Anecdotes of an activist

I’ve been an activist for a little over a year now. It’s not a long time, though my perception is maybe a little distorted, since it’s basically the only life I’ve known since my transition. But, I’m still very much the new kid on the block. And I recognise that. I showed up, ostensibly out of nowhere, and just started making a whole lot of noise, trying to get involved where I could. Trying to figure out how to best use my education, my background my lived experiences, and my assorted talents in order to make some kind of difference in the world.

Well, that may be an oversimplification, perhaps. Because I didn’t really just jump in; at the same time, I was reading, I was listening, I was asking questions. I was trying to learn, because I understood that the context of this landscape was far broader than my own experiences. I realised that representing my own concerns wasn’t ever going to be enough because, while I’d never really label my own experiences as “easy”, many of the difficulties I faced were mitigated (to an extent) by factors like my background, my education, my race, the list goes on.

It’s… daunting. I mean, I can’t represent everyone. I know better than to think that. And, I don’t claim to. When you’re talking about a group as diverse as LGBTQIA folk – or even just trans people! – there is so much intersectionality to be taken into account. I do a lot of thinking, in case you hadn’t gathered that about me. These days, a fair portion of that thought goes into how to fit all of this together – trying to determine where I slot into this bigger picture, and what my role is.

I have an idea of what I want, albeit in relatively vague terms.

I want it to be easier for the next girl.

Well, not just the next girl. The next girl, or guy, or non-binary person, or whoever. The next queer individual. Those who are just starting their journeys, those who are still wrestling with their identities, those who are trying to find the language that describes this intense myriad of emotions they are experiencing. Those who are just coming out, or thinking about coming out. Those who are deciding to transition, those who are trying to change their names, or have their identity documents updated.

My path isn’t at its end. There are many battles that I still have to fight. But there are many that I have won. And I’m grateful for those victories. They were hard fought, and oftentimes, I felt like I was alone. I had nowhere to look for guidance. But I waded through those murky waters, somehow managing to stay afloat. Today, I’m on HRT, and have been for a while. My documents all have the right name and gender marker on them. I’m a published author, even.

Life isn’t perfect, but many of the difficulties that I thought might end me are now behind me.

omar_willey / Pixabay

Changing the way ID applications for trans people are handled, for example, doesn’t do anything for me, because I’ve already done it the hard way. But it benefits those who are still stuck in limbo, as I was. And there are many of them.

One of the things that I have really been grateful for, spending time in the USA, has been the opportunity to meet other people doing the work I do.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that South Africa is without queer activists – far from it. There are many people back in SA for whom I have only the greatest admiration and respect, who have been fighting these battles for far, far longer than I have. And I’ve been fortunate to have had the chance to interact with, and learn from, some of them.

What has struck me from my interactions in the US, however, is just how universal our struggle still is. It’s tempting to say that, when it comes to LGBTQIA freedoms, South Africa is still “behind” – that the rest of the world is so far ahead of us. Well, there are places that are ahead of us. Places like Malta, whose legislation on LGBTQIA issues makes even our progressive constitution (and it is progressive, compared to many) look antiquated.

But even here in Seattle, considered one of the most queer-friendly cities in the entire US, the fight continues. And it’s not dissimilar to the one we face on our own shores.

The neighborhood where I’ve been working – Capitol Hill – is actually known as Seattle’s gayborhood. Nestled in between Lake Union and Portage Bay on its north end, and Seattle’s downtown to the southeast, Capitol Hill has been a refuge and a safe space for Pacific Northwest queers since the 1960’s. As gay culture emerged from the underground, and became more open and more visible, Capitol Hill flourished, becoming home not just to gay residents, but also to bookstores, nightclubs, bars, and restaurants.

Up until a few years ago, you could be reasonably sure that any business, enterprise or service provider on the Hill was queer-friendly. Because, if they weren’t, they simply wouldn’t have been in Capitol Hill in the first place.

Life was pretty good, I suppose, for a lot of queer folk around here. Washington State has had marriage equality since December of 2012 (two-and-a-half years before it was passed at the Federal level), and legal protections for sexual orientation and gender identity since 2006.

One might have even thought that there was nothing left to fight for.

But there is always something to fight for.

Conversion therapy has only just been banned in Seattle. A statewide bill prohibiting conversion therapy passed the House of Representatives in 2014, but nothing had been done about it. Initiatives to block trans people from using facilities appropriate to their gender are still being tabled. Capitol Hill is being gentrified, as Seattle continues to experience a growing tech boom, displacing LGBTQIA-owned businesses and forcing queer residents out of their homes. Hate crimes against queer folk are on the rise in Capitol Hill, steadily climbing year after year.

Anti-discrimination laws don’t stop people from being attacked. They don’t stop people from being thrown out of their homes when they come out. They don’t stop people from losing their jobs.

In some situations, these laws provide recourse for injustice that has already occurred. If the victim feels safe enough to report it. If the authorities take the reports seriously enough to do anything about them. Not just that, but the burden of proof often falls on the victim, too. If your HR department calls you into the office and says “We’re firing you because you’re gay“, maybe you have a case against them. But if they’re simply letting you go because they’re downsizing? It doesn’t matter that – by pure coincidence, of course – they happen to only be downsizing queer people.

Prejudice is resilient and adaptive. It finds a way around laws and legislation. It can be stealthy and covert and clandestine. And that makes it harder to fight.

So people are still losing their homes, their jobs, their friends, their families, their support structures. Some are being beaten. Some are being killed. Some are taking their own lives.

Safeties and protections that have been well-established, for years or decades, are being wrestled away from us. Our rights and our freedoms, hard-won as they were, are still in jeopardy.

In a sense, maybe there’s an allegory there for our own internal struggles. I know that there is for my own, at least. Because I’ve made that mistake before, of thinking the fight was won, only to find dysphoria and internalised transphobia and all-of-that-shit-TM rallying against me, returning with a renewed vigor, threatening my security and my well-being.

Talking with other activists – people who have been in this business for years- there seem to be two common threads that emerge.

The first is that there will always be more work for us to do. None of us ever really think we’ll be out of a job.

The second is that we dream that some day, maybe we will be. That we’ll actually have won all the battles, and defended all the human rights, and worked ourselves straight into unemployment.

There is so much about this that I still grapple with. Trying to find the way forward, trying to look after myself, trying not to burn out, trying to find the will to keep going even when it seems the odds are stacked against us.

On the one hand, I might’ve liked to hear from all the activists that I have met about their resounding successes, and how they now live lives of leisure and recreation. To hear that they climbed all those mountains, and achieved all those goals, and that there is nothing left to do. Because, had I heard that… well, it would mean that the same thing could happen in my life.

On the other hand, knowing that they are still fighting the same battles that I am, that they have been through it all before, and that they will again… well, in its own sense, that is empowering too. Because it means we’re not alone in our struggle. It means we’re all in the same boat – experimenting, learning, sharing, supporting each other and picking each other up off the floor when we need to.

Antranias / Pixabay

I’m an activist – because I don’t know how to be anything other than that. I have a drive to do what I do. And it’s something that I can’t ignore. I’m not obligated to activism because I’m queer; it’s a choice that I make. And it’s a choice that doesn’t make me any better or any worse as a person than anyone else out there. Not infrequently, I’ll have other queer or trans people getting in touch with me, saying they admire what I do, that they sometimes feel like they should do more. I try to remind them of all this – that this is just my work, that it’s not a responsibility that any of us have, and it’s not a debt that we owe anyone. More than that, I remind them that simply living a queer life is activism in and of itself. Getting out of bed in the morning is a protest. Every breath we draw is a radical act of defiance against a society that devalues and undermines us, that makes it difficult for us to survive.

We owe nothing to anyone. We have a right to live our lives in peace. And I hope one day it will be that simple, as it should be.

South Africa is a very unique place. It has a very storied history, and a very nuanced climate of intersectionality that is dynamic and evolving. And that needs to be understood. And I need to work to understand my own position in that context. I need to figure out how to use my position and my platform and my privilege to facilitate the voices of those who are more disenfranchised than I am. I need to think, long and hard, about my own limitations, and I need to be very cognisant of the role that I’m playing. I need to know when I have reached that point where I’m no longer giving agency to but have started taking agency from voices and experiences that are not my own.

I need to know when I have actually worked myself out of a job, I suppose.

When that time comes, I’ll count it as a victory. I’ll know that I’ve played a part in pushing the movement forward, and in facilitating its growth and its evolution.

And I’ll know that whatever happens, there will always be more work for me to do.

There will always be more stories to tell.


IMG_20160512_235529My book, Always Anastacia, is available at booksellers across South Africa. If you don’t see it on shelves, ask your local bookstore. Also available worldwide through Amazon. And catch up on all the latest #AlwaysAnastacia news, including interviews, media appearances and extracts here. 

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