When the Movement Does Not Save Your Life

We enter social justice work as survivors. We seek to find community among our own. As black gay men particularly, but by no means exclusively, we learn to endure and inevitably resist racism and homophobia. What’s less clear is how we survive each other.

Movement work can be beautiful. It can be transformative. The most fulfilling moments in my life have been in activist spaces. I am thankful for the people over the years that have honored me, and offered me the gift of their ideas, examples, and love. I’ve been nurtured more often than not, and I’m grateful for the uniqueness of my experience.

There can also be earth shattering disappointment. Some of us experience psychological abuse, trauma, and the other forces that rain down upon us from inside our own ranks. Some of us have even experienced the trauma of standing up for a community that ultimately fails them. The black queer home that many of our foremothers and fathers wrote so passionately about — some of us have had to flee because our sanity depended on it.

I’ve learned this inconvenient but critical lesson about leadership: the most difficult part is loneliness. It cannot be cured. You endure it until it breaks, like fever. When one is saying or doing the right thing, especially initially, it is often alone. Sometimes to say the most important things is to also go against your tribe, your friends, your community. Sometimes to say the things you need to say to survive, to live those truths that only you in that moment completely understand, can at times put you in opposition to those you’ve been fighting alongside. Sometimes speaking the truth can put you in opposition to those you love.

The more progressive among us chant “the masters tools will never dismantle the masters house,” the stunningly brilliant line in Audre Lorde’s essay by the same title which we take to mean among other things, a sort of caution against perpetuating the oppressive practices done to us. It feels powerful in our mouths when we say it, but does not always manifest as tangibly as we intend.

I think about the times in movement work I’ve been exploited or hurt. And by movement I mean the network of discussion groups, conferences, workshops, cultural activities, pride celebrations, and planning meetings that animate the life of a black gay activist. If we aren’t careful and deliberate, dysfunction can course through the veins of our work, poisoning it from within.

I’ve heard many stories of the joy and pleasure of activism. I want us to replicate those experiences and proliferate them as widely as possible. I also think about the stories of heartbreak. We need to tell those stories too. There is no heartbreak like when you break up with the movement. These folks are our community, and the grief can be unbearable.

Then there is the breathtaking momentum, occasionally, of those that don’t go against the grain as forcefully. Those that are valued ultimately because they represent and are more compatible with the values of the culture we claim to counter. Witnessing this can be devastating.

I have trained myself very well in how to challenge the sickness of racism and homophobia when it’s been facing me from outside. What I’ve been less successful in is grappling with racism and homophobia when it manifests itself in people that look like me; how effective the forces of oppression are when they appears in the form of your brother or sister. How effective those forces are, when they posses you. Our survival is necessitated by our ability to develop practices that keep us from being complicit in our oppression.

I think about how I never completely learned how to love men that had the capacity to love me back the way that I wanted them to. And I don’t mean romantically either. I mean friends and colleagues that I have loved as passionately as any lover, because when you work closely with someone and you are committed to similar goals and you are co-creating this dazzling world together, there can be a love there. Not romantic or erotic, and yet more than platonic. Activist love is euphoric! You spend time together. You get to know each other’s vulnerabilities as intimately as your own, you tell each other your secrets and share your wounded parts. And because your defenses are down it makes it so much easier to hurt each other. There has to be couples counseling for activist friends that are hurting each other.

Structural violence isn’t just external to us. Some of those structures that cause us violence are also structures that we helped build, that we helped create.

I think about Joseph Beam. His pen bled with the loneliness he felt. And behind those dazzling aphorisms was a cry to feel loved. He wrote “black men loving black men is the revolutionary act,” not just for us, but for himself. He needed to believe it. He sought companionship in the gorgeous language he crafted because he did not always find it among his brothers. Just my interpretation, I could be wrong.

I am inspired by love when I see it expressed in our activist work. Encouragement. Support. Affirmation. Lovingly, compassionately, but firmly holding each other accountable. I have found that perhaps the most radical thing we can do, not just as black gay men, but any people committed to liberation, is to be kind to each other, to show gratitude.

by Charles Stephenswriter and co-editor of the forthcoming anthology Black Gay Genius
Source – Huffington Post