Op-ed: If we will not be given space, we will carve it out of yours

Protesters block I-80 in Iowa City in light of the election. Nov. 11, 2016. --photo by Zak Neumann
Protesters block I-80 in Iowa City in light of the election. Nov. 11, 2016. –photo by Zak Neumann
By Rose Fiala

Everyone I know is Scared. Capital S. A kind of collective, shared fear that I hadn’t known until Election Night, the fear of an entire generation of queer, undocumented, Muslim, trans, disabled, poor and people of color (PoC) staring out at the next four to eight years. The fear of knowing that people you know, people that you may even love, have been waiting for the moment where they could stop pretending to care whether you live or die, waiting to throw their hat in the ring that promises that your body and the bodies of those like you will never happen to them ever again. Knowing that someone else was partying over what left you hyperventilating in the bathroom.

Everyone in the main room of the Women’s Resource and Action Center that night was ready for a party. Even my most dyed-in-the-wool leftist friends were nominally enjoying themselves, myself included. Around the time Florida was lost, the party was over — rather, I was in a room of people who very, very desperately, did not want to be alone. People who suddenly realized that outside that stormproof front door lay a world that, while still the flawed time and town they all recognized, was awakening in all the wrong ways. People who felt helpless once they realized the ballot wasn’t going to be what saved them.

At some point, someone used the term “shell-shocked,” which is about the most accurate term I could think of — everyone knew a (proverbial) bomb just went off, and yet they’re wandering around the remains of the building wondering where the rest of it went.

I think that sort of shock is understandable — it’s a very human response to such a dizzying and terrifying spectacle. But we can’t afford to stay in this state. America did not change on Nov. 7; rather, the quintessential American story of relative progress being countered by conservative backlash shifted into its next phase. No victory is safe any more — and in truth, no victory has been.

This summer, the day after Orlando, I stood in front of a crowd on the Ped Mall and told them that “community is the only thing that will save us.” I think that’s true now more than ever. But we need to understand something: Community isn’t something that can be taken for granted. Community needs to be real, material, something worked for every day as we grow spaces and cultures of resistance to live and thrive inside of. But community also needs to be plural — we can’t rely upon a false notion of community that subsumes the material realities of race, gender, class or sexuality under a general notion of Activism or Equality.

I consider myself a member of the LGBT and trans communities here on campus, existing as a non-passing hypervisible trans lesbian, and these aspects of my identity cause me palpable, material strife just moving around town, let alone in trying to interact with any sort of medical or legal apparatus. But, being white, I still have the power to oppress people along that axis. Any oppression I face as a trans lesbian does not allow me to cut corners when it comes to supporting marginalized communities that are not my own, and it doesn’t empower me to take sole ownership of the spotlight.

The ubiquitous quote by Lilla Watson comes to mind: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Community means checking in on friends who are tired and scared, and actually listening and working with them when they voice those fears. It means checking in on people in your community or other communities who you only know tangentially to let them know that you’re there to support or work with them. It means predominantly white groups making space for people of color and addressing racism within their own communities. It means leaving open and serious offers to walk or drive people-at-risk home if you can, to hopefully shield them from a league of douchebags who have just been given moral license to take after their tangerine, rape-apologist, racist idol.

It means never letting anyone think of what’s happened now or for the next four years as “normal.” It means acting as gracefully and constructively as we possibly can as this crisis that has been building since colonies were first established boils over in the new millennium. It means recognizing our own agency, even in strife, and using it in every way we possibly can to reduce the harm on our ourselves, our friends, our families and even perfect strangers. It means building bridges where none existed, rebuilding bridges that were burnt and making ourselves felt in spaces that wish they could forget us.

It means building a world better than the one that has rejected us, or people that we know. Because if we aren’t given space by the systems that are supposed to represent and protect us, we have but one option: to carve our own spaces out of them.

Rose Fiala is a junior and intern with the Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies department at the University of Iowa. She’s remarkably good at treading water, and plans to do so until this is all over. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 210.

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