On: Being a Writer in a World That Needs Doctors

Bayard Rustin

We need doctors, not writers,” they say. “In the age of technology and social media, anyone can be a writer. Be something useful!

Because of this rhetoric, most days I feel as though I bring absolutely nothing to the table. What contributions do I offer to the world, or even just those around me? I don’t care to be an oncologist and diagnose tumors, so what good am I?

According to society:  none.

It’s no wonder I spend many nights panicking about the direction my 22-year-old life is headed. In a culture that worships doctors and neglects patients, it is easy to get caught up in unnecessary comparisons. In doing so, I often come to feel as though being an activist through writing is a cliché waste of energy for Black queer people. Of our many prominent historical figures, an overwhelming majority are notable artists. Is that all we are capable of? Is this what our ancestors fought and died for–so we can think and express our “feelings” instead of perform open-heart surgery?

Exactly.

The work of those before us was not done to secure a future in which all Black children would be doctors and lawyers. Their work was to secure a future in which all Black children could be doctors and lawyers, should they want to. And those who do not? We, too, have a purpose.

As individuals who have a way with words, pens, paintbrushes, and our bodies, we the “artsy activists” may not be the ones to discover the cure for HIV/AIDS or send future Zimmerman’s to prison. We may not be the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies or creators of the product that causes the demise of Apple. But we will be (t)here in a multitude of ways. As a writer, I will be (t)here—using the power of my words to critique the system and teach diversity and inclusivity in professional spaces, thus demanding change throughout.

This is not to say that one cannot be both a writer and doctor. Many are. Many, however, are not; and so enters the social hierarchy forced upon us that values one type of individual over another. Doctors are regarded as highly intelligent masters of a craft. Writers are regarded as slackers. (There is also a lack of understanding as to why “minority” people may be more likely to study a ‘soft’ science.)

This work is not necessarily “fancy.” It does not require 12 years of college and a wardrobe of perfectly tailored suits. It does not make people ‘ooh’ and ‘aah.’ People often refer to activism through writing as “the easy way out.” They are misled. This work is not for the lazy. As a writer, I often find myself unable to produce writings because I feel as though my words have no value. As an activist, I often find myself unable care about the latest life lost because so many have come before and so many more are sure to follow. When constantly compared to those in more “admirable” fields, the constant ignorance surrounding our contributions to society leave me questioning why I even bother. The constant self-motivation, ostracizing, ignoring each “no,” attempting to create solidarity that is often one-sided…there is nothing easy about this way out. This is painful work. This is tiring work.

This is purposeful work.

What comes of activism through writing is a fundamentally grassroots effort at empowerment and the influence. Through writing, I heal, educate, and inspire. I tell the story of my 12-year-old lesbian self to the 12-year-old questioning themselves. I record incidents of oppression to use as evidence should society attempt to erase my community. I remember my oppression as a Black girl as I live through oppression (and privilege) as a Black man.

It takes a village to create change. The doctors are necessary, as are the lawyers and entrepreneurs; as are the dancers, the writers, and the filmmakers; as are we all in a movement greater than ourselves.

When people ask what I am studying in school, I say proudly, “Journalism with a minor in Community Development and Spanish.” I am no longer ashamed to be studying a “soft” science. I know that I don’t need to wear a white coat to make an impact. As a writer, as a social justice advocate, I delve into issues in “more respected” fields. I examine, albeit from a social standpoint, disparities in Black queer healthcare, exclusive laws, and inclusive business practices and create change. Current and future organizations I (will) take part in serve as spaces for Black queer people to exist freely.

We as a Black queer people have been silenced for endless decades, and that will not change with this generation. We are but stepping stones and pseudo-historians, using words and voices to tell the stories of our people and keep an accurate record of time—our time—so future generations know that we were here and we were queer. We lived, we loved, we laughed. We are worthy of the recognition society will surely attempt to deny us. We are inspiring. We are critical. We are here.

(Photo: State of the Re: Union)

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‘Ally’ Is Not An Identity

better ally

A series of interactions on Facebook and Twitter have left me a bit jaded and cynical when it comes to people who call themselves “allies.” It seems as though these people have missed some very important memos about what that word really means, so I am here to clear the air.

  1. You are not above reproach. Just because you’ve volunteered a few times or occasionally speak out against discrimination does not mean you can do no wrong. I’ve grown tired of telling so-called allies that something they did or said was problematic, only for them to say “I’m not being cissexist! I LOVE THE TRANNIES!” or “I’m totally not homophobic. I speak out against homophobia all the time.” You may speak out against discrimination, but having been socialized with privilege you are still bound to have some discriminatory ways. Own up to it and correct it. As a Twitter follower (@TheFireNexTime) said, “If you can’t take the criticism of your privilege, get out the movement.” Also, if you turn your back on the community because you were critiqued, you are not an ally.
  2. Having marginalized friends does not make you an ally. You have a gay best friend and sister-in-law who uses a wheelchair? Wonderful. I have one sock on as I write this. All jokes aside (though, I really am wearing one sock…), with the different types of diversity that exists in the world you are bound to know some marginalized people. Simply being nice to them is not enough to call yourself an ally. That is barely enough to call yourself a decent human being.
  3. You cannot appoint yourself an ally. In order to be an ally, people in a specific community must feel that you are one. Sometimes it happens that a few people in a community see you as an ally while others do not. This does not mean you ignore those who do not. It means you shut up and listen in order to become a stronger ally. You may get conflicting information. For example, one woman may say it is acceptable to call them “a lady” while another woman may find it demeaning. Doing one or the other in the presence of certain people does necessarily mean you are a bad ally. Remember that each person may view an issue differently. Monolithic (human) societies do not exist. As an ally, act accordingly.
  4. You are not a part of the community. This mainly applies to LGBTQ+ supporters who think adding an “A” for allies is a good idea. You may march arm-in-arm in the streets and even be accused of being LGBTQ+ because of your support, but at the end of the day, you do not share our problems and thus are not one of them. Even though you may lie down in the trenches with a community, at the end of the day you still have the rights they are fighting for.
  5. Your opinion is not and will never be more valid than a person from that community. While yes, it is true that at times allies can teach the community a thing or two, such instances are rare. Taking a Queer Studies course, or even majoring in it, will not make your thoughts on more homophobia or transphobia more important or valid than a queer person’s. Why? Because you read books and they have experience. I read an article on what it is like to perform open-heart surgery once. Would you let me work my magic on you?
  6. Marginalized people do not owe you an explanation.  As an ally, you may strive to understand everything about the community you support. This is good. Demanding that that community breaks itself down for you to understand, however, is bad. Google exists. Utilize it.
  7. Remember: intersectionality. A White man who uses a wheelchair is waiting at a bus stop. A Mexican man walks up and waits with him. Who is more privileged? When the bus comes, the driver tells the Mexican man that “illegals” are not allowed on his bus and asks the Mexican man to move so that the White man may board. The Mexican man walks away. As the White man tries roll his wheelchair onto the bus, he gets stuck in the gap between the curb and bus platform. Realizing that he will be unable to board the bus, the White man rolls away*. Who is more privileged? Trick question. White people have race privilege over Latin@ people. Someone who is able to walk has able-bodied privilege over someone who uses a wheelchair. Although one person may hold privilege over others in one way, they may be oppressed by those same others in different ways. It is important to remember that intersectionality exists and plays a pivotal role in the experience of marginalization. Do not assume that a Black woman and White woman experience sexism in the same way and for the same reasons.

If you have ever broken one of these “rules”—and I’m sure you have—it does not mean you are a bad person. It just means you need work! No one is perfect. When born into privilege it can be difficult to see the world from another view. Part of being an ally, however, is consciously dedicating energy into doing just that.

Being an ally does not mean you have to march down the streets with “I’m an ally” pamphlets and paraphernalia. Many marginalized people would prefer that you didn’t, honestly. It’s obnoxious.

Being an ally means not only standing up for a community even when they’re not around, but:

  1. Checking your privilege at all times
  2. Understanding that knowing marginalized people ≠ being inclusive
  3. Not being upset when critiqued despite your attempts
  4. Acknowledging that “ally” is not an identity
  5. Knowing that your opinion takes a backseat to those with experience
  6. Self-educating
  7. Remembering the intricacies of oppression

Being an ally is tough, but not nearly as tough as being marginalized. If you really want to use your privilege for good, memorize these seven simple concepts and prepare to learn a million more. I promise you’ll be thanked for it.

Just so we’re all clear, the Mexican man and White man who uses a wheelchair both find a new bus stop, where a wheelchair-accessible bus with a non-racist driver arrives and happily takes them closer to their destination. If only the world  were so simple, eh?

Sarah Jackson of wanderinglove offers four more tips on being an ally in her piece entitled “On Being An Ally.” Remember that self-educating thing I mentioned…?