The Self-Advocacy Problem

I’m so tired.

Have you hung-out with a trans person lately? Have you noticed how tired they are? 

The invention of the internet has brought us a lot of great things, namely the ability to instantly access a near-limitless bank of information, as well as communities forming that may never have come together without the internet. This means it’s easier to organise meet-ups with friends than it’s ever been before, you can keep track of which of your favourite celebrities have secretly been monsters all along. and it makes it possible for people from disadvantaged and oppressed groups to overcome borders & oceans to become a true global community. In an ideal world that’s the end of it, you have a great time with your pals, but these dizzying highs bring with them many terrifying lows: turns out your friends are always busy now, every celebrity except Janelle Monáe, John Cena and Mara Wilson has been secretly awful this entire time, and oppressed peoples aren’t the only ones coming together – awful bigots are too.

If you need a wholesome pick-me-up, just google ‘John Cena Make-a-Wish’

When you’re part of a ‘disadvantaged’ or minority group, and you’re online, you quickly find out that there’s no shortage of awful people. If you type the username of any very publicly trans person (particularly trans women) into Twitter’s search bar you’ll find a flood of trolls, Russian bots, former sitcom writers, Mumsnet users and dedicated hate accounts in their ‘mentions’ every day. I once heard some celebrity refer to Twitter as their kitchen window, and referred to checking their notifications as opening their kitchen window to let strangers yell at them. For many people from minority groups Twitter (and other social media platforms) is still their kitchen window, except the wall’s been knocked through to reveal a replica Hollywood Bowl in their garden filled with strangers who hate them, your food’s always burnt and everyone in the audience has access to a megaphone. And yet people still log on and talk about their gender, their sexuality, about injustice, about societal prejudge. Sure, there’s room for video games, and how the guy in Starbucks always gets your name wrong, but it always comes back to inequality. So why do they do it?

Because no one else will.

When thinking about broad topics that might seem a little bit unfair, but think about it: Puerto Rico was royally fucked by Hurricane Maria in 2017, the Rohingya people have been facing oppression to the extent of genocide (notably referred to as that by the UN OHCHR in 2018) and just earlier this year people in Sudan faced a government crackdown that lead to internet access being very limited – it’s why everyone changed their profile photos to a solid shade of blue for a bit there. You’ve probably heard something about all these, maybe skimmed a Guardian article or maybe even changed your Twitter profile to that particular shade of blue. But when was the last time you heard someone who wasn’t from Puerto Rico, or has a friend in Sudan, or who knows where Myanmar is on a map (or that Myanmar is what we call Burma now, or that’s where the Rohingya are from) talk about any of those topics?

I wrote this article nearly three months ago, and it’s depressing that I didn’t have to edit out a mention of a news story above

I remember once I was producing a college radio show, and one of our co hosts out of the blue asked me about a very specific detail of a condition I’ve been diagnosed with, and in the moment I just couldn’t remember the answer to their question. It was fine, we quickly moved on, and thankfully at that time our show just… wasn’t very good, so no one was listening. But I felt like a fraud. If you’re from a minority group, or have a disability in this case, you need to be on top of every little detail to do with that just in case someone asks about it or you’re challenged on it. It’s not just good enough to live your life and be someone who really enjoys doing crosswords, or follows Weird Al Yankovic around (like, following his band’s tour, not him himself that would be illegal) without needing to be an expert on yourself. If no one else will consistently speak on your behalf there’s a feeling that you have to, and that when you do you must be perfect all of the time, because a perceived lack of knowledge could be conceived – you feel – like you’re just making it all up.

It is very important, of course, to centre affected voices in conversations about topics related to them – God knows we’ve had enough of ‘the discourse’ driven by (primarily) cisgender, straight, white men on things completely unrelated to them – but that doesn’t mean that everyone tangentially related to a topic can be expected to be an official spokesperson for their communities. ‘Beloved Internet Sloth’ Casey Explosion once put it well that the tag of ‘activist’ isn’t a bad title to have, but it’s one that’s frequently assigned to people from disadvantaged or maligned minority groups whenever they speak up against their oppressors. Explosion, a Twitch streamer & excellent Twitter account to follow, by the way, referred to a Guardian article about a protest that was held outside RTÉ (Ireland’s national broadcaster) over the inclusion of Graham Linehan in a programme on transgender rights. The people protesting, mainly trans people but generally speaking just ordinary people from different backgrounds & of different careers, were wholesale described as ‘activists’ while Mr. Linehan, someone who spends most of his time now tweeting incessantly about transgender people in a negative light, was described as the co-creator of Father Ted, a beloved television show that ended over 20 years ago. Generally speaking people from minority groups aren’t allowed to escape the ‘activist’ or ‘advocate’ label, or be known by their actual body of work, and as a precedent this isn’t a good thing.

Living with the perception that everyone from a disadvantaged group should be both an expert and a public representative of that group leads to a few issues. First of all, not everyone is going to be a great advocate ‘for the cause’ or for themselves, necessarily. And that’s okay. If some dick is yelling in the proverbial kitchen window you’d be well within your right to yell back, to tell them to fuck right off, but because it’s presumed you’re a spokesperson for your entire people that could lead to that dick, as well as some third parties, to presume that ‘the cause’ is bollocks, or that everyone from that group is needlessly aggressive – which itself leads to some regressive ‘respectability politics’ stuff that’s making this article veer slightly off topic. A general grouping of people, be it by sexuality, gender, disability, race etc. is a bit different to say, a political party or a corporation. Not everyone has a public relations rep behind them pulling the strings, professional media training or – contrary to popular belief – is being paid to espouse those views, they’re just sharing their life experience, either to get it off their chest or to help others.

What can be done? Well, for people from a minority or disadvantaged group reading this, I’d honestly just give yourself a break. If you want to take the time to open that kitchen window and calmly explain the intricacies of HRT and the mouthfeel (why is no one talking about the mouthfeel?) then be my guest, but if you’re getting tired of it then don’t be afraid to tell people exactly where to go, and where to stick what – all the while barring the kitchen window so it can never be opened again – then power to you. You’re not letting the side down. 

Not everyone has to be an activist, or an advocate, you just have to be ‘you’.

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