The day I made my decision to change everything, the rain came down in sheets. My friend Keyes and I were in their car, pulled over in a parking lot by an empty park. It was dark. Streetlights cast strange shadows onto my skin, the water making the light shift and change. I clenched my teeth and swallowed down the thickness that had gathered in my throat. “I just–I don’t know how to go on,” I said.
It was late summer in Columbia, South Carolina–August, one of the most oppressive months. While our friends in other, more northern regions of the U.S. were considering pulling out light sweaters and working on some fall cleaning, the humidity of the Southern summer continued to smother us. It was two months before the floods that would wipe out whole neighborhoods and wash away our roads, and about two months after a young white man had walked into an A.M.E. church in Charleston and killed nine black parishioners. I’d gone to the protests that summer to take down the Confederate Flag and watched, riveted, while our legislature debated its removal into the quiet hours of the night. About a month after the shooting, I stood next to fellow South Carolinians and cheered as the South Carolina Highway Patrol honor guard lowered the flag, feeling the crowd’s exuberance. I sat on the steps of the State House at sunset the next evening and watched as families of all colors lingered on usually empty benches nearby and eyed the place where the flag had flown. I felt the sense of lightness left in its absence. It wasn’t everything, and it wasn’t enough, but it was something.
Change was in the air. Red states are rarely great places for social advocacy, but as a queer, gender non-conforming feminist who had lived in the South for almost 20 years, I’d been working for change for all of my career, and I’d been surprised by the spaces in which change took root in South Carolina. Early in my professional career, I’d co-directed the Vagina Monologues and seen the intersections of art and advocacy coalesce and catalyze. When I worked at a rape crisis center, my colleagues and I had gone into middle and high schools and taught about gender norms and healthy communication and consent and sexual assault. More recently, working full-time at an advocacy organization serving the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) community, I’d driven corner to corner across South Carolina teaching healthcare providers and domestic violence centers and youth programs and other groups about how to treat LGBTQ clients in respectful and dignified ways–and thus improve their outcomes. And I was always surprised by how many people–even in the most rural of areas–wanted me there, wanted the knowledge, and were so enthusiastic about what they’d learned.
But although change was happening, it wasn’t happening fast enough. It was hard enough to fight against systems of oppression “out there,” but worse, I’d realized how entrenched they are within advocacy movements, too. Sure, I felt support with each “thank you” I got after each presentation, and every “I’m so glad you’re doing this,” and each “your work is so important.” But I felt like I was fighting the system within and without, and I didn’t know if I could continue any longer. Continue reading “Travel the Mystery”