Developing Allyism to LGBTQ Students by Matthew Barnes

With the growing diversity in higher education has come greater visibility for students identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer/questioning (LGBTQ).  Although LGBTQ students are growing in visibility, they still experience feelings of hostility or not being accepted based on their sexual minority status and gender identity.  Often, the focus on supporting LGBTQ students fails to address a critical component in creating an equitable environment – developing supportive allies.

This article will provide a synthesis of theories on allyism and identify both patterns of ally development and triggers of ally development. In this context, allies will be defined based on Broido’s (2000) working definition of allies, which encompasses members of a dominant social group (i.e. heterosexual/cisgender college students) who work to end systemic oppression that gives them greater privilege based on their group membership over a minority social group (i.e., LGBTQ college students).

Patterns of Development for Allies to the LGBTQ Community

Broido (2000) created a model applying allyism to college student development with four major action items as part of one’s ability and willingness to develop as an ally.  The first involves information gathering on LGBTQ social justice issues, which may come from class, interpersonal interactions, or readings.  The second stage in development involves engagement in meaning-making processes, such as peer discussion, perspective-taking, and self-reflection.  The third is establishing self-confidence, which evolves when professionals give allies security to reflect on difficult issues, to withstand threats to their self-esteem as allies, and to engage in ally activities.  The fourth action item requires professionals and LGBTQ students to invite and externally initiate ally activities in order to draw allies into participation.

Reason and Davis (2005) described a model of allyism involving identity analysis.  To become allies, students must understand the social construction of identity, the presence of multiple identities and subjectivities within an individual, and establish a complex cognitive ability, involving the ability to critically think about oneself and others, before they can accept allyism to other identities.  Cognitive development is also a component of Waters’s (2010) theory, which described initial, intermediate, and mature stages of cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal development.  Self-authorship, reflection, and challenges for critical thinking are crucial components in these ally development stages.

Edwards (2006) described ally development as advancing through being different types of allies.  Allies start their journey by being self-interested and only displaying allyism to LGBTQ people whom they personally know and want to protect.  They then move on to a stage of being an altruistic ally, during which they want to be a hero for the LGBTQ community instead of fighting oppression with the community.  Finally, they become an ally for social justice by challenging oppressive systems in tandem with the LGBTQ community and collaborating as partners.

Indicators of ally development may involve private and public forms of ally development, according to Vaccaro, August, and Kennedy (2012).  This private and public development occurs in stages, as allies move from anti-ally behaviors to being a safe confidant.  Then, more publicly, allies begin to confront oppression, educate themselves and others, and challenge larger oppressive systems.  This is a challenging process during which allies may need the support of LGBTQ people and other allies.

Triggers of Ally Development

Research has identified several occurrences which may trigger ally development.  These triggers may be combined or used as interventions and educational opportunities by professionals to initiate ally development.

  1. Interacting with LGBTQ Peers (Stotzer, 2009): This can normalize the presence of LGBTQ students for allies, expose them to LGBTQ issues, and help them make connections which would compel them to help.
  2. Encountering a situation which elicits empathy for LGBTQ peer struggles: This may include a situation such as witnessing an LGBTQ student struggling with dissonance in their religious community.  Such triggers may also take the form of allies experiencing resistance against a display of negativity towards an LGBTQ person and wanting to help, including instances of bullying (Stotzer, 2009; Duhigg, Rostosky, Gray, & Wimsatt, 2010).
  3. Individual motives for wanting to support the community (Russell, 2011):  These may include motives based in foundational principles, such as justice, civil rights, or moral principles, and applying them to fighting the oppression of the LGBTQ community.
  4. Family Influence: A student’s family also plays a part in predicting allyism, especially parental influence (Munin & Speight, 2010).  Students are more likely to be allies if their parents take time to educate them about diversity and social justice issues prior to college.  Allyism is also predicted if LGBTQ identities are normalized in childhood, especially by exposure to LGBTQ family members, familiar LGBTQ adults, and LGBTQ figures in pop culture (Stotzer, 2009).  Parents play a crucial role in the levels of exposure a student receives.
  5. Faith: A student’s faith can also play a role in predicting their allyism (Munin & Speight, 2010).  Students are more likely to be allies if they have deeply rooted values associated with their faith.  A study by Munin & Speight (2010) showed that allies developed, in part, out of a desire to keep their actions congruent with the values related to equality and justice in their faith development.

Practical Implications: Mechanisms to Facilitate Ally Development

Understanding ally development and the ways in which the process of becoming an ally can be triggered are only parts of the larger picture. We must take steps to integrate these models and theories into practice. Below are a few examples of ways to bring theory to practice and develop better allies for LGBTQ students on our campuses.

  1. Create programs for different levels of allyism. Professionals must remember to meet students at their developmental level to keep them from retreating when confronted with dissonance too advanced for them (Waters, 2010). For example, students who are not normalized to LGBTQ identities during childhood might be more alarmed when presented with attitude-changing experiences in college than students who may already be more developed as allies from exposure to LGBTQ people before college (Stotzer, 2009).  This may include creating a campus-wide ally development program with different stages, levels, or sections to ensure all facets of allyism are covered.
  2. Conduct outreach efforts to a range of identities. In creating a campus climate of allyism, professionals should focus ample effort on recruiting men and those who have completed less of their education, as they are less represented in ally populations (Fingerhut, 2011).  Professionals will also want to reach out to parents and spiritual leaders in the community who play influential roles when it comes to allies developing positive attitudes about their LGBTQ peers (Munin & Speight, 2010).
  3. Increase exposure to “otherness.” Students are more likely to become allies if they interact and get to know an LGBTQ person (Fingerhut, 2011).  Part of this is recruiting and retaining a diverse student body, including LGBTQ students (Broido & Reason, 2005).  It may take intentional academic and programmatic efforts, such as intergroup dialogue programs, to achieve exposure and healthy interaction between potential allies and LGBTQ students.
  4. Engage students in activism.  Since allies often need an invitation or initiation from another to engage in ally activities, professionals can play a crucial role in engaging a larger number of students in activism.
  5. Create academic opportunities for ally training inside and outside the classroom. It is important for ally development that these training opportunities include reflection, skill development, positive attitude development, LGBTQ student-ally interaction, and identity development.  Ally development learning opportunities will give potential allies a safe learning environment to clarify values, learn about social justice issues, engage in discussion, and make meaning of their new knowledge (Broido, 2000).


Broido, E. M. (2000). The development of social justice allies during college: A phenomenological investigation. Journal of College Student Development, 41(1), 3-18.

Broido, E. M., & Reason, R. D. (2005). The development of social justice attitudes and actions: An overview of current understandings. New Directions for Student Services, 110, 17-28.

Duhigg, J. M., Rostosky, S. S., Gray, B. E., & Wimsatt, M. K. (2010). Development of heterosexuals into sexual-minority allies: A qualitative exploration. Sexuality Research & Social Policy: A Journal of the NSRC, 7(1), 2-14. doi:

Edwards, K. E. (2006). Aspiring social justice ally identity development: A conceptual model. NASPA Journal, 43(4), 39-60.

Fingerhut, A. W. (2011). Straight allies: What predicts heterosexuals’ alliance with the LGBT community?. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 41(9), 2230-2248. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.2011.00807.x

Munin, A., & Speight, S. L. (2010). Factors influencing the ally development of college students. Equity & Excellence in Education, 43(2), 249-264. doi:

Reason, R. D., & Davis, T. L. (2005). Antecedents, precursors, and concurrent concepts in the development of social justice attitudes and actions. New Directions for Student Services, 110, 5-15.

Russell, G. M. (2011). Motives of heterosexual allies in collective action for equality. Journal of Social Issues, 67(2), 376-393.

Stotzer, R. (2009). Straight allies: Supportive attitudes toward lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals in a college sample. Sex Roles, 60(1/2), 67-80. doi:10.1007/s11199-008-9508-1

Vaccaro, A., August, G., & Kennedy, M. S. (2012). Sharing the struggles: The role of allies.  In Safe Spaces: Making Schools and Communities Welcoming to LGBT Youth (pp. 47-64). Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

Waters, R. (2010). Understanding allyhood as a developmental process. About Campus, 15(5), 2-8.

Matthew Barnes is the Assistant Director of Orientation & Commuter Student Involvement at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, FL.  Matthew has contributed to several campus-wide social justice initiatives at the University of Miami, including the development of the IBIS Ally Network and serving as a committee chair on the President’s Campus Coalition on Sexual Violence Prevention and Education.  He can be reached at for further discussion on this topic.

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