What does it mean to be an activist? I find myself asking this question so early in the year after reading the story of Kristen Wolfe, a retail manager who helped select a video game and controller for two brothers. Upon witnessing the older brother stand up to father's qualms over the younger brother not picking "manly" games, Kristen remembers saying, "I'm a girl, and I like the color blue, and I like shooting games. There's nothing wrong with what you like. Even if it's different than what people think you should."
Though this is an exceedingly simple, even nonsensical, statement for many LGBT people, it seemed, in the context of this situation, a powerful act of affirming the real rigidity of a gender binary that always remains questioned in the context of my day-to-day life. I do, of course, remember the moments as a younger child when I liked things that were not considered traditionally masculine, but I have had the tremendous privilege of living with a family whose love has truly been unconditional.
After reading this article, however, I don't think the LGBT community is confronting how a lack of support, and even violent antagonism, comes not from other peers or from a conservative political faction, but from the very people who are supposed to love us without question - our parents.
This isn't to say that some organizations aren't stepping up to address this particular issue. California's Family Acceptance Project, for example, uses a "research-based, culturally grounded approach to help ethnically, socially and religiously diverse families decrease rejection and increase support for their LGBT children."
They achieved considerable success in working through difficult paths to acceptance, particularly in ethnic, non-English speaking communities that would not otherwise have access to such programs. Still, in a time where Kristen's story illuminates how lack of acceptance from family remains an endemic problem for LGBT youth, these organizations remain an exception, rather than a rule. While I know that strengthening these types of programs is important for moving forward in 2012, what Kristen's story inspired in me most was a thoughtful discussion on redefining activism.
While we, as LGBT individuals, often give weight to political-legal reforms, which undoubtedly have social benefits, the power of making small, personal stands against intolerance seem to be largely ignored as forms of activism. But activism like Kristen's supports the Merriam-Webster definition that it is an action "especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue." There isn't any notion that an activist needs to support an organization, or even be involved in any direct social reform. Thus Kristen, in taking a stance against the father's rigid views of gender while affirming the boy's right to expressly his idea of gender freely, commits activism at the level of consciousness.
But what exactly is activism at the level of consciousness? How can we seek to quantify it so that we can also engage in these forms of activism more directly?
The first question is easier to answer than the first. Quite simply, activism at the level of consciousness is for me education. Informing people about the spectrum of gender expression, and the historical conditions of gender inequality and gender binaries, is a remarkably powerful tool of changing perception.
To the second question, it is clear activism as a form of changing perception is not so easily confined to a specific set of actions. While changing school curricula to explore this history from a young age can be valuable, changing perception can occur in day-to-day interactions like Kristen's experience in a store. Rather than diminishing the capacity of activism, this mobility allows for acts that change perception and affirm community-building to occur in the very spaces when access to LGBT support services and organizations are the least common. Activism, in this situation, is precisely about enacting the supportive model so prominent in the "It Gets Better" project.
I end by expressing my gratitude to Kristen, who showed me people exist in the most unexpected places to cheer us up, demonstrated the potentials for forming alliances, and allowed me to remain hopeful despite a violently antagonistic political climate directed toward LGBT people. In many ways, this is a timeless model of paying it forward. But in other ways, it's the future of LGBT activism that most benefits the youth and their families who seem ignored in mainstream politics.
As Kristen describes at the end of her article, "Big brother then leaned down, kissed little brother on the head, and said, 'Don't worry, dude.'" Maybe that's true. Maybe LGBT and non-LGBT alike are out there to support freedom of gender and sexual expression in a way in a way I didn't think was possible before.
Maybe we don't have to worry as much as I thought in 2011.