So this article isn’t really about Lt. Dan Choi, whom I do not know. It is, however, about the energetic and psychological pain and suffering that often accompany a commitment to the ongoing fight for social justice.
Saturday, December 18, brought the long-fought-for repeal of DADT, the Clinton-era policy that allowed gay men and lesbians to serve in the U.S. military as long as they do not disclose their LGBT identities. This is still the case until the law if fully repealed – which will come in a few months.
December 18 also brought the defeat of the DREAM Act, which would have benefited an estimated several hundred thousand young immigrants brought to this country by their parents. The bill would have carved out a clear path to citizenship for them through education or serving in the military.
And yet that Saturday, as text and calls from my long-time activist friends and colleagues crisscrossed the country, we acknowledged the ways that both the DREAM Act and the DADT repeal are highly problematic.
How do these policy developments look to those of us who work toward a dream of non-militaristic answers to global struggles over power and resources? While we recognize the important civil rights implications of the DADT repeal, we also view the repeal as a step toward increasing the pool of recruit-able citizens into military service.
The continued defunding of public education and public assistance programs and the shrinking number of available jobs in the crumbling economy leave few options for many young people, other than military service.
Terms of the DREAM Act stipulated that young immigrants, in order to be eligible, must have a clean criminal record and complete two years of higher education or military service. But as we have seen in the battles over the defunding of public university and college systems, completing two years of higher education is increasingly difficult if needed courses are cancelled or offered during the hours these students might be working to help pay for ever-increasing tuition.
We’ve also seen in the fight against SB 1070 (the anti-immigrant “papers-please” law) in Arizona that it is difficult to maintain a clean criminal record when you are constantly targeted and sought out by the police and often considered criminal for resisting that targeting. It is enough to make people feel crazy. In psychotherapeutic terms, we would call this a double bind—also known as “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
As problematic as the DREAM Act is, friends and colleagues who teach undergraduate and high schools students were posting to Facebook and Twitter about their students who were depending on the DREAM Act and who live in fear of deportation, even though they may not have ever known life in another country.
Evidenced by SB 1070 and by U.S. history, citizenship is no guarantee against targeting. My family knows something about this.
My grandmother, though Okinawan, was born in the U.S. So were her children. During WWII, under Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, they were rounded up, along with all other Japanese American citizens living on the Pacific Coast, and sent to internment camps. The men were given the options to stay in the camps, to join the U.S. military, or to “return” to Japan, where some of them had never lived.
One of my mother’s uncles joined the Army. He was a member of the 442nd Infantry, the most decorated regiment in U.S. armed forces history. Another uncle refused internment and went to Japan to try to find work. For years after the war, the U.S. government would not allow him to return. He missed out on his sons’ childhoods.
In my psychotherapy practice, I work mostly with LGBTQ social justice activists. Some days I learn of breaking news from them as they enter my office checking their iphones, closing laptops, or reporting on what they’ve recently heard on the radio. Sometimes we sit together in stunned silence, outrage, or grief. Often, the questions they struggle with are about how to sustain themselves emotionally and spiritually when there is so much work to be done.
Those clients whose work leaves them visible within the community fear that taking a break or asking for help is a sign of weakness—that they will be seen as not believing strongly enough in the cause to keep going.
Is that what happened to Lt. Dan Choi? I don’t know. For many months the media referred to him as the “face of the movement to repeal DADT.” And though Lt. Choi has been very vocal about being only one person among many fighting for the repeal, he has been at the visible center. But within hours of the news that he was in the hospital, there were tweets and posts about his “faking it,” or “whining” and “taking a vacation.”
The holiday season can be an especially difficult, diasporic experience for the LGBTQ community. Transgender and genderqueer people whose bodies don’t match their outward appearance, or whose outward appearance doesn’t match with the gender assumptions people make based on their legal names, are often fearful of traveling by plane.
Many of my pre- and non-operative transgender clients are afraid of having their safety jeopardized by agents who, by following the new Transportation Security Administration policies, draw attention to their gender nonconformity.
Immigrants often have to assess whether border-crossing to visit family members will endanger themselves, their families, or their allies. For LGBTQ people who are estranged from their families of origin, the holiday season—so filled with archetypal images of family rituals—can be an isolating reminder of their exile.
This is what I know: We fight because there is always work to do. But the work will never be finished. It’s paradoxical: If we don’t find a way to sustain one another and ourselves through it, we burn out and are no good to anyone. When we get worried about resources—material and energetic—we become suspicious of one another. Within activist communities, that can manifest as suspicion of anyone who doesn’t live and breathe the work every moment. Burnout, fatigue, exhaustion, panic, and overwhelming sorrow are the cyclical result.
While listening to news of DADT and the DREAM Act, I worked on curriculum for a class I teach to psychotherapy interns about the psychodynamics of social justice and the clinical issues that can arise when working with activists. Part of our job as therapists is to help our clients understand the world they live in and make conscious choices about how to use their agency to respond to, resist, and savor their experiences.
As individuals and communities, we must ensure that we have the necessary emotional resources to sustain our work through the long fights still ahead.
Here are a few small things you can do:
- Take a walk or dance or do yoga or stretch—something to move your body.
- Remember that you have a body, and spend time feeling what it needs. Then try to do it.
- Eat and drink whatever will help you feel enlivened and present with yourself.
- Spend time with those who love you and whom you love.
- Get more sleep.
- Ask for help.
- Offer help to others.
- Take care of one another.