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What is an Ally?

Updated: Nov 28, 2022

Note -- this post is the start of a series by the WFencing Allies Committee. Each post will feature a different guest author. Check out the Allies Committee page for more.

Since its founding, WFencing has been approached by male fencers asking how they can help. To help address this question, we’ve formed a new Allies Committee. Our first task was to answer the incredibly broad question, “What is an ally?” When I think of this term, I think of a coach I’ll call Al.

Many years ago, I met Al at a coaching clinic with a well-respected coach. One of the participants asked, “What is the difference between coaching men and women?” The instructor paused for a moment, then reached over and patted me (the only woman in the group) on my head, said “Don’t get offended,” and proceeded to tell a sexist joke that I will just sum up as “Women are crazy, LOL.” There was an awkward moment until everyone laughed and then we moved on. To be honest, the moment barely registered – I was tired, and I have heard some version of that joke my entire life.

But the day after the clinic, Al called me. He apologized for laughing and said that he felt cornered into doing so (which I relate to, since I also felt cornered into laughing and not reacting). He offered to file a SafeSport complaint. This was before the Center for Safe Sport had formed, so the complaint would have gone directly to someone at USA Fencing. I was afraid that an anonymous complaint would look like it had come from me and might lead to bad feelings or even retaliation. So, I asked him not to file a complaint and he agreed. Al did call the offending coach and explain why he thought the joke was inappropriate, and relayed his apology to me.

A year or so later, the #MeToo movement kicked off, and I have thought a lot about what happened in the intervening years. I still wrestle with whether it was best not to report the coach for his joke -- that’s a debate for another day. And yes, I know that this incident is small potatoes compared to what a lot of other women have faced. But let’s take this story and look at the ways in which Al supported me as an ally:

  • First, he reached out to me after the fact to apologize for laughing and for not standing up in the moment. He told me that he disagreed with the sentiment of the joke and that he didn’t think it was an appropriate comment from a coach.

  • Second, he followed my lead in what to do next -- he allowed me, the person most affected, to determine the next steps.

  • Finally, and most importantly, he contacted the other coach directly to discuss why he thought the joke was inappropriate. This last step is crucial -- I don’t know if it changed the way the other coach talks or thinks about women fencers, but it did let him know that not all male coaches want to hear those jokes.

We really cannot change the culture in fencing without male allies making it uncomfortable to hold sexist attitudes or tell sexist jokes, even just among “the dudes.” This is where the real power of Al’s actions comes in.

Let’s go back to our fundamental question: “what is an ally?” In an article for the employment website The Muse author Karen Catlin sums