I’m sitting at my desk, too many tabs open on my browser to count. I’m overwhelmed by emotion, kicking myself, and simultaneously trying not to kick myself. And the sensation is definitely more than my usual semiritualistic writerly self-castigation.
See, I’ve just returned from a weeklong trip and weeklong stay-at-home hiatus, the first extended break I’ve taken since starting to freelance for The Advocate a year ago. It’s something I scrimped and saved my pennies for; that I looked forward to as much-needed recuperation both physically and mentally.
But while I caught up on my shut-eye and stood in hushed awe before Northern California’s redwoods, I couldn’t help noticing: At least one white trans woman, Rachel Bryk, died by suicide after facing unrelenting online harassment. Two trans women of color — Veronica Bolina in Brazil and Sadaisha Shimmers in San Francisco — went public with their experiences of police brutality. And the death of Mya Hall, a black Baltimore-based trans woman who was killed last month by police, is being evoked by protesters demonstrating against police cruelty in her city.
Violence against trans women just doesn’t take a vacation. It’s one thing to know this fact, and it’s another thing to really feel it.
Over the past few years, I’ve felt my eyes steadily opening to this reality as I’ve blinked off the idealistic dust of my youth; I got another necessary dose all week during my trip, even as I shut off my phone’s Internet capabilities in an attempt at respite. Another deep part of me didn’t even want to take a break from consuming the news of it. After all, I felt, the moment I rested on my laurels I became complicit (or, rather, more complicit than I already inherently am, living my relatively safe everyday life) — even as the very real need to invest in my personal growth and joy, as well as the relationship with my partner, remained. It’s a tension I’ve heard echoed by other journalists, as well as countless advocates and activists.
Normally, the stories of injustice faced by Rachel, Veronica, Sadaisha, and Mya would be ones that I covered for The Advocate as they broke; now, upon my return to the East Coast and to my kitchen/writing table, they sit piled in a queue, even as the 24-hour news cycle churns on. Nothing stopped just because I stopped to take a breath — which, of course, I realistically expected. Cognitively, I know violence against trans women like this happens all the time; in the regular throes of my job, I methodically document one or two stories at a time, keeping the crushing wave behind it at bay by steadily paddling forward.
Today, as I eased back into my usual routine, the wave crashed over me, heavy and hard. So now I’m allowing myself a moment to meditate on it, to let my usual well of incomprehensible anger and sadness fill up my journalistic tank again.
It’s been said long and loud by trans women whose work far preceded mine that stories of women like Rachel, Veronica, Sadaisha, and Mya need to be told; they need to be valued and prioritized. It’s a fact that, in my own selection of news stories, I try to (and can keep trying to get better at) practice daily.
And while no one asked about these women’s stories’ absence from The Advocate these past two weeks, I want to point it out. I want to be accountable to the publication’s trans readership and to our nontrans readers who dearly need to see these cases placed before their eyes whether they know it or not. I want to explain my lapsed vigilance, even as I keep up an ongoing conversation with myself on the meaning of self-care during times of relentless violence toward oppressed people (i.e. any time in history). And then I want to spend the weekend catching the site up on its coverage of these stories, even though the hungry news monster has moved on to other meals (even while savoring that Bruce Jenner morsel, I should note).
So this is me saying, as much to myself as to my readers: I had to take the vacation (and I’m grateful to have jobs that even afforded me the chance). For more reasons than I can explain here, I needed the break. I needed the space and the sunlight and the self-love. I had the right, as I've repeatedly told my half-guilty mind, to rest, the imperative to stave off burnout. I reassured myself with words from a friend who told me that none of us has an obligation to change the world, that trans and queer people are doing this simply by existing, so that “anything beyond that is icing on the world-changing cake.”
I thought back to listening to Janet Mock advocate for self-care at last year’s Philadelphia Trans Health Conference. I listened, once again, to the words of black trans leader Lourdes Ashley Hunter, who has stated on the site for the Trans Women of Color Collective she directs, that “every breath that a trans person takes is an act of revolution.”
But Hunter’s tandem quote — one I’ve seen more often repeated, for good reason — is “every breath a black trans woman takes is an act of revolution.” Mock’s speech too, in parts, was directly addressed to other trans women of color. And I — a white-passing biracial trans man — am not a trans woman of color. I have privileges relative to (though not reducible to) these identities that have consistently convinced me that more than just bare breaths are required from me.
I felt it again viscerally this morning as I pored over my news feeds; I hope there’s value for other trans men, for other white trans folks, indeed for all LGBT people, in simply listening to my moment of reflection. Now it’s time for me to get back to writing.
MITCH KELLAWAY is the trans issues correspondent for Advocate.com. His other writing has appeared in the Lambda Literary Review, Original Plumbing, Mic, The Huffington Post, and Everyday Feminism. He is the coeditor of Manning Up: Transsexual Men on Finding Brotherhood, Family & Themselves (2014, Transgress Press), an anthology of personal narratives by trans men. Reach him at MitchKellaway.com and @MitchKellaway.