how to refer to her husband, Ed. "Was he my husband? My life partner?" she wondered.
Cousineau recently co-founded AFFA's Straight Ally Workshop, helping other gay-friendly folks work through those questions. She's one of those hip parents that every gay kid dreams of. When Cousineau's daughter, Anne, came out about a decade ago as gender queer, she wasn't just supportive — Laura was on board to take action. "It wasn't a question of getting involved," she says. "I wanted to make sure the world was a safer place for my child and people like her."
Cousineau joined AFFA's leadership team last year. During the organization's annual workshop, she sat down beside Jen Bennett, an out lesbian and local artist. The two began a conversation about providing resources for other straight people who may not be as involved as Cousineau, but still invested in equality. "There are a lot of people who feel like they are allies, but don't know how they can help," she says.
One of AFFA's main goals is reaching out to the broader Charleston community, through workshops and an annual billboard, TV, and radio campaign. Last month, Cousineau, Bennett, and AFFA board member Barbara Tuttle hosted the group's first Straight Ally Workshop.
Much like Cousineau's quandary at her first gay event, language was an important issue. "We spent a majority of the time talking about what gay people like to be called," she says.
Many young people — including those who are reluctant to label themselves as gay or lesbian — have come to embrace the word "queer," a word used by bullies and anti-gay opponents that young gay people have taken back and now use proudly when identifying themselves. But straight allies and older gay people were uncomfortable with the term.
The attendees also talked about moments in their own lives when straight allies have stood up for their gay friends, like when someone tells an offensive joke about gay people or when a cocktail conversation turns to marriage equality or other gay rights issues.
"There are teachable moments when you can help people understand," Cousineau says. The group wants to collect a few of these lessons and place them on a small card. Straight allies could carry it with them and refer to the card when facing situations where they can stand up for a gay friend or co-worker. AFFA is also organizing at least two more workshops this year, and the group wants to bring the conversation to clubs or organizations interested in getting more comfortable addressing gay issues.
"The hope is to make talking about your LGBT friends and family a part of your normal conversation," says Cousineau. "Making it the new norm."
Bennett adds that empowering these allies is critical in the journey for gay rights. "As a group, we're a small part of the population," she says of gay folks. "If we're going to make any inroads politically, straight allies are essential."
For more info, visit affa-sc.org.