As a transgender person, my body is a living, breathing, walking protest. My body inconveniences other people, makes ‘regular folks’ angry, is declared unnecessary, inappropriate, and disruptive. My body is asked to accommodate other people’s schedules, is told what shape it should hold – a shape impossible for it to hold, and is given no solutions, no alternatives, and no empathy. Yet I give my body the shape it needs to hold as best I can despite all of this, because I have to, because I demand dignity, equality, and justice. I am boldly declaring my right to exist.
I was caught off guard by my reaction to the backlash from the recent I-93 protest in Boston. Two small groups of dedicated protestors completely blocked inbound traffic on I-93 during morning rush hour, placing their bodies in the way of traffic, and chaining themselves together with heavy cement barrels. Working with Black Lives Matter Boston, the protestors were all non-black, but did include queer and trans folks, and people of color.
Instinctively, I knew that this was incredible feat, and a deeply important act of solidarity with black people in the US. Yet I was thrown by the reactions of liberal white people, some whom I know personally, many others I do not, who were angry, who called these protestors ‘stupid’, who said things like ‘I agree that something needs to be done, but this was a terrible idea and will only set things back’ while offering no alternatives, and little empathy. I am highly sensitive to what I perceive to be rejection. Doubt crept in, and shame. My social training kicked in, training that taught me to be docile, and that I am probably wrong most of the time as a woman (even though I am not a woman, but I thought I was at the time). Was I wrong to feel supportive of the protest? Naive? What if they were just making people angry? What would I know, anyway? These feelings were troubling.
I turned to the words of friends whom I trust and respect, and found their words of support for the protest, unshaken in their convictions. But still, I had to get to the bottom of my instinct for support to return to my own unshakable stance. I went to the 4 Mile March in Boston today, heart heavy, seeking answers, and also compelled to continue to use my body to show solidarity with black bodies, as the I-93 protestors had used theirs. I read Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, in which he defends direct action, and found great validation and encouragement in his words. I once again located my convictions.
Of course a protest that involves significantly blocking rush hour traffic will make people angry! There’s absolutely no way that it won’t. And that’s not the point. There will also be at least a handful of productive, awakening conversations had in its wake, seeds of justice will be sowed among individuals. But this is also not the point. I found part of the larger purpose in the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail:
You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.
The anger of liberal – or moderate – white people is part of this tension. The media attention on such a significant disruption keeps the conversation going in our collective psyches, and prevents the more complacent among us from so quickly forgetting what’s going on here, even if their anger is directed at the protestors rather than the systemic oppression.
But it’s also about even more than the cultivation of tension. It’s the declaration of the worth and dignity of black people. It’s facing rejection and anger and living to see the other side. If a group of people blocked traffic to declare that trans lives matter, I might cry from the sense of validation that could bring me.
Direct action is about so much more than each individual action and its corresponding backlash (and there will always be backlash). Many people turn out to protests and participate in direct action because they feel that they must. I often feel compelled to go myself, just as I am compelled to live my life as my true gender, to live, breath and walk in my own daily, bodily protest. I am called to be whole, to honor my own worth and dignity as a full human being, and in doing so, I am also called to shepherd society to recognize the wholeness and worth of all human beings.
We have to use our bodies, and we have to get in the way, sometimes just to exist at all.