Seeking Sustenance and Solace: Making Art and Building Community
A million ideas about things to explore and academically dissect flooded my mind when I was approached to write a blog for the CSJE. As a self proclaimed academic, I prided myself on the amount of abstract and disparate phenomena I began to weave together into a metaphoric collection of wicker baskets. The desire to prove my intelligence arose from my K-12 experience in which I was told my formal education would never reach beyond high school—deeper context and narrative can be found here—I digress. Ideas ranging from re-envisioning the role of land-grant institutions in providing education to those entrapped by the prison-industrial complex as a tool to reduce recidivism rates, to educating students about ethical real-estate decisions as they move off-campus into San Francisco so that they don’t contribute to the bourgeoning amount of elis act evictions—which are rendering thousand of elderly, (dis)abled, folks of color, immigrants, and working class (and the list goes on) people homeless in order to charge higher rents—ran through my head. After settling on a topic (which is now irrelevant to this blog post), I gathered books and articles, as I learned to do in graduate school. My heart began beating fast because it knew that wasn’t the story it needed to tell at that moment. The story that needed telling was my recent realization.
I am White, Queer, a femme cisgender male, and a gender-bender drag performer, who comes from a working class single mother family in East Tennessee. The duration of my life has been filled with seeking, nurturing others, and guarding myself from the world. Guarding myself physically, emotionally, and politically. I’ve survived anti-queer physical violence, event being chased by a truck in a parking lot, verbal harassment, and the political idiocy of my representative in Knoxville, TN, Stacey Campfield, author of the “don’t say gay” bill. Student Affairs became my chosen profession, in part, because it was the first welcoming space for me, and because I knew that I could escape the south and excel in the field. My entire life as an undergrad became consumed with what I was doing outside of the classroom, who was I working with on queer issues, and those I was helping support through their own queer journey. Some in that community called me “mother hen”. My life was defined by whatever “job” that I was doing—work gave me sustenance because it was how I was going to escape. This trend continued into my graduate school experience as I distracted myself from my own emotional wounds by going above and beyond in my work. It was easier to do more than to spend quiet time with myself and to heal the hurt I endured in the South.
Fast forward to my first professional job at the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit institution. I was drawn to this institution due to its Jesuit ideals around social justice; discernment of self, magis (finding god in all things), and the existing team in Student Life… the location didn’t hurt either. It’s hard to believe that I just finished my first year here—takes a deep breath. Though I was drawn to this institution and job for the amazing work I was going to be able to do, it never occurred to me that the most meaningful part of my life would not be my job! For the fist time in my life I was in a place where I felt I could finally be me—a big southern queen ablaze with faggortry and music.
Shortly after I moved to San Francisco and started my job I joined the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus (SFGMC) which is a choral arts organization with roughly 300 singers who identify as gay/bi/queer/trans* men. It was through this group that I made all of my friends, but also where I began to find my source inspiration and rejuvenation. The chorus quickly consumed my hours of freedom outside of my job and was it amazing! I made several intergenerational queer friendships with men, whose ages range into late 60’s—some of them actually met and knew Harvey Milk and other prominent queer community activist here in the Bay Area. Until this year, I seldom had the opportunity meet queer persons of that age or listen to their narratives, hopes and fears. As I typed this blog, I became teary eyed at the power of these men’s’ stories and experiences from the late 60’s, the AIDS crisis, and present day.
Being an SFGMC member has become an important part of my life and has given my life a sense of meaning and community. For the first time, that which nourishes me most is something besides my “job”. I NEVER THOUGHT THAT WOULD HAPPEN. Perhaps it is because I’ve finally found a space where I feel safe enough to let my guard down and focus on myself. A sense of guilt has however accompanied this shifting source of nourishment, because I feel that I should be “doing more” by volunteering with a direct service organization or attending more protests. In some way, I felt that I had lost some social justice “street cred” by focusing on me and being “selfish”. This summer, however, I came to the realization that focusing on oneself in order to heal wounds and enrich the soul is quite radical. By focusing on myself and creating music with 300 other queers, I’ve been able to expand the depths of my being and my capacity for love and compassion.
No longer will I allow myself to be confined by my past understandings of what a “social justice advocate” looks like. Simply being in community and engaging in self-love can be and is activism. Learning this lesson over the past year will certainly be one of the most important lessons of my life as a person who considers himself a community worker and social justice advocate. My advice to others is to rid yourself of guilt if you take a step back from direct action within your community—it’s how you avoid burnout. If you are artistic in anyway, I’d suggest that you engage in something artistically creative with those in your community! There is no better way to celebrate your community than mutually creating something of beauty to share with others, be it music, visual art, poetry, or a drag cabaret. Go forth to create and love within and outside your communities this coming year!