Artist Irene Nguyen alongside her ‘Solidarity Sign’ artistry that is on display at Tip Top Market in Charlotte, N.C. Inset is the store owner Jason Michel who commissioned the piece.

Dating back to the Stonewall riots, allyship has been a vital component in the continued fight against the oppression, discrimination, social injustice and inequality plagued by the LGBTQ community. Simply put, an ally, also referred to as a straight ally to distinguish from other types of allyship, is someone who in some way supports LGBTQ people.

Perhaps one of the most influential and iconic acts of allyship is that of PFLAG (the United States’ first and largest organization uniting parents, family and allies with people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) founder Jeanne Manford. In response to a brutal attack on her gay-activist son Morty that took place in New York City in 1972, Manford lodged several grievances and relentlessly fought for the justice of her child. She continued defending the rights of her son and his community throughout her life, efforts that evolved into movements and initiatives made by a blossoming coalition of allies standing up and fighting for and alongside the LGBTQ community.

During a 2019 interview with NBC News, a PFLAG representative discussed the impact of Manford’s love and support for her child shown through her efforts of activism. The career educator is remembered for being the first mom to publicly support her gay child, Liz Owens, PFLAG director of communications, told NBC News. “She is the mother of the LGBTQ ally movement,” Owens said. She is the mom who made it OK to love your LGBTQ kid.”

One mother’s choice to defend the equal rights of her son gave birth to the first LGBTQ ally group in the U.S. — PFLAG. Decades later it continues making headway in its efforts. PFLAG shows how one person’s decision to do what many may consider to be quite natural as a strength to those whom the organization supports. It also shows compassion and empathy for those who lack the privilege of receiving the same treatment and consideration afforded by everyone else. (See goqnotes.com/68571 for more on Manford.)

Today, allyship is alive and well and has proven to be a significant part of the continued progress toward achieving LGBTQ equality in the U.S. Regardless of why someone chooses to be an ally, as well as the extent of support exercised, all forms and levels of allyship hold value.

GLAAD (an American non-governmental media monitoring organization, formerly known as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) explains what an ally is and the different ways allyship can be practiced. “A straight ally can merely be someone who is supportive and accepts an LGBTQ person,” says GLAAD. “Or a straight ally can be someone who personally advocates for equal rights and fair treatment. Allies are some of the most effective and powerful voices of the LGBT movement. Not only do allies help people in the coming-out process, but they also help others understand the importance of equality, fairness, acceptance and mutual respect.”

In her 2020 Columbia University doctoral thesis titled “Bible Belt LGBTQ Allies in Their Own Words,” Bernadette Barton, Ph.D., says allyship plays a particularly important role in the South due to a heightened level of discrimination and intolerance experienced by LGBTQ individuals, which she attributes to the distinct influence that evangelical Protestantism has on community values, beliefs and politics in the region. “With less LGBTQ visibility in the Bible Belt region, allies may be more influential in their roles tackling systemic oppression and engaging in everyday activism to combat prejudice and discrimination,” said Barton, Ph.D.

As mentioned earlier, allyship can take the shape of many forms. Whether it’s supporting a friend or loved during their journey of coming out, marching in a Pride parade, participating in a peaceful protest or displaying a piece of expressionistic artwork representing an artist’s belief and support of equality for all.

For those who have been to the Tip Top Market in Plaza Midwood lately, they have had a chance to view a piece of art by Irene Nguyen that the store’s owner Jason Michel recently commissioned. Nguyen said she hasn not given the piece an official name yet, but that it is becoming known as the “Solidarity Sign.”

The piece consists of a layered image depicting a raised fist (the universal symbol of solidarity and support) made of hand-cut signs with multi-colored stripes (meant to represent different skin tones) set on a round board covered with a hand-painted transgender Pride flag. The completed work is trimmed in black as a type of frame.

The allied artist is a San Antonio, Texas native who studied fine arts at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She said she was inspired to create the piece following the death of George Floyd. “This summer when tensions were really high, especially after the killing of George Floyd, my boyfriend and I wanted to show our support for Black Lives Matter, gay and trans rights, and to show our community that we support the human rights of all,” said Nguyen.

Michel, who commissioned the piece, said he knew he wanted a big version of the “Solidarity Sign” when Nguyey first started on the allied-inspired creation he described as “saying it all without saying a word.” “When Irene Nguyen began making her wonderful solidarity signs that said it all without saying a word, I knew I wanted a big one for our building,” said Michel. “Just to put it all out there and show pride for all of the diverse communities that intersect at our shop. In general, once you become aware of inequity and oppression and you’re, hopefully, not cool with it, you can’t put that genie back in the bottle.”

Members of Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C. show their pride at a community event wearing the church’s allied-inspired T-shirts.

Not only are small businesses like the Tip Top Market showing their LGBTQ allyship, but also places of worship such as Myers Park Baptist Church. The prominent Christian-based church has a longstanding track record of showing support for the LGBTQ community, according to Senior Pastor Rev. Dr. Benjamin Boswell who spoke to qnotes about an initiative implemented through a campaign by the church that launched during December 2019. Boswell said the initiative was the church’s way of presenting a message to the community he called “a bold expression of love and inclusivity.”

“We really feel like we have a safe and affirming community that’s empowering for LGBTQ people,” Boswell said. “Many of whom we know don’t really have a church, been alienated by the church, have a lot of baggage with the church, or been hurt by the church,” added Boswell.

Knowing that these barriers to worship freely and comfortably existed, Myers Park Baptist Church began exploring ways in which it could help bridge this gap between the LGBTQ community and the church. Boswell said Myers Park Baptist wanted a way to convey its unique identity and inclusive message of love and inclusiveness.

Resulting from the church’s determination to share its message and share it loudly came a high-spirited campaign led by two of the church’s members, Laurie Donato and Ruben Lopez who are partners. The campaign consists of two displayed banners outside the church. One reading, “Jesus was an undocumented immigrant, just saying…” and the other having a stream of different messages on topics such as environmental justice written on colored pencils representing the rainbow. One message reads, “a pastor, an atheist and a transgender woman walk into a church. No joke. Courtesy of Myers Park Baptist Church.”

Brittany and Michael Kelly, owners of The Mercantile store in Rock Hill, S.C., store show their support for the LGBTQ community while sporting a set of rainbow wings.

Considered a suburb of Charlotte, N.C. just across the state line is Rock Hill, S.C. where an LGBTQ alliance has begun sprouting with local business owners doing their part as allies of the community.

Brittany and Michael Kelly, owners of the eclectic general store-inspired gift shop, The Mercantile, hosted a drag race/drag show event earlier this year to promote LGBTQ youth anti-bullying. The Kelly’s both have deep roots in the LGBTQ community that inspired them to become allies.

Michael Kelly said his close relationship with a colleague who was like a mentor to him sparked his affinity for LGBTQ people and doing what he could do to show his support. Brittany Kelly, a former field director in Washington, D.C., said that it was the people she came to know and love in her social circle and professional network who were LGBTQ people that fueled her fight and inspired her allyship and advocacy efforts.

“In 2005, Michael and I had just met and were hanging out a good bit in Charlotte,” said Brittany Kelly. “We spent a lot of time with a prominent gay man who was Michael’s landlord and boss at the time and were also heavily involved in the fashion industry and were around a lot of individuals who were LGBTQ. Just keeping those relationships alive and staying connected with the good friends we made during that time was a big part of why Michael and I became LGBTQ allies.”

Rob Masone, chef and owner of Kre8 Events & Xperiences Inc. in Rock Hill, S.C. prepares food using molecular gastronomy.

Another business owner in Rock Hill, Rob Masone, chef and owner of Kre8 Events & Xperiences Inc. is another local ally of the community. Masone said from meeting people who were LGBTQ individuals through his involvement in the entertainment and event industry had a lasting impression and played a big part in him becoming an ally.

“Through my work, centered in the entertainment and event industry, I have met so many wonderful and amazing members of the LGTBQ community that have touched my life in many ways,” said Masone. “Listening to them speak about their specific journeys, along with the trials and obstacles they face on a daily basis, is extremely touching. This has helped motivate me to stand up and help speak out on their behalf when necessary.”

From businesses to religious organizations, people have started standing up and speaking out on behalf of the LGBTQ community. With each measure of compassion and empathy shown by these allies the ripple effect of LGBTQ allyship and advocacy continues to spread.

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