When the Movement Does Not Save Your Life

Published: March 15, 2013

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.

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