J: As an activist, I’ve experienced various kinds of burnout. I’ve had many discussions and been part of support groups attempting to deal with that burnout and traumatic experiences. Yet, there is often a lack of continuity in our communities, due to burnout! I wanted to acknowledge how common that is, especially in communities that advocate for rights from a place of stigma. First of all could you talk about the kinds of activism and communities you are part of?
M: I’ve been part of student anti-cuts activism, an anarchist feminist group, stuff around accountability over sexual and emotional harm, anti-fascism, organising an anarchist book fair. I am currently involved in sex worker rights activism. I’m in and out of the anarchist, queer, and feminist communities, and recovery communities for addiction. I’m also a migrant.
A: Since 2011 I have been involved in the trans community, my community, offering support to trans masculine people who are either questioning their gender identity or are in transition. I haven’t had much opportunity to be involved in anything else!
J: Do you have any comment on community? Isolation can be a major difficulty but paradoxically, so can expectations of conformity and service to groups.
M: I think it depends very much on the community, how defined it is, and your role within it. For a long time I didn’t feel like I fitted in anywhere growing up or in my family. I was always looking for a community. I tried to be part of the punk community for a while; I tried so hard to fit in that I lost myself. The same has happened with activism, in different ways. I have a tendency to make what I’m doing my whole identity and that can lead to me feeling trapped and isolated. I’m surrounded by this idea of a community, but I’m also under pressure being in the middle of it.
A: Initially when I first started being involved it was to find support for myself which was at the time desperately needed. Although I was able to find some it wasn’t quite what I imagined, I didn’t feel I fitted in, perhaps due to my age as it seemed such a younger persons world. I felt that there was something missing. Perhaps it was a lack of structure and solid answers or perhaps as I was older I needed to reach out to those with a similar life experience. This pushed me, willingly I might add, toward building a place to suit me, with structure, varied age groups all being welcomed and their experiences equally valued, I hoped that this structure might also suit others with its safety and values.
J: So community was something that you wanted but then belonging comes with a price tag, it’s not unconditional.
M: Yeah, in some cases it’s just posturing and people-pleasing, but in other cases, activism demands a lot of sacrifices. The same can happen with sex work: when you’re part of a highly stigmatised community, when you try to relate with people outside that community, and also within it. For me, it’s complicated to be part of the sex worker community when I’m a recovering addict.
A: I’m not sure when or why my ability to share disappeared, but I have been unable or unwilling to ask for support within the community for myself. I do often feel incredibly isolated and I am aware that this is partly my own doing but partly the nature of being known for building something that helps others. My daily life involves communicating with hundreds of people in my community, yet my strong need for privacy, which I fiercely protect, leaves me feeling lonely and isolated from that very community.
J: There can be hierarchies within organising: status around how much you can do. You’ve mentioned sacrifice. How is activism structured in the worlds that you are part of?
M: Even when we want to organise in a non-hierarchical way, there is social capital in connections or the way you are viewed by your peers. People refuse to acknowledge gender or mental health situations as creating hierarchies. One of the biggest hierarchies that exists is how much you get done. I noticed I would have to prove myself worthy of status within an activist group through doing more work than other people.
I couldn’t see myself as a leader in a very male-dominated type of activism. I didn’t feel able enough physically to be the strong macho anti-fascist fighter. But through all the work and the sacrifices I made to be so involved, I became a leader. The male leaders were seen as leaders just through their social capital.
J: Are there systems in place that make organising accessible for people to come in, is there support that makes it easy to engage with?
M: Depending on the type of activism that you’re doing, it can be more or less accessible. There’s always a sacrifice in safety and direction. In anti-fascism, there is clearly a big divide when it comes to gender and disability. If you do the kind of activism that demands that you’re on the streets every weekend, that is inaccessible when you work on weekends, have children, or aren’t that physically able. Likewise, if you make sacrifices to be part of that type of activism, it takes a toll on your health, physical and mental. In my case, I never wanted to be the person running from the cops at a demonstration, but I did that. I felt like a traitor for ducking into a side street to save myself. All the discussions about making things more accessible never led to anything
A: I suppose it depends on what you mean by support? If you mean support in a formal way, not that I have found, perhaps I am not looking though! To be fair, I have often considered joining various online groups that offer support for mental health etc, but I know myself well enough that I would end up being the supporter!
It’s also down to being in a community that isn’t totally accepted by society, still on the periphery. So unless there is support within, then seeking it outside is problematic.
How to be genuine and congruent and safe all at once? Censoring/hiding is hard work, too much hard work and it defeats the purpose of asking for support. Informally, I will seek out friends who I trust, who understand, but I often feel like a burden or frustrated by suggestions of do a, b, or c and that will solve everything.
J: What about support for people who are no longer able, or less able to engage with activism? If people are injured, if they get ill, or if they just cannot do it anymore?
M: In my experience, the only time I have seen an activist group be really supportive is when they are arrested and facing trial. I have never seen or experienced anyone trying to help someone when they are ill, when they are injured, when they need help with housework or child support or financial support.
J: What about within the sex worker community? Many people have physical or mental health stuff and/or are caring for children. We are aware that our work is often very isolating, so some activism can be around creating social spaces.
M: Yeah, building community links. There is an online community where you can say: ‘I’m struggling with this’. I’ve lent money to people; others have helped me out. But it’s quite informal. For example, when I had a problem at work and had to go to a clinic, lots of people commented, messaged, reached out, and helped me with advice around sexual health. And of course sharing information about dangerous clients and things like that. I’ve never seen that sort of thing in the type of activism where I’m fighting against the state.
J: When you speak about online support groups for sex workers, I get chills, thinking of SESTA/FOSTA (link) legislation, how dangerous that has been for sex workers in the States, and terrible it could be if something similar happened in the U.K. We have these online Communities because we are isolated, because we are in that grey area of criminalisation. It’s a site of important social activism for safety.
M: I already knew some sex workers, but being able to access a space from home or from my phone, immediately when something happens, is so important. I can reach out and people are going to read it and help me out, it’s immense. I feel that if it was shut down then we would all be in a lot of trouble.
J: When dealing with structural inequality, for example: a lack of legal rights, access to work, housing, medical treatment, it’s no surprise that situation is exhausting. Yet it often feels like I’ve got an internalised trip switch which stops me from seeing the personal as political: I know it, yet I constantly forget it. Why is structural inequality often hard to recognise, why do these problems often feel as if they are purely personal?
M: When I was kicked out of the anti-fascist group that I was involved with, I saw it very much as a break-up. It was the same pain. And then I felt really isolated – because it had become my life. It was enmeshed with a personal romantic relationship as well which had already ended before I was kicked out of the Anti-fascist group.
I think I knew that I was burnt out long before I was able to put my hand up and say: okay, I fucked up. I kept going because I felt this sense of duty to keep going. I didn’t want to look at the consequences, at my relationship, breaking up and being homeless as a result, at my drug and alcohol use and how problematic that was. Eventually, when I was removed from the group, I felt like I was being punished. For working too hard, for being an addict, for being a woman, for being mentally ill.
A: From my own personal experience of building a support network with no knowledge of organisational structures or management experience, everything feels personal. Every little dig, criticism, failure hits like your best friend saying your aren’t their best friend any more. Perhaps this also relates to the isolation, trying to distance my personal life from what sometimes feels like a monster.
Talking about the GRA (editors note: A public consultation on reform of the Gender Recognition Act took place in 2018, amidst negative media and hate group activity against trans people. Documents relating to the governments consultation can be found here: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/reform-of-the-gender-recognition-act-2004) I’m ashamed to say I’ve sort of buried my head a bit because I find it all a bit much. I find it triggering and I’m not a person who is easily triggered. Because its been in the media so much, Ive literally cancelled every notification I have on it from trans-groups I’m part of. it makes me incredibly sad and vulnerable, its not like I’m one of the most visibly vulnerable people, its usually trans women or visibly non binary people. its not that i haven’t engaged with it, as TMSA we have engaged, but at a personal level I’m overwhelmed. In saying that I’ve encouraged people to do the consultation.
J: For me, when I take the stuff that lands on me personally, I really feel as if I failed. Whereas when I am able to name things like sexism or homophobia or stuff around class and access to resources, I then see my struggle as a shared situation with others and that’s empowering.
M: In terms of anti-fascism I felt like my burnout was punished because I’m a woman and because of my mental health. The other people in the group were unable to be kind about it. Some of them tried to be supportive, but there wasn’t enough that they could do because they were also stuck in the madness of their own addiction or other issues. They weren’t really able to be there for me in a way that made me feel like it was ok for me to burn out and take a step back. I felt like I was being punished rather than being cared for. I can think of certain people who didn’t like the idea of a woman being at the top of that informal hierarchy, talking too much or being too involved. So I had to go.
J: A question for ‘A’ would you have anything further to say about what struggles face the Trans community. Organising/advocacy in that community in particular? I’m aware you have spoken a little bit about the GRA and the consultation. Mostly about self protection due to overwhelm. I’d like to balance what ‘M’ has said about sex work, the importance of legal status or how not having rights affects our ability to organise, live and work. Could you comment on the media onslaught? Or any aspect of stigma?
A: It seems bizarre that I have been recognised as male in everything, passport, driving licence, NHS, all utilities in fact everything for exactly 10 years in May of this year, yet, I am still not legally recognised as male. If I were to die tomorrow, I would be female on my death certificate, I can’t get married and be down as male.
On a day to day basis that doesn’t necessarily affect me, it grates on me and yes, it feels like I am not a ‘real’ man, whatever that is. Right now if we want to be legally recognised the process involves collecting evidence from the past two years of living in our chosen gender. Legal documents like passports, driving licence, utility bills with name on, bank statements. That’s not too bad is it? Then we move on to the medical reports. A diagnosis letter from a gender specialist, then your GP has to also make a report, which costs money. There are forms to complete which makes the process complex and time consuming. Oh, and if you are non-binary, forget it, that’s just not happening as you are not considered ‘real’ at all. Once you have all that together you send it off to the GRP, (Gender Recognition Panel) not forgetting your payment for the privilege of being told something you already know. They meet on a regular basis to review these applications. A panel of strangers who have never met you.
I have read so many accounts of trans people stressing and worrying if they will be accepted or rejected because they haven’t had all ‘the surgeries’. Despite the fact I have lived as male for 10 years, my gender, my legal gender is decided by a panel. Imagine, trying to live and function healthily and productively on a daily basis knowing that you aren’t yet real. As if we haven’t got enough to deal with. There are trans people who don’t want to or don’t feel the need to go through this process and of course, that is their choice and should be respected, but the process is unfair and dehumanising.
The GRA (editors note: Gender Recognition Act) that is being so widely discussed (and argued over in the most hurtful and toxic ways by those who quite frankly hate trans people) is for the purpose of simplifying the process to make it easier for us to self determine and be legally recognised. No medical reports, no endless hoops, recognition of non-binary people with the inclusion of 16-17 year olds too. It would be a breath of fresh air and I know that I would be making the steps to go through that simple process to be recognised as a ‘real’ man.
The arguments against have been nothing short of scaremongering, the media have lapped it up, twisting and warping facts into a huge spewing mess of misinformation. TERFS* have revelled in this, their narrative of trans women aren’t women, and well, trans men aren’t men anyway as they are just ‘confused women’. The importance of this reform has been reduced to, among other things, safety in toilets. The ridiculousness of this would be laughable if it wasn’t so hateful. Let’s consider that for a minute. Unless there is a ‘Trans’ toilet facility I guess that I will be seeing you in the female toilet soon. By the way, I am very hairy with a full beard.
J: What’s your experience of burnout been? Are there things about the nature of your situation and your community that made it more difficult?
M: I think my mental health, and I’m including addiction there, has been a huge factor. Because of my personal circumstances as a woman, as a disabled person, as a migrant, as a queer person, I already know that I’m oppressed and I want to fight back. At the same time those inequalities in society make it more difficult for me to be part of activism. When I’m struggling to pay my rent, that affects my mental health. And if in addition I’m also fighting the state in some way, then the level of powerlessness that I can’t accept and want to change becomes so big that I’m overwhelmed.
A: I have boundaries in particular relating to my work as a therapist, It takes effort to keep them in place but to some extent that also cancels out my some of spaces of support. The enormity of activism/advocacy needed, It’s intensity, it feels constant. Because talking about my group alone there is so much support needed in employment, dealing with the NHS, which includes gender clinics, its as basic as people needing to feel safe to go to toilet safely,, its basic human needs. theres so much that needs to change. Lets not forget mental health.
Media ‘battering’. I use the word battering because it feels accurate, it feels like mental and emotional abuse, like being in a relationship with that constant undercurrent always there.
In my experience Burnout = nothing left to give, avoiding reading, intolerance of those needing support, depression, hopelessness, too much to bear.
J: Are there any things that would have helped? What did you need? What do you need?
M: There have been some areas of activism where gender was one of the biggest problems, others where my level of education was an issue. But I think mental health has been the biggest one. I find this very weird. I can put a lot of time and effort into activism, but I wouldn’t be able to do the same into a job. A normal job like working in a shop does not give me the level of validation and the ‘high’ of activism. So it becomes this catch-22 situation where I want and desire activism, and at the same time it destroys me.
A: Boundaries and keeping them safe for me and for those I am supporting.
being heard. I’ve been in situations where I would talk to people over night if they were suicidal. I can’t do that anymore, I had to look at the rescuer behaviour.
TMSA although recognised by many isn’t instantly recognised like CliniQ ( explanitory note editor) for example. Lack of funding to do more work but lack of energy to even make that work if funding was there, we have had opportunities to apply for funding, but with that funding we didn’t have the energy or people to do it. Volunteering involved ridiculous hours, i think its down to acknowledging that grass roots organisations are actually there, to having funding that is more accessible without hoop jumping for small amounts of money. To have more support and less pressure around finding small chunks of money without having to do an lot more work to get it. We found it easier to crowd fund that go for formal funding which says something.
J: Are there structures that you would make for yourself or in groups that could help?
M: There has to be a big culture change around the workload that each person gets. Every time I’ve been involved with something, I feel so stretched out and like I need to get more people involved. Sometimes it feels like other people don’t know what to do or have other things going on, so you don’t feel you can ask them to take some of the workload. In some cases I would feel like it’s a waste of time to explain to a person how to do a task rather than just do it myself. Activism is one of those things where you hit the ground running as soon as you get involved, or you just fizzle out onto the sides if you can’t learn quickly: how to work with people, what strategies are better for the type of activism that you’re doing etc.
J: I also think about those situations that are not about advocating. There’s the basic day-to-day stuff of: What if I can’t pay the rent? What if I can’t get medical treatment?
M: What if I can’t get food? What if I’m too enmeshed in activism that I don’t feed myself properly and then become ill? What if I’m an addict and my using is getting out of control and it’s affecting other people and myself? I witnessed and actually experienced all of these things and I don’t feel like there’s enough understanding and support within our communities. Some people are interested in talking about mental health, but we always get stuck in the problems and find it very difficult to look at solutions.
J: Apart from activist burnout, we often talk about how we replicate structures that we hate and that are not good for us within our own communities. Because we’re part of the system, not separate from it.
M: We are aware of it but we don’t know how to change it.
J: Yet activism and communities of support have provided some of the most transformative, exciting and sustaining times of my life. Is there anything you’d say about how powerful the actions of ordinary people have been in your life?
M: I have seen moments where people have come together, and that has been very powerful. Unfortunately, I’ve also seen so many times when the state or ourselves within our community have ground each other down.
A: Team members, members of TMSA, stepping out of their comfort zones to help others, they make my heart soar. Having grown up being very aware of being different – from the age of six but not having the language to talk about it. It was incredibly lonely, it was incredibly isolation. I simply don’t want any one else to feel the same. If i didn’t do this I might have more free time, but it’s given me a purpose. I’m immensely proud, not in a big headed way. I’m very proud. I know I’ve made a mark, left something. I see how other member of the group help others, they leave chunks of their lives, evidence of it on the board. I know how others have struggled and yet they still find time out of their day to help others.
J: What things are you currently doing and are particularly constructive?
M: Currently trying to get the state to decriminalise sex work, to make it safer, in England and Wales. I’m involved in some smaller, more private types of activism, like having a sober film club I’m very excited about.
I think that is a positive way of socialising with other activists without being surrounded by alcohol and drugs. To be able to talk about politics but also be able to wind down and be more relaxed rather than just constantly fighting against the system. Just to check in and have these moments where we can actually say where we are at, and try and foster a more supportive environment within groups. I still feel burnt-out with what I’m currently involved with, but at the same time there is more checking in with each other.
A: Trans Pride gives me, hope, happiness, a reason, warmth, a boost. Feedback from group members: I see people come through their journeys, who are at the beginning of that, and they years later that come through all of it, its very satisfying, even if you don’t know them personally at all. people write to you saying thank, letting you know they have been able to access hormone or surgery. Seeing the results of my work
J: Have you accessed any specific burnout or trauma support?
M: I went on an activist retreat 3 years ago now, a few months after the big break-up with this group I had been involved with. I had a weekend there where I was on my own in a hut, and the therapist that I had been speaking to on the phone saw me for a few hours each day. It was very useful for me to be removed from the situation. Also it was the first time I could be completely honest about activism with someone who was both a mental health professional and an activist. Any other time that I had tried to broach the subject with professionals, things like being told that I might have a personality disorder came up. Someone from the NHS or from a university could not quite understand where I was coming from.
A: No, although my personal counselling each week serves me well in this respect. Actually I wouldn’t know where to look for anything specific!
J: Closing comments?
M: I would say there needs to be a change in activist culture to be more inclusive but also more supportive of each other. Generally: don’t wait until you’re so exhausted that you can’t carry on, just stop. There has to be more sustainability.
A: I’ve never considered myself as being an activist, i don’t even think i knew what the word meant. I always thought that was a person who went out on the street and shouts. it seems very strange to think of myself with that label when everything happens behind closed doors. I tend to leave that out on the streets vocal stuff to those who might be better at it, my strength lie with support, but i think there is room for everybody. Maybe it would be good self care to go out and do some yelling.
J: Thank you.
Mafalda is an anarchist, queer, migrant, sex worker and recovering addict. She has been involved in various areas of activism, from the 2011 student movement against fees and cuts, to anti-fascism, feminism and sex worker rights. Her current interests are prison abolition, surveillance, decolonisation and films.
Alec is a trans man/man. He has been involved in trans-masculine advocacy and support since founding TMSA-UK in 2011. He volunteers for an LGBT charity as a Counsellor and is also in private practice.
Jet is an activist, writer, researcher and performer. Working as part of marginal communities and committed to mutual aid in various forms for the last 25 years.
*TERFS: Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminism: a term coined in the 1980’s to distinguish those who excluded transpeople from those who formed inclusive communities. The term is related to a similar practice of SWERF’S: Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminism.