Charles Stephens: Queer activism for introverts: A user’s guide

For some reason, people are surprised when I come out as an introvert. I suppose my work doesn’t lend itself to being an introvert, and yet here I am.

Charisma does not come naturally for me. It’s something I have to work up to. Even then, it doesn’t always quite land. I’ve found that a certain type of charisma is the prerequisite for leadership in many activist circles. Even in the most radical and nonhierarchical spaces, the alphas always still seem to rule.

We prefer our activists to be warm and to connect with ease. We take comfort in those who can work a room. The people who can enter a space, command it with the force of their personality, exude confidence, and with little prompting, walk up to anyone, give them a hug, and seamlessly engage them in conversation. I don’t think I’ve ever been this person. I’m definitely not a hugger. At least, not at first. It’s not that I don’t want to touch others, but rather that my tendency is to be formal. It takes me a while to warm up. I really appreciate affection once I become comfortable with someone. But it does not come naturally or easily in unfamiliar spaces.

I also don’t thrive on small talk. Before-the-meeting socializing can be excruciating, especially when everyone already seems to know everyone else in the room. Thank God for smartphones. People who haven’t received a text from me in decades suddenly become the most important people in the world. They get bombarded with my text messages as I navigate my social discomfort by attempting to distract myself. Don’t get me wrong, I like meeting new people, but it’s much easier when there is a point of common interest already established.

Leadership workshops can also be challenging. I find that many team-building and skills-building activities are geared toward extroverts. There is an assumption in leadership coaching that effective leadership and big personalities go hand in hand. I of course reject this. Where is the leadership training that caters more to those of us who are introverts?

I perceive extroverts as being natural performers. Many introverts, because we tend to be more contemplative, more in our thoughts, don’t always come across as forceful. When we are on stage we can perform, but again, it takes a bit more.

I’ve learned that when I try to suppress my discomfort with crowds and large groups, I come off as extremely arrogant, or even intimidating. My quirkiness also becomes more apparent. Though it’s considered “cool” for a certain type of white guy to be quirky, for black men, it’s a different story.

Recently, I’ve become more self-aware about being an introvert. I’ve also become more politicized about it—I mean, I am an activist, and the personal is political, so why not? I’m especially resistant to any notion that leadership means you have to always have a big personality or that you have to be “on” all the time. We don’t all have to work the crowd, shaking hands and kissing babies.

Let me also be clear, being an introvert does not mean you don’t like people or that you don’t like being around people. I think the difference is more that being an introvert just means we prefer to recharge in solitude. We may appreciate and even love being around others, but we also need time away, time to ourselves.

Though it has taken me a long time, I’ve come to understand that social movements require all types of styles and talents, skills and gifts. Most critically, I’ve come to understand that there is even a place for those of us who are introverted.

Charles Stephens is a writer and activist. He is the Executive Director of Counter Narrative and co-editor of the anthology Black Gay Genius: Answering Joseph Beam’s Call.