Ashleigh Atwell

Ashleigh Atwell: Learning to love yourself during the resistance

A couple of months ago, I went to a screening of “Pay It No Mind,” a documentary about Stonewall rioter and transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson. The film told Johnson’s life story through a series of interviews with her friends and Johnson herself. It was a riveting and poignant piece of work. “Pay It No Mind” described the life of someone with an unbreakable spirit despite experiencing sexual abuse, poverty and mental illness. Her friends gave multiple accounts of Johnson, despite her own shaky finances, giving her last dollar or morsel of food to other people in need.

After throwing “the shot glass heard around the world” at Stonewall, she dedicated her life to not only transgender rights but the rights of the whole community even when she was shunned by mainstream LGB activists. After the Pride movement was born, people like her were considered an embarrassment to the movement. Additionally, Johnson’s friends admitted that she had an untreated mental illness that could have possibly contributed to her mysterious death.

Johnson was one of scores of activists that sacrificed so much to a movement that didn’t always love her back. Erica Garner, daughter of Eric Garner, a victim of police violence, had a heart attack on Christmas Eve and died several days later. After the death of her father, Garner dedicated her life to fighting against police brutality. Even after the news cycle moved on to another story, she persisted. Now, she’s gone.

Activism is often thankless and it can take its toll. There have been multiple accounts of Black Lives Matter activists committing suicide.

I am friends with scores of organizers and activists and most of them have suffered from depression, anxiety or other forms of mental illness. I’ve taken a step back from community work for my own sanity. We go on and on about self-care but we aren’t practicing what we’re preaching.

Prior to the screening, I was talking to one of my friends and she asked me if I was taking care of myself. I admitted I wasn’t and she said something that shook me to my core.

“Your ancestors worked too hard and went through too much for you to not take care of yourself,” she told me with a raised eyebrow.

As a Black queer woman, I am my ancestors’ wildest dream. I am the descendant of enslaved people who survived the unspeakable. I am the legacy of the countless same-gender-loving women that loved in a world that didn’t love them. Everything I am is because of them.

So are you.

I want to pass this on to any organizer reading these words. Take care of yourselves. There will always be work to do and it’s okay to take some time for yourself. The movement will be here when you get back.