Leave No One Behind: Gay Marriage, Obergefell v. Hodges, and the March Forward

Participants march in Chicago's 2014 Dyke March. Organizers of the annual event work to create a space that is radical, inclusive, and safe for criminalized individuals. (Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)
Participants march in Chicago’s 2014 Dyke March. Organizers of the annual event work to create a space that is radical, inclusive, and safe for criminalized individuals. (Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)

I think this excerpt from an exchange with a friend this morning best explains my feelings, as a queer woman of color, about today’s Supreme Court decision in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges:

“I hope it [marriage] eventually ceases to exist as a legal construct, and that we all have the rights it affords by virtue of our humanity, but today, I’m really glad for my gay friends, and I know you’re not one of those people who would ever stop fighting for those left behind by such victories, and I love you for that.”

But to add to those thoughts…

I appreciate that my friends who will benefit from today’s decision are not the kind of people who would leave anyone behind, and as much as the exclusionary language SCOTUS opinion offends me, I am happy for those of you who will now have the same rights that I was afforded by virtue of choosing a man as my primary life partner. I’m glad that if you become seriously ill, like I did years ago, you may now be able to seek the benefits of each other’s health insurance – a privilege that literally saved my life. I’m glad that you may get the chance to claim other benefits that have been wrongly channeled toward a select segment of society, and I’m glad that you will be able to put a little more space between yourselves and the dark history, and for some, current realities, of how this country has treated you.

But as we raise a glass to this reduction in social harm, let’s make sure we celebrate this victory by seizing more ground, and challenging each other to fight for those the movement toward mainstream recognition has not benefited. For many, the struggle remains one of life and death, and our humanity demands that any celebration of this moment be part of a march forward – one where we are willing to hold each other accountable in the pursuit of real justice and safety for those who will not benefit from this victory. Communities of color, the trans community, and those who simply don’t fit an increasingly mainstream model of what it means to be gay must not be left behind. We must recognize the ways in which our solidarity has fallen short, with regard to those who experience ableism and criminalization. We must fight to free the imprisoned and demand safe harbor be given to the undocumented. We must demand safety, shelter, and equal recognition for all who are marginalized, because without that mentality, backed by our actions and resources, we cannot say that we stand for freedom, justice or the rights of the oppressed.

Those of us who have attained, or in cases such as mine, have merely been granted certain privileges have a duty to fight for others, and we have a duty to win.

That said, congratulations to you, friends. You have all my love and support as you walk forward and celebrate your love for one another, and I look forward to standing with you as we continue to demand justice for all those who live in struggle.

For the Grieving: Letters to Charleston

Mourners gathered beside the Chicago River last week to grieve for those killed during an attack on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. (Photo: Bob Simpson)
Mourners gathered beside the Chicago River last week to grieve for those killed during an attack on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. (Photo: Bob Simpson)

Last week, amid our discussions of how we could express love and support for those grieving in Charleston, I offered to create some space, here on this page, for friends of mine, here in Chicago, who wanted to share words of love for the fallen, and for those mourning their loss. The responses I received came from some of the most loving people I know. Radical Black organizers and educators, fighting for the liberation of their people, supportive allies, who offer up their skills in support of the marginalized, and a dear friend, who tirelessly provides childcare for those who are balancing movement building with the needs of their own children. The following are their words.

Dear angels of Charleston,

By faith I still believe in your God and your peaceful home going into love and prosperity forever. You are as valuable and precious as all the women and men in our family graced by the most beautiful hues of brown and black this world has ever seen. Your life and your death will cause those of us who are touched by your testimony to breathe deeper and live fuller so we may take this fight for justice unto freedom. Even more than that we will reflect on the value of your lives and act in accordance with our affirmation that Black Lives Matter. In this way, among others, let it be known that your life and death can never be in vain. While we weep over the ignorance that crossed your paths in your final prayer, it is not time for sadness. It is time for us to honor your lives through our acts of courage and bold love that confronts evil even in the face of death. Your lives now add to the legacy of faith and resistance against White Supremacy made strong by the hand of the Lord Almighty. May we do all that we can to pay homage to the truth of your light.

– Johnaé Strong

I grew up in the South.  I have visited Charleston in all its southern, slavery-rooted, white supremacist glory.  I have visited the sites where the enslaved plotted their liberation, and I grew up in the county where Dylann Roof was collected by law enforcement yesterday.  I say “collected” because that’s what happened.  He, unlike people of color, was not gunned down by the Shelby Police Department, or beat to death.  Still in the aftermath of his white supremacist rampage, having murdered several people, he was collected.

To the families of loved ones who were murdered or injured in Charleston Tuesday night, we send deep love, light, and strength to you from Chicago.  Chicago has deep southern roots because many folk from the South migrated to Chicago in search of better opportunities for their families and most importantly as a means to escape lynching.  We unite with you through those deep multi-generational roots and mourn, love, protect, and anger in your name.  In the spirit of Denmark Vesey, we honor your struggle and pain.

For my fellow white southerners who find themselves on the anti-racist side of the political spectrum… this is a call for all of you to stand up in solidarity, not as leaders of Black movements, but as supporters of Black directives.  We are witnessing the murder of Black folks at the hands of the state and white terrorists, and still the vast majority of us who claim some sort of liberal-leaning politics haven’t a care in the world.

– Jennifer Ash

“You are not to stand idle when your neighbor’s life is at stake. I am the Lord.” – Leviticus 19:16. These words of Hebrew scripture are a constant reminder to me as a believer in God that I have a responsibility to look after my neighbors, and to care for their lives. We live in a society that is neglectful of the lives of Black people, and white supremacy still works its evil lies into our culture. As a white man, if I am to life out my faith, I have a great responsibility to disrupt and fight against racism and white supremacy. And I know that the Lord God is on our side because “The Lord works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed… is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in LOVE.” – Psalm 103 6, 8. My Sisters and Brothers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston and all people of color who face violence and racism in the United States deserve Peace, Love and Justice and I call on others of faith, particularly white people of faith, to demand that they receive it.

– Dylan Bellisle

When I heard the news of last week’s tragedy, I thought a great deal about the safety and comfort that sacred places of worship provide us. In my mind, I could hear the words, “The Lord Almighty grant us a peaceful night and a perfect end, Amen.” I pictured my childhood parish, the only building in the world where I am not afraid to walk in the dark. I am afraid of dark corners in my own home, but not an inch of that old building frightens me.

I won’t say that I imagined what it was like to have that deep abiding peace ripped apart by gunshots, because I can’t. I won’t say that I imagined someone brutally killing these people I love, people I have known since I was four years old, because that’s a pain that I could never imagine. I think about the gravity of the safety I feel in my church, and I can’t imagine what it must be like to have to look over your shoulder for decades because people want to burn down your house of worship, kill your believers, and desecrate the space that should be the center of your life.

I pulled my Book of Common Prayer off of the shelf and read Psalm 4, and the last few verses dried up my mouth: Many are saying, “Oh, that we might see better times!” Lift up the light of your countenance upon us, O LORD. You have put gladness in my heart, more than when grain and wine and oil increase. I lie down in peace; at once I fall asleep; for only you, LORD, make me dwell in safety.

As a fellow Christian, I pray that the congregation of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church will one day feel that deep sense of safety. And as a Christian white person, I will be sober and watchful, as I am instructed in 1 Peter, and resist any force that would steal that safety from them.

– Sarah A.

In times of horror and strife, my mind’s reliable impulse is to wonder about the children. How are the children? Reflecting on the racist, white-supremacist attack on worshippers at Mother Emanuel, that’s what I’ve been thinking on: that a child survived this massacre, by “playing dead,” as they say. My first thought was: ‘OH GOD – CAN YOU IMAGINE! Oh, God – that child! In that moment – look at what she did to survive!’ And then I remember- and am grateful- that God and nature protected her by design: she was in a state of shock! She shut down, because her body recognized the overload and laid a blanket of shock over her, to slow her breath and heart. How awful and terrible and perfect and thank God!

In the worst of times, I look to laughter and gratitude to sustain my life, but I’m not ready for the sound of laughter yet, so I’ll share my Gratitudes with you.

Thank God for this child’s life. For that moment where she opened her eyes to life, to a breath and heartbeat that she still claimed for her own: I am grateful. For the person who was desperate to know if she lived or died, and the moment they found out the truth, that  their worry broke into shattered relief: I am grateful. For the genius design of the body, that knows better than the mind that drives it when too much is too much, and puts us into shock, so that we may live to fight another day: I am grateful.

And I am in shock for our people in this nation.

Too much is too much for us, and as an educator, I see the large and small ways this literally degrades our children every day. When I think of your girl, my arms reach across the midwest, through the south, finding and holding her in a shaking, desperate grip, to be released only to the safest caretaker that will hold her just as tight. That is what my spirit is doing, reaching out to protect this child, and so many children burned with the poison gas of racism, white supremacy, and ignorance. But my spirit has limits, and our communities need more than one reaching set of invisible arms. We need a union of spirits, and bodies and minds, united in action. Baltimore needed that, and still does. Ferguson did and does. Chicago where I live, Charleston, too, and everywhere in this nation. Children in all of these communities are learning the lessons of oppression, racism, white supremacy and survival. What kind of lessons will we show them as they manage to live to see another day. I pray we love them all as our own, and teach them to fight and win. Until then, I send love and solidarity to you and your children. Bless.

– Atena Danner

On Remembrance and Resisting Desecration

Chicago poet and organizer Malcolm London mourns beside the Chicago River at a vigil for the victims of Wednesday's massacre. (Photo: Bob Simpson)
Chicago poet and organizer Malcolm London mourns beside the Chicago River at a vigil for the victims of Wednesday’s massacre. (Photo: Bob Simpson)

On Thursday, community members gathered beside the Chicago River to honor those who were killed in Wednesday’s act of terrorism at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Amid the bustle of a heavy tourist day, in the heart of downtown Chicago, we stood together, mourned the fallen, and reaffirmed our commitment to building a world where such acts of terrorism are all but unthinkable. But there was another sense of mourning, and resistance, that also bears mentioning.

(Photo: Kelly Hayes)
(Photo: Kelly Hayes)

One of the things that tore at me the most about what happened in Charleston was that the shooting’s Black victims welcomed their killer into their sacred space, and that their act of love and inclusiveness was so cruelly punished. As someone who also strives to create spaces where my beliefs, and the beliefs and hopes of others, can be freely expressed, I was rattled to my very core. As organizers, we strive to create places where love, action and solidarity can blossom. We strive for inclusiveness, and build in celebration of both the history of resistance, and the acts of love and liberation that carry us forward. An attack on a sacred, safe space, at the heart of a Black community, is an attack on Black people everywhere and an affront to the humanity of all decent people, but it is also an attack on the history of those who were killed, and on the very idea of safer spaces.

(Photo: Bob Simpson)
(Photo: Bob Simpson)

As a non Black person of color, I do not wish to expound upon what this moment means to the Black community. Others have done so more eloquently than I ever could. But as someone who tries to build spaces for liberation, I want to speak to how we can resist the pervasive racism and oppression that led to this massacre. I will not say the killer’s name, for the record, as he chose to leave a survivor in the hopes that her harrowing account might bring him greater infamous glory. Out of love and respect for her, and with an awareness that his name is already being spoken far more than he deserves, I will not play any part in honoring his wishes.

(Photo: Bob Simpson)
(Photo: Bob Simpson)

There are others whose words and actions should be lifted up at this moment, and one of them is a dear friend of mine, whose words and grief hit me hard yesterday. Caira Lee Connor is a bright, young Black organizer and artist in the city of Chicago. She is one of the young people I am blessed to work with who I believe is playing an active role in writing the pages of the history we are all living. Yesterday, I asked for her thoughts on the AME shooting, and she said the following: “I want to know where we are safe. I want to know what it is that we are allowed to do that would garner respect, love, care, protection, and innocence. This act of terrorism, because that is what this was, is another reminder that we as Black people will always be targets regardless of whatever respectability politics people may play into. This isn’t a time to remain calm, or to be easy. This is time to stand up and (continue to) fight in all the ways we know how against white supremacy and demand our right to simply exist.

(Photo: Bob Simpson)

So how do we stand up in the face of such harm? We are people who know how to rally, how to march, and how to act against structures of oppression, but how do we specifically respond to the invasion and violent desecration of sacred spaces of love and liberation? I struggled with this question Thursday morning and arrived at only one answer that was true for me, with regard to my life and work: we must continue to create transformative spaces. We must continue to build with love in the face of hate. We must build forward, and defiantly hold space in the name of those who came before us, those we have lost, and those who will change the course of history. We must remember that, in spite of our fears and anger, our spaces, our streets, and our cities are our gardens, and we are the sowers of seeds.

(Photo: Bob Simpson)
(Photo: Bob Simpson)

It was with those thoughts in mind that we collectively created a space for healing, remembrance, and resistance beside the river. After a short speak out on Michigan Avenue, we marched across a historic bridge, from one side of the river to the other, and down the cement steps to the riverside. We held that space in the name of those who were lost, and in the name of all we cherish. We held that space in resistance, because the creation of spaces where we can liberate ourselves, and help each other survive is a means of change. We did this because we, collectively, are the builders of liberation spaces and communities. We are the builders of peace, and peace is not the silence between gunshots. It is the song we sang beside the river on Thursday, and we must continue to sing it. We will not allow those who would slaughter Black people for the color of their skin to derail the creation of sacred spaces. Neither the Black community, nor their allies, will be beaten into silence by violence and intimidation. The resilience of the oppressed in the United States is a testament to the greatness of marginalized people, and this is true of no one more so than the Black community.

Mourners make their way to riverside to hold space in remembrance of the fallen. (Photo: Bob Simpson)
Mourners make their way to riverside to hold space in remembrance of the fallen. (Photo: Bob Simpson)

Working closely with my Black friends, some of whom I consider chosen family, I worry daily for the safety of young people I care about, but such fears only serve to make their resistance more inspiring. They know that this attack was a restatement of the values that inform so much of what they endure. The man who killed the nine victims of the AME shooting was merely a loaded gun. He was one mechanism in a machine – the same machine that killed Rekia Boyd and Mike Brown. I know the young people I love, whose work I try to support daily, as we all should, will not allow the collective reality of Black disposability and social death to be erased. I know that they will fight on, and no single act of violence, however awful, will shake my belief that they will win.

(Photo: Kelly Hayes)
(Photo: Kelly Hayes)

They will continue to say the names of those who are stolen by the wickedness of white supremacy. And with the support of all who believe in them, they will keep grabbing hatred at its roots, and sowing seeds of love in liberation in their streets. They will live on, and so will the names of Rekia, Mike, and Aiyana. But we must all speak the names of those stolen by hatred, because no people should have to fight alone when their oppression is an affront to all of humanity. DePayne Middleton Doctor. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton.

Tywanza Sanders. Ethel Lee Lance. Daniel L. Simmons Sr.. Myra Thompson. Clementa Pickney. Susie Jackson. Rest in power.

(Photo: Bob Simpson)
(Photo: Bob Simpson)

Trauma Center Now: Let the Walls Fall Down

In April protestors created a massive candlelight image with the message
In April protestors created a massive candlelight image with the message “TRAUMA CENTER NOW” on the lawn across the street from University of Chicago President Robert J. Zimmer’s house at 59th and University Ave. (Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)

My heart is heavy today for a number of reasons. Like many involved in social justice in Chicago, I am deeply worried. I am worried about nine people who were arrested by Chicago police yesterday after a peaceful sit-in became a spectacle of property destruction. Rather than agreeing to a meeting with young people who have long demanded the creation of a South Side trauma center, the University of Chicago’s leadership chose to ask the Chicago Fire Department to destroy a wall to facilitate the arrest of the protestors. The sit-in had caused no harm. It had prevented no one from leaving the building, and had damaged no property, but the university was willing to tear its own walls out to put an end to it.

If you’re not familiar with the situation, you may be asking yourself, “What was so threatening that a school would inflict such damage upon itself?” The answer is simple: a peaceful, well orchestrated campaign led by determined youth of color.

Photos of sparks flying off the barricaded protest scene at U of C took me back to another moment of struggle in this city. Many of us remember the sense of helplessness we experienced as police sawed their way through the barricades at the Woodlawn mental health clinic. In that fight, as with this one, there was much more than a single facility on the line. Lives were at stake.

And so we fought.

And here we see the fight continue, with the same larger issues at stake – the unwillingness of the marginalized to be deemed disposable, and the fight to see healthcare recognized as a human right.

The demand for local trauma care was sparked by the death of Woodlawn youth leader Damian Turner, who died during the more than ten mile ride to the nearest available trauma center. The effort has been led by the Woodlawn-based Fearless Leading by the Youth, along with the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization, Students for Health Equity at the U of C, National Nurses United and many faith groups including the United Church of Christ. A powerful coalition has formed behind one reasonable demand: that the University of Chicago, with all of its power, money and influence actually serve the community that it occupies and provide life saving care to people suffering from traumatic injuries.

It has been documented by the Illinois Department of Public Health that longer travel times to trauma centers increase the likelihood of a patient’s death. The same study indicated that the University of Chicago is best positioned to expand access to trauma care on the South Side. As Students for Health Equity member Natalie Naculich stated this morning, “The University has a long history of being a bad neighbor and now they are being held accountable for that.”

An institution like U of C cannot be allowed to usurp city resources, occupy a community, police that community, and punish all those that challenge its reign over their neighborhood. The protestors in custody have been charged with three misdemeanors and will remain in the hands of the state until tomorrow, at the earliest, when they will be taken to bond court. Efforts to raise bail funds are currently underway.

Tonight, there is a vigil being held for those still in custody. I will not be able to attend, but my heart is with the young people who have been fighting for this cause. Whether you are currently being kept in a cage for your moral choices, or are enduring the pain of knowing your friends are being unjustly detained, you are not alone. You are loved, you are appreciated, and those who love justice in your city stand with you. The leadership of the University of Chicago have escalated this fight, and I believe the organizing community is ready to meet their destructive obstinance with courage, love and determination.

As I worry about good people being caged in terrible places, I am reminded of all the things that keep us apart – our hearts and minds fixed on the same aims, but with our lives and physical selves being pulled in different directions. Some are divided by capacity or responsibility, some by insurmountable distance, some by conflict. And some by walls and cages. Let’s break down what barriers we can this summer, to share space and purpose where we can, accommodate participation, put aside difference, and build behind those most affected by the issues at hand. The University of Chicago was willing to tear apart its own walls to prevent these young people from building forward. Maybe its time we dismantle a few of our own so that we can build better, and reinforce the struggles of those who have lit the way. I believe we can do that, and I believe that the courage and determination of the young people who have brought their fight this far demands as much of us.

I believe we can all find a way to support these young people. And I hope that we do.

For tonight, I won’t be able to comfort those I’m worried about, or hold hands with their friends at their vigil, but I will be lighting a candle for their safe return.

I’ll leave you all for the night with some words that FLY organizer Veronica Morris Moore, one of yesterday’s arrestees, shared on Transformative Spaces in March, after being arrested for participating in a lockdown that shut down Michigan Avenue:

“For me, the Trauma Center Campaign is about fighting for a fundamental way greedy white America, and all who benefit from, embody and reinvent white supremacy and structural racism, can be accountable – pay the fuck up – for the legacy of terrorism that seeks to kill black life and liberation. The University of Chicago and all of its elusive glory continues to grow and develop in my community without responding to the demands and real life needs of my community, the black community. I will not stop, nor will the Trauma Center Campaign ease up from exposing the anti-black position [University of Chicago Medical Center president] Sharon O’Keefe has taken as a health provider in my community.”

Building with Love: Being a Friend and Ally to the Mentally Ill

I see a lot of articles these days about how not to talk to a person with depression or anxiety. I’m glad these conversations are happening, and that people are questioning behaviors that are unhelpful, or that may even be harmful, but I would also like to see a louder conversation about how we should be supporting each other in these contexts. Loving someone with any chronic illness poses certain challenges. It can demand patience and adaptation, a willingness to learn, and the ability to show compassion when you genuinely can’t understand where the other person is coming from. It can mean experiencing the secondary anguish of someone’s pain, and it can be a struggle that requires a support person for someone who is living in a supportive role.

But what about situations where we (hopefully) already live in a supportive framework? How do we show love and support for people struggling with mental illness within our organizing communities? These issues frequently come up in such circles, and one would hope that having an established community would go a long way towards ensuring that those involved would have the back up they need to get through hard times, but sadly, this isn’t always the case. So what does it mean to get it right?

In my circles, we frequently repeat the lessons that Assata taught us. Namely, that we must love and protect one another. I say these words almost daily, and almost anytime someone thanks me for helping them out. I say it as a reminder to myself and to them that it’s supposed to be this way. Holding each other up should be the norm, but we all know that it often isn’t. I have seen a lot of the same ableist patterns in organizing communities that I have seen in other settings, but in the realm of organizing, the impacts of these behaviors can have an even wider reach. When people who are seen as being forward thinking, or even leaders in their communities, their behavior can set an example, and that example can be very damaging. Remember, our good intentions do not exempt us from the failings of this society. We all carry those flaws with us, and rooting them out of ourselves takes real work and a willingness to learn.

While this is by no means an exhaustive list, I wanted to share some of  the things I have witnessed and experienced that I think should be addressed, in a broader sense, within our social justice spaces and communities.

1. Problem one: not understanding the role of ableism in the lives of the mentally ill.

I once attended an anti-oppression workshop led by a direct action trainer (which is, in of itself, a bad call in my opinion, as I don’t believe most of us are qualified to teach anti-oppression) where the trainer told the crowd that ableism only referred to outward, physical disabilities, and not to mental illness. Anyone who has ever lived with a mental illness knows this isn’t the case. The stigma attached to our conditions can be career crushing and otherwise limiting, or even crippling. The working world, like most settings, is not set up to accommodate those who struggle with mental illness. Many of us are blamed for our symptoms when they manifest themselves, and even blamed for our deaths if our conditions prove fatal.

I can’t count how many times I have heard how selfish suicide is, when in reality, we don’t tend to hold people accountable when they die as the result of a chronic illness. Suicidal tendencies are the direct result of a mental illness, and treatment does not always alleviate those symptoms. There are also issues of inadequate healthcare and access to care that usually go unconsidered in such conversations. Being a person who experiences suicidal tendencies and hearing that kind of judgment is also quite damaging. It plays into the idea that their despair makes them a bad, selfish person. And trust me, feeding those perceptions makes self harm more likely, not less.

Drug use, which is also often a manifestation of mental illness, is likewise stigmatized and even criminalized, which has led to massive incarceration rates for the mentally ill. We don’t tend to incarcerate other chronically ill people for the symptoms of their illnesses, so to say that we are not victims of ableism misses the mark in a very big way.

So how do we address this? One step in the right direction is to make sure that discussions on these topics are led by people who have a strong background in handling such issues. If such a person is unavailable, but the conversation is needed, a lot of research and discussion should go into sorting out what will be covered, and the dialogue should be handled as more of a mutual learning experience than an instructional, information learning opportunity for the audience. Another way to improve upon the situation is for people who are able to do so, particularly people who do not suffer from mental illness, to challenge shame and blame when they encounter it in community. Ask people why they would criticize or penalize someone for falling behind or committing self harm, rather than trying to understand the reasons why and offer assistance.

This is not to say that the mentally ill should not be held accountable for the harm that we may cause in community. As community members, we all sometimes cause harm, and we all have a lot of learning to do. I am capable of learning from my mistakes, and capable of developing coping mechanisms that can help me avoid future actions or words that cause harm, but it is important to understand that a person with a mental illness may be coming from a different place when they are confronted or held accountable. There may be trauma that accountability processes set off (such as triggering PTSD symptoms because a person associates accountability with abusive figures in their lives or pasts) or because they already harbor great anxiety and fear that someone challenging them confirms that they are not a good person, or that people see them as a failed friend or ally. Addressing these types of concerns and showing an added amount of patience can mean the difference between walking someone through a bad situation, and leaving the problem worse than you found it.

Remember that triggering survival mechanisms can lead to the weaponization of those mechanisms, which can mean the conflict at hand only becomes more entrenched, and the parties involved more defensive.

2. Trying to keep them occupied and offering curative advice.

When a person is ill, it’s tempting to assume we know what’s best, especially if we have been in similar straits, or previously supported someone through a mental health crisis. But the truth is, everyone is different. At times, a person may need company. For some, being alone with their thoughts is downright dangerous. For others, being around people when they are symptomatic can be exhausting and intolerable. It can make them feel worse, or even resentful of people who want to help.

It can likewise be hurtful to offer people advice about how to recover. While advice about seeking medical attention may at times be necessary (and assistance with acquiring that care very appropriate), much of the advice given to people with serious anxiety and depression falls under the category of, “I know what will cheer you up.” The truth is, if there were simple solutions to our illnesses, we would have been cured long ago. Odds are, your friend or ally has tried it all, and gotten nowhere with simple solutions. Also, treating a serious medical condition like a simple matter that can be handled with a vitamin supplement or getting out more minimizes the severity of what a mentally ill person is experiencing. Our conditions can be disabling, or even fatal. They should be taken very seriously.

To avoid these missteps, I tend to offer the following advice: if you want to help, ask the person who is struggling what they need. They may not know, but odds are, they know a lot more than you do about what might help them get through a rough time. If they are at a loss for what might help, you might offer some options, but this should be done in a way that doesn’t lean on the person to do what you think is best. “Would it help to plan an outing, to get out of the house for a while?” is a much better question than, “Don’t you think it would help to get out of the house?” Don’t tell people what they need. You are not the arbiter of such things.

3. Ignoring the role that various oppressions and historical traumas play in our experiences of mental illness.

Oppressive structures and various oppressive biases affect not only our access to care, but the ways in which we manifest the symptoms of mental illness. People of color, women, those who don’t experience able bodied privilege, and trans and non conforming individuals carry traumas related to oppressions that their communities face, and the weight of those traumas can have a profound intensifying effect on our experience of mental illness.  Some scientists have gone so far as to suggest that our genes can carry memories of trauma experienced by our ancestors and can influence how we react to trauma and stress.

When supporting someone who is living in the shadow of historical oppression, and processing the day-to-day experience of being a marginalized person in this society, keep in mind that the type of accommodation and support they need may be different. If you are assisting them in efforts to find care, it may be helpful to seek providers with a background in addressing the unique needs of such individuals. There are some providers who have a lot of experience working with people who live highly marginalized lives, and some whose level of inexperience with such issues could be detrimental.

Also remember that being a person living with certain oppressions can increase one’s risk of homelessness, suicide or drug abuse. Heightened concern may may be warranted if a person comes from an at-risk community. If a person is Indigenous, or trans, for example, their risk of suicide is already much greater than the average person’s. If a depressive period seems particularly severe or of great duration, the added risk level for self harm should be considered, and extra support and vigilance may be necessary.

4. A failure to respect agency.

Mentally ill individuals have a right to decide if they should be engaging in the work at any given time. You may want to make certain accommodations to ensure they have added support in getting the work done, but removing a person from a key project because they are struggling could be more harmful than the stress of completing the project. For some of us, the work is a way to step outside of ourselves, and the affirmation of completing tasks that matter is very important. Don’t decide for someone else that they need a break. If you want to assure them that you have their back, and will make sure things get done if they need a breather, that’s great, but don’t tell someone when it’s time for them to walk away. They know more about their limits than you do.

5. Unnecessary doubt.

When a person with a mental illness makes an accusation of harm, particularly in the realm of sexual violence or intimate partner violence, the alleged abuser often defends themselves by questioning the mental stability of the accuser. I have seen this time and again, and it is extremely disheartening when people buy into this logic. This isn’t to say that the mentally ill do not lie. People from all backgrounds lie about all sorts of things in their day-to-day lives. Dishonesty is a very typical human failing. But to assume that a person is a less believable survivor of abuse because they have depression or bipolar disorder, for example, is extremely ableist, especially since the emotionally vulnerable are often targeted by predators because they are perceived as being more susceptible to abuse and less likely to be believed.

I believe in beginning from a place of belief. This can be challenging when we care about the person who is being accused, but regardless of the conclusions we reach, we cannot allow a person’s mental illness to become a crutch for our desire to believe that our friends and allies are innocent of having caused harm. Even good people sometimes do bad things, and they must be held accountable. I know that, over the years, in my own circles, the mental health of survivors has been questioned many times in order to discredit them. This was done regardless of whether the person’s symptoms were under control and regardless of whether or not the person had a history of telling lies about others. If someone’s mental illness predisposes them to telling elaborate lies about others, or imagining events that did not occur, those issues are usually evident long before an accusation of abuse is made. If a person has never demonstrated a propensity for delusions or false accusations, it is highly problematic to assume that their condition makes them less credible.

6. Dehumanizing language.

Terms like “crazy,” “lunatic,” “junkie,” and “crackhead” needlessly dehumanize others. They are part of the popular language, so it is very difficult to put them down (I struggle with this myself), but it is important, if we are building a culture that does not replicate the dehumaizing nature of this one that we build forward with our words as well as our actions. People who are living in active addiction or who are manifesting symptoms of mental illness do not deserve to be dehumanized, and attributing such words to people whose behavior we simply dislike or find astonishing is harmful to the mentally ill as well.

6. Not getting support as a supporter.

One of the benefits to living in community is that you don’t have to suffer in silence or go it alone. This is true for the afflicted, and for their loved ones. Caring for, or even just being there for a person who is in pain can be incredibly draining, and empathy can lead to secondary trauma and anguish. These are real effects of doing the right thing, and it’s okay to lean on others, to ask for help supporting someone, and (with the affected person’s consent) to create a network of support such that you are not the one and only person offering help. We must all love and protect one another. That means we have to create spaces where we all do what we can, rather than forcing certain individuals to do emotional support work.

Getting burned out as a supportive friend or ally helps no one, and if you’re going it alone, the afflicted person may suddenly find themselves without help if you were the only one providing it. We shouldn’t break confidences, but it’s okay to tell a trusted person that you are experiencing emotional burn out or secondary trauma, and need a shoulder to cry on.

6. Diagnosing others.

If you are not a doctor or a person’s chosen care provider, you have no business pathologizing them. You probably aren’t qualified to make such assessments, so don’t.

7. Failing to make the work accessible.

Making organizing work accessible can be challenging. Wheelchair accessible spaces, interpreters, and other methods of accommodation are frequently considered, but how do we make the work accessible to people whose mental health can at times restrict their contributions?

One way to make the work more accessible to individuals who struggle with mental illness is to remind your group that everyone’s capacity is different, and that’s okay. We shouldn’t simply tell people it’s alright to take breaks. We should applaud people when they recognize such needs and do what they need to do to stay as strong and healthy as they can. Working themselves to the point of emotional collapse does not help the movement. Their recovery from a difficult time, however, is good for the whole community.

Self care should be seen as an important aspect of the work, and it should be accommodated. For some, giving all they’ve got will always look different, or happen in different intervals than it will for others, and that’s okay. We also need to learn that telling people that you want to help lighten their load isn’t the only form of help we can offer. We sometimes need to tell people who are obviously working very hard, within the scope of their capabilities, that they are doing ENOUGH. Everyone who does what they can should know that their work matters and that their willingness to throw down, in their own time and way, is essential.

This list is not complete, but I am grateful for the contributions of members of my community who helped fill it out with their advice. I am very grateful for the people I work with and share community spaces with here in Chicago. While, like everyone, we have miles to go, I am constantly touched by how willing we are to support each other. I have been more supported in the past year than I have ever been before in my efforts to survive, and at times thrive, in spite of an illness that can be quite crippling. I talk about it a great deal, and people are very welcoming of those conversations. They understand that I both talk to seek support, and to make these discussions more visible, so that others might feel more understood, or even more able to tell their own stories. I want others who similarly live with these issues to enjoy the same support that I do, and for people in my community to aspire to be even more competent in how we handle these issues. I am not exempt from that need. It is something I strive for, because like most people, I carry internalized oppressions that at times make me a lousy friend and ally, even to people with whom I experience shared struggle.

As I said, this piece is quite incomplete, and I would love to hear from others about more ways that we can love and support one another in these contexts. Please feel free to tweet at me if you would like to get your ideas out there. If people have a lot to say, I may write or host a follow up piece. In closing, I want to thank you for caring enough to read this. I believe in your intentions, and in our potential to do right by the vulnerable. To quote Assata once more, “i believe in the sweat of love and in the fire of truth. And i believe that a lost ship, steered by tired, seasick sailors, can still be guided home to port.

I believe that we’re all on that ship together, and that if we care for each other as we build, we will find our way home.