There is this confusion in activism that being strong means never let anything touch you.
People think it means having a thick skin, a core of rock and never feeling afraid. Sure, you can be all these things as an activist, but being vulnerable, being scared and being emotional doesn’t mean you’re not cut out for this gig. Many Queer voices are self-silenced because of the myth that to make a change you need to be a charging bull, tackling homophobia and hetero-privilege like a rugby player, fighting the patriarchy like a soldier. I’m here to tell you there are a thousand different ways to be an activist and all these ways involve a combination of strength and vulnerability. Let me explain how I came to this conclusion.
Will Kostakis: Unintentional Poster Boy
This thought has been brewing since I attended All Day YA at the Sydney Writers Festival and had the chance to question two of the authors featured in the LoveOzYA Anthology ‘Begin, End, Begin’. I asked Will Kostakis, who is openly Queer, why he didn’t include a Queer character in his contribution to the anthology and simultaneously asked Amie Kaufman, who from my knowledge is not Queer, why she did make her story Queer. Amie answered first, explaining that when she first thought up the main character to her story they were Queer, and when she hinted at this on social media, people messaged her to confirm this because they were genuinely excited by the prospect. So she thought, great, let’s do this. There was no backlash for her. For Will it was the complete opposite. People expected a Queer story and he just did not have the energy to face the backlash that he knew he would receive, based on the backlash he received after coming out and then releasing ‘The Sidekicks’. For Amie, it was no big deal either way, because it wasn’t personal to her. For Will it was.
That day, Will went on the speak freely and strongly about the importance of Queer Own Voices stories, about navigating being Queer and maintaining a career and about how his sexuality is politicised. This weekend he performed a key note speech with these themes at the Reading Matters Conference, and from my twitter-research it made everybody bawl their eyes out. In a good way. But if we only looked at Will’s activism in terms of his contribution to the LoveOzYA anthology, then it wouldn’t seem like he was doing much for AusQueerYA. In this narrow context, it looks like Amie Kaufman is a stronger voice. And therein lies the problem with the distorted view we have of what makes an activist.
Will Kostakis is an activist for Queer YA all the time, whether by choice or by force I’m not certain, but he seems to have accepted this position. Even when he is so emotionally drained that he can’t face talking about being Queer for one more minute. Even when he is vulnerable and upset and feeling personally victimised by the greater powers that be. Being an important voice in a movement such as this doesn’t mean yelling the loudest or punching the hardest all the time. It means allowing yourself to be vulnerable. It means valuing your experiences and how they affect you. It means feeling all the things and being brave enough to share that with the world. It’s being wise enough to know that sometimes you’ve got to pack it up, rest and allow yourself to recover, or else you will burn out.
You Might Not Be Will Kostakis, but You Are Enough
At All Day YA I spoke to a few people who seemed to believe that they couldn’t do what I am doing, because they don’t have ‘what it takes’. I’m calling bullshit on that. Just like Will Kostakis, I don’t have ‘what it takes’ to do what I do all the time either. Sometimes I just want to fucking nap and forget about all this. What counts is the bounce-back.
For those of you who feel like you don’t have the strength to fight: you do. Whoever you are is enough. The problem is not that your skin isn’t thick enough or that you cry too easily or that you don’t like shouting. The problem is that we believe activism is only about shouting and taking hit after hit without feeling any pain. It’s not. It’s about feeling all the pain and knowing how to look after yourself and your community. It’s about finding strength in unity with others. Knowing where your strengths lie and allowing yourself to be vulnerable. Just because you’re not good at listening to insults being hurled at you from trolls all day, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write that book. Or if you are particularly good at fielding insults from trolls, that doesn’t mean you can’t take a break sometimes.
Yes, it’s Personal, but You’re Not Alone
You can be both very brave and very frightened at the same time. In fact, I challenge you to find a Queer activist who isn’t scared shitless at least sometimes. Amie Kaufman didn’t feel scared to make her main character Queer, because it wasn’t personal to her. It is personal to us. That’s why it matters so much more and that is why it is important to recognise that it is going to hurt sometimes. A lot of the time. And when it does hurt, you have the right to take time out and not feel like a failure. You have the right to ask for help from your community.
It’s kinda like a marathon. There are some super hard-core athletes who will run the whole way on their own and get to the end totally spent, but that’s their thing. Then there are the people who run in teams, each person running a few kilometres. The result is the same: you all run. Most of us just can’t do it solo. Some of us can run 50% of the race. Some can only manage 5%, but you don’t have to keep out of the race just because you can only go 5% of the way. Maybe next time you will go 70%, maybe the time after that only 10%. IT ALL FUCKING COUNTS. Even the people who do it solo still stop to recover. Nobody can run continuously.
I am a person who is willing to put myself personally in to this space, because I believe in this cause and the value of the work I am doing. But then I see things in the news, or someone makes a homophobic comment to me and I just want to crawl in to bed and be left the hell alone. Other days I see these same things and I’m up on my soapbox ready to yell at whoever will listen, fired up by anger and the injustice of it all. All those feelings are valid. None of them make me a shitty activist. Whoever you are, whatever type of person you are today, tomorrow, next week, in a year: they are all valid. The only time you could be a shitty activist is if you are taking space in a cause that isn’t yours. But if you’re Queer and fighting for Queer rights and listening to the voices of others in the community and doing your best not to be an uninformed jerk, then you’re probably not a shitty activist.
This is a Call to Action
I’m asking you to fight, in whatever way you can. To give a shit about how we are treated in this society. But take the time out to look after mental state. If the burden becomes too much for you, remember there are so many people ready to shoulder the load for you. And when you find your strength again, those same people will welcome you back into the fold with arms open. As Queer person’s we are vulnerable. It’s time to stop viewing this as a weakness, and recognise that this is a valid part of being a human. Sometimes the strongest thing you can do it to know when to step back. This doesn’t make you a failure. This doesn’t make you weak. This makes you human.
As a community, we need to foster this environment where it is ok to take time out. It is ok for Will Kostakis not to write Queer stories sometimes. It is ok to put yourself first, just remember you are part of a community who values you and you should value that community in return. We need to support each other’s personal journeys and step up when we can and feel safe to curl up and rest when we need to. We need to reassess what effective activism looks like to us. To learn to value the quiet voices too and remember that even the smallest effort can have a massive impact.
How do you look after you and how do you view yourself within this movement? Start a conversation in the comment below.