Tl;dr Even while loads of self-proclaimed allies do not deserve cookies, there is quite possibly a use for ally cookies in the form of positive feedback and reinforcement to encourage those allies that are already putting in the energy.
I’ve always supported the idea of not giving allies cookies. Like yes, you are a decent human being, congratulations, now shut up./end sarcasm
But, at the same time, I’ve found myself willingly giving out “cookies” quite a lot and, the more I think about it, the more I think it’s not necessarily bad to give an ally a cookie when they do a Good Thing, no matter how small it is.
Let’s take pronouns for a second:
Scenario 1: I have the super well-meaning cis ally who wants to use ne/nir/nim, which I tend to mention as my preferred pronouns alongside “they”, but this person keep stumbling. I tell them to just use ne/nir/nim in writing for practice and use “they” when they’re speaking, because it will be easier. They refuse. I tell them to just use “they”, they refuse because they know using someone’s correct pronoun is a bare minimum and feel like using “they” is like a kind of concession and they really really want to do the Right Thing and call me by the Right Pronoun, even though it’s something that’s causing struggle and I’ve asked them not to do so. Conversations with them suddenly become very difficult.
Scenario 2: A slightly less well-meaning cis person wants to prove to others that they’re a really good ally without doing much work. They start using my pronouns in front of everyone without checking if it’s someone I want to be out to and policing people I barely know. Suddenly, I’m inundated with people who barely know me demanding an explanation for my weird pronouns (and claiming they’re grammatically incorrect) and assuming a Gender 101 comes with the explanation.
Scenario 3: I ask a clueless, but well-meaning cis person to refer to me as “they”. They struggle with it. A lot. It’s frustrating. I ask them again. And again. And again. Every time, they apologise, say they try to do better, and then continue to refer to me incorrectly. I eventually give up. A year later, they use the right pronoun.
So, who gets the cookie?
Ally 1 definitely knows their stuff. They’ve done reading outside of what I’ve told them to understand that pronouns are important, they are aware of how much of a difference a pronoun can make, and they are even aware that “preferred pronouns” are most often secretly “correct pronouns” and that trans people may not always express what they want/need immediately due to prior experience with difficult people. Except they don’t listen, even after I ask them twice. Now they’re just draining my energy. I feel embarrassed and exposed by this constant focus on their obsession with treating me Right. This “ally” has decided what’s best for me while ignoring my requests. No cookie.
Ally 2 makes the pretty common mistake of a “one size fits all” fallacy. In some ways, they’re the other side of Ally 1, though I’d argue they’re lacking in some knowledge, because they seem to have no understanding of the dangers of outing someone. They are similarly exposing me, draining my energy, and putting me in a position where I am constantly on the defensive and have to educate others. They are also guilty of not listening. While Ally 1 doesn’t listen to what I say, Ally 2 doesn’t listen to what I don’t say. Because I don’t tell them when to use my pronouns, they assume my pronouns should be used the same way in all scenarios. Without background knowledge, it’s an understandable mistake, but it’s still harmful.
More importantly, this is a self-proclaimed ally. They are using my pronouns not so much to respect me, but to show others that they are a Good Ally (ie. One that deserves a cookie…) Of course it is hard to judge the intent of someone else, but here, it is very clear in the fact that the job of the explanation falls back to me. Ally 2 makes no attempt to explain why they are using these pronouns or to protect me from the people who are all suddenly very curious about my gender, which they could easily take the time to do. All they’re doing is the surface, showy form of allyship without taking the time to really figure out what that means for the people they claim they are allied to. No cookie. (Especially not if they ask for one).
Ally 3 is a person. Admittedly, a frustrating person. However, even in the throes of my frustration, they apologize. They try to do better. They fail. They try to do better. When I’ve given up on them, they haven’t given up on treating me correctly, even if I don’t see the results of their work until much further down the line. And it was hard for them. By using the right pronoun, they’ve accomplished something that didn’t look possible. So…would I give them a cookie? Hell yeah. They deserve to have their work and commitment recognized.
I think something that’s absolutely necessary to remember is that everyone comes from different places. Something that might look like “basic decency” to one person may be a giant mountain to another. What I need out of allies isn’t a set of rules to follow – I really don’t care if someone always gets my name right if they then use that as a bragging point with their friends (actually, I’d prefer they’d get my name wrong, because that’s a much easier issue to tackle). What I need is the recognition of my humanity and the willingness to try something hard in order to best recognize my identity respectfully.
Allyship is about engaging with something out of your comfort zone, it’s not about 5 Ways to Check Your Privilege or 10 Things Cis People Can Do for Trans People, it’s about approaching a problem to the best of your ability, being willing to fuck up and doing better. And if someone is really doing that, they need cookies, because they’re in a place that they don’t understand. There are no boxes to tick off, there is no “I did this, so I’m obviously learning”, no measurable sign that their allyship is effective. The only way they can know they are on the right path and should continue is if I say “hey, thanks for asking” or “I really appreciate how you did that”. It’s positive feedback, it’s how we learn.
And, above all else, it is a way of prioritising trans voices. Ally 1 and 2 both follow lists and checkboxes of how to ally with trans people, but their hugest mistake is listening to set criteria more than they listen to me. They’ve decided that all trans people need the same thing. Except we’re much more diverse than any random article on the internet will make you believe. The only way anyone is going to get allyship right is by listening as hard as possible to as many trans people as possible.
If an ally shows they are listening and trying and changing to the best of their ability and recognizing, above all else, that every trans person is different, of course I’m going to give them a cookie or say thank you or let them know I see what they’re doing and appreciate it. Because these are the people that are going to become my best allies and I’d be a fool to not encourage that.
(That said! Checkbox lists are great places to start taking on allyship because it’s a great way to get first steps without having to drain a trans person’s energy and then, with that new knowledge, it is much easier for me or another trans person to have the space we need to give allies things to listen to).