Activism and advocacy can be tricky. Issues are almost always, or at least should always be, close to the hearts of those that are most involved in the work. But just like any other job, things can go wrong. Sometimes terribly wrong. Your boss could be a sadist. Views of where a campaign should go – do we work on issue A by lobbying person X, or do we work on issue B by blockading building Y? – can be strikingly different. A band of rabid monkeys could take over your office and slaughter all of your volunteers. When and if anything goes wrong, emotions are heightened for all parties. No one is there to make money or sell another product. Everyone does this work because of “The Cause”.
As much as anyone wants advocacy groups and non-profits to adhere to normal standards of workplace professionalism, often it seems impossible for people gain that kind of distance on the situation. How could you possibly complain when they’re starting the groundbreaking for that mall development in the endangered butterfly habitat tomorrow? How can you possibly be working too much when everyone, everywhere in the world doesn’t have adequate healthcare yet?
Hopefully you get the picture.
This is all a roundabout way of saying that I quit my job with the transgender advocacy organization. I’m still in the fellowship program at the other LGBt non-profit. But my “dream job”? I quit. About three weeks ago.
I’m still processing what led to this resolution. Suffice to say, it wasn’t rabid monkeys. Lack of organizational capacity to adequately support staff, embedded conflicts of interest, and an abusive working relationship with a hypothetical boss all played their parts. On thing I can say for certain is that I’m unlikely to ever take a paying position with a small non-profit again.
But I haven’t really left yet. Boxes and bins and piles of my work for them lay strewn across our apartment. They’re the white elephant in the living room. I am unwilling to touch them, to admit that my hopes and expectations for what seemed the most perfect job ever will never be fulfilled. Every time I step lightly around the precariously stacked papers, books, and other materials, the weight of them in the room seems heavier. They expand to take up more and more space.
I love community organizing. What could be better than for a genderqueer person that believes strongly in healthcare access to organize the trans and gender-variant communities around healthcare access issues? And get paid for it?
Apparently a lot.
I’ve never felt further from the trans and gender-variant communities than I do today. I’ve also never felt more confused about my transition (which seems indefinitely on hold) or about my identification, both inside and outside of the community. Who knew that working to gain better healthcare access for others to transition would make me question my own process so much? And who knew that gender-variant and trans were so at odds with one another? That I could feel the most invisible in terms of my expression and understanding of my own gender identity while working among other gender advocates?
I need to detox. I need the ruins of my failed job out of my life. And I need some distance and perspective.
It seems that most people gather the strength to live openly, honestly, and genuinely from the support of those in their community. I believe I may need the opposite – to push as far away as possible into my own little bubble to make a decision that is for me and for no one else. I need to determine if my questions come purely from work that was too inter-meshed with my personal life and identity/identities, or if I’ve hit on something bigger.
The first step is getting the campaign materials out of our living room. Then maybe I can begin to decide if a genderqueer person is able to both transition to being fully male-identified while holding space outside a normative gender binary. I thought I could do that as a genderqueer transman. One foot in genderqueer, one foot in transgender. Maintaining this complexity seems to challenge the identities of others far too much, however, for their own comfort. I’m a threat to their being seen and becoming “real” – whatever real means.
Organizing in the trans community has shown me its internal division. Constant battling for basic rights can result in ugliness in any community due to the perverse powers of identity politics. I was just unaware that the raw lines that divide the trans community also divide me in half. Hopefully I can find wholeness without having to divest myself of large portions of my own identity, as well as finding a place from which to do advocacy that truly unites and strengthens rather than divides and tears down.
For now, I can at least say that I am stepping back from formalized trans advocacy work that is highly visible within the community, at least until I clear my own head. Whether or not I step away from transgender and into something else remains to be seen. They’re all just words, right? Doesn’t seem that way, somehow.
(An aside: Has anyone else had a similar experience vis-a-vis conflicts within the trans community? What about more generally between genderqueer identities and transitioning?)