For all the folks involved in the work, it is news to nobody that this stuff gets really tough. Some days are excruciatingly difficult, and other days you really wonder if your life will actually leave any kind of dent on these oppressive systems. Being an activist is hard. Living as a marginalized person is hard. In this post, I do not necessarily want to address how to fix everything (because I don’t know how to), but I do want to talk about self-love for activists.
I am an educator and writer who dabbles in multiple forms: essays, short stories, novels, page poetry, and spoken word. Lately, I have been focusing a lot on the essay writing portion while dabbling in page poetry and short stories. My educational efforts have me interning at a public charter school, where I work with this school’s feminist club and GSA (gender and sexuality alliance) and has me facilitating workshops, writing groups, and a discussion group called Gender Chats. Outside of my internship, I also facilitate another discussion group called Queer Theory Wednesday, co-facilitated my college’s first Trans 101 workshop for staff and faculty, worked as a team lead for Free Arts MN, helped develop and facilitate an 8-week workshop series for Face Forward MN on art and identity as well as performing some spoken word poetry for them, and a whole lot of other things that I don’t want to list off. This is, in essence, my “activist resumé.” I keep myself very busy with the work I do, and there are times where I feel I have taken on too much, am overwhelmed.
To help demonstrate this, I have recently gotten involved in an off-campus study program called HECUA. In figuring out my internship for the program, I visited the Plymouth Youth Center, where I would be working with students who were labeled “at-risk” (a very problematic and harmful label) and predominantly Black. These students also had EBD’s (emotional behavioral disorders), and I was warned right away that these students would, in all likeliness, find ways to mock my trans womanhood. Given that I am pre-everything, and sensitive about my identity, I declined this internship for the one at the public charter school I had mentioned previously.
In taking up the other internship, I knew I would have a bit of an easier time. I mean really, this public charter school had all-gender bathrooms. In reflecting on this decision, I labeled myself as weak. I didn’t think I was strong enough, confident enough in my identity to work with people who would seriously challenge me on it. At this time, I defined strength as the ability to consistently defend my humanity against any and all adversity.
I am confident that my definition had come to be that way because 1) I’m the only trans woman on my campus, 2) I’m very isolated from trans women/femme people on other campuses, of which there are three out trans women/femme people, and 3) I feel as though I experience a heightened amount of transmisogyny and am always the only trans woman in the room. If I didn’t defend myself, I couldn’t expect anyone else to stick up for trans women because the majority of my friends are DFAB trans/trans masculine people who benefit from transmisogyny. This also instigated what I call “justified paranoia.” I have to assume transmisogyny in others for my own safety. This means I constantly have my guard up in one way or another.
I’ll be the first to admit that this paranoia and defensiveness made me a pretty unlikable character for a while. These things also pushed me to be far less patient with others when they messed up with me. So what would have happened if I had worked with the Plymouth Youth Center? A student, or a number of students, would potentially mock my trans womanhood. Couple that with my already heightened paranoia and defensiveness, I would have either withdrawn and isolated myself from these students or I would have not-so-kindly told a student to “Shut up.”
But you know what else would have been a major dynamic in that? My whiteness. What would either of my actions have potentially done to a young Black man? I would have just been another white person pulling the same old shit with Black youth. It doesn’t matter what my background story is in this case. If I had snapped, that would have the impact of a white person asserting their authority over Black youth. That’s white supremacy. If I had isolated myself, withdrew myself, then what message does that send? It sends the message, “I don’t care enough to work with you.” Whiteness will always assert itself in my interactions and relationships with people of color regardless of how I approach the situation. It is always there, because I am a white person who grew up in a racist society, and I need to unpack that. I do not exist in a vacuum. I am not a self-made person. Anybody who can leverage power, regardless of what situation they’re in, needs to be aware of that privilege and when it rears itself.
I spent a good while reflecting on myself and where I was at, and I had to come to terms with the fact that I was just not in an emotional or mental state to effectively work across differences which may have been heightened, given the circumstances. I decided that if I chose to intern at the Plymouth Youth Center, I would have caused more harm than health. My own situation had me on edge with everybody, and putting more vulnerable youth at risk to my not-so-healthy self was not something that needed to happen. I had to exercise honesty with myself in regards to where I was at and where I would be more useful. I couldn’t, at the time, work with students who had EBD’s. I simply didn’t have the patience with others to do so. Given the racial component of the situation, my presence would have been especially toxic, even if I had been reacting to transmisogyny.
People too often make self-love synonymous with self-care. Self-care is a component of self-love, not the other way around. For me, self-love also means facing ugly truths about yourself. Self-love means being honest with yourself about where you just aren’t capable or qualified. In all cases, the exercise of self-love requires a certain degree of self-awareness and situational awareness. For my case, self-love is not my excuse for inaction, but the explanation. It was a form of violence-prevention. I knew I would not be able to work effectively in the setting that was the Plymouth Youth Center.
Self-love is also the realization that you can’t do everything about everything. You can’t be all things to all people all at once, and sometimes that means stepping back and just not getting involved in something, especially if you feel that you would be toxic. You have to take care of your own needs before you can support others in addressing their own. As my partner, Ollie, puts it in one of their poems, “There is a reason airplane emergency instructions insist parents fasten their own masks before those of their children. | Activism without self-preservation is a sea of masked children and dead parents.”