My first year at uni hasn’t only made me feel comfortable calling myself a student, but also calling myself an activist. I fell head-first into activism, almost without noticing. I turned up to uni, fresh-faced and bright-eyed, with a solid foundation of feminist rage learnt from going to an all-girls school for seven years. So obviously I wasn’t oblivious to social justice, but a) I didn’t realise that it wasn’t something everyone was interested in, and b) I wasn’t about to go around shouting about how unfair the world was (at least not at that point). Without fully being aware of it, I got pulled into a beautiful community of wonderful activists, and started to realise that the things I cared about were things that other people cared about too, and we could actually try to change them. It was in third term, when I was at an anti-austerity demo – where the riot police also decided to grace us with their presence- that I first actually thought to myself “oh, I’m an activist now, that’s pretty cool.” (Although of course it isn’t participating in direct action that makes someone an activist! That was just the point where I realised it for myself.)
The activists I’m friends with are some of the most loving, inspiring, compassionate people I’ve ever met. However, I’m worried that collectively we’re creating an environment where there are certain expectations. I know that this isn’t a conscious decision on anyone’s part. Activism is one of the least exclusionary things I’ve been involved with (although I know that’s not everyone’s experience, and I’ve just been incredibly lucky in that the activists I’m close friends with make a conscious effort to be inclusive). It just happens that the activist community, at least in my experience, is made up of people who have had similar experiences. Which makes sense, because people who’ve been messed around and hurt by the system are more likely to want to change it than those who are privileged by it.
But it concerns me. There have been points where I’ve wished I had had different experiences, to make me more of a “legit” activist. I’ve wished I’d been at more violent demos, even though that kind of situation makes me anxious and uncomfortable. There have been points where I’ve been glad that I’m queer, because I feel like if I was straight, I might feel like I didn’t have enough reason to be angry. There have been points where I’ve wished my mental health had been worse (past tense – had been, at the time when it was particularly bad) because so many activists have had awful experiences and it made me feel like I hadn’t had a “bad enough” experience to be shouting at society about how hard-done-by I was. I constantly compare my own experiences to other people’s, to gauge if I can “legitimately” be an activist.
Activist communities are inherently composed of misfits and non-conformists, but I’ve started to worry about that. I’m worried that if I, as someone who is a queer woman with mental health issues, feel like I need to “prove” to myself, or whoever else, that I have a “reason” to be an activist, how might straight/neurotypical/male activists feel? I want to reiterate that none of my activist friends have ever made me feel like I need to prove anything. But just being in that group of friends, and knowing that the majority of people have had worse experiences than me, makes me feel like I’m “complaining for no reason”.
This is stupid. The only “reason” you need to be an activist is the fact that you want things to change for the better. You don’t have to prove that you’ve personally been harmed by the current state of affairs. You don’t have to have a sob story. You don’t have to mentally compare yourself to anyone else. Nobody expects you to have had the same experiences as them, or to prove that you have a reason to be an activist. If you think things aren’t good, and want them to change, that’s good enough for me – and I know it’s good enough for all the activists I’m friends with. If you’ve had experiences that sparked your activism or made you realise how unfair something was, please use them to highlight injustices.
Of course, people who have experienced oppression should be listened to by all activists, because it’s these oppressive structures and bodies that we’re fighting against. But at the same time, you don’t have to have lots of anecdotes about how tough things have been for you. It doesn’t make you a less legitimate activist to just want things to change because you think they’re unfair. It makes you a compassionate person, because you don’t care about things only because they directly impact you (which is not to suggest that this is the motivation for other people’s activism at all). If you care, get involved. There are no requirements.
On the other hand, if you are an activist who has had a horrible experience, I am not trying to devalue that in any way. If that experience is important to you, and you want to tell people about it, don’t feel like you’re going to alienate anyone by doing that. I, and anyone else who feels the way I do, need to realise that my experiences are not delegitimised by anyone else’s. Activism is so important, and it’s important that everyone who wants to be involved can be.