I woke up this morning with a wood-green, earthly-bound journal of words, affirmation, love, and admiration held close to my chest. In fact, I’d fallen asleep in somewhat of a fetal position, with both arms wrapped around this book that instantly meant the world to me when I received it. Behind my back, my girlfriend had asked my closest friends and family to send me Birthday Wishes that she could compile and hand-write into a journal, and deliver to me on my birthday (which was exactly 3 weeks ago).
I never received this journal on my birthday in part because there were delays in receiving submissions from my inner circle, which is often filled with warrior and trailblazer schedules (read: hard to get a hold of), but also because my sister in Nigeria hadn’t had access to Internet in a while due to the chronic power outages that plague the city. This was, of course, one of the more important submissions and so she had to wait till she received this, days after my birthday. More time elapsed because I’m one of the hardest people to surprise, often “taking matters into my own hands.” So finding the time and space to work on my birthday journal (while listening to me whine and complain about no on caring about me) was probably, er, challenging.
The thing is, when you’re a warrior woman like me, you can’t sit around waiting to be rescued, or wooed, or even given a birthday cake. You see, I’m often surrounded by soldiers, community members, even mentors, who aren’t in tune with my personal needs — that simply isn’t their role. Thus, to avoid being disappointed or feeling lonely or like no one cares, I’ve learned to self-motivate, and self-care for myself. That said, this particular month was harder than usual. I won’t go into too much detail, but let’s just say that it’s been difficult to focus on perceived public successes and/or celebrate anything — my birthday, and most especially my award — when there’s been so much happening in my personal life that’s left me feeling powerless, vulnerable, and confused.
I recently came out to my mother, who’s still in mourning as we speak, and thus providing a daily source of pain for me. Yet, in spite of this, I’ve had to keep up with the work I do here in Boston and radiate the positivity, openness, and optimism that I know is necessary when leading any project. My girlfriend had first-hand knowledge of this dilemma and I’m sure was bummed when delays kept preventing her from giving me the journal, which she no doubt believed was the “boost” I needed to get through this month.
My sister finally got around to sending in her birthday message — the final piece to complete the gift. But even after my girlfriend had received the words from all the people that really mattered, finding a place and time away from my eyes and around a tight ‘first-lady’ schedule of networking events, birthday parties, and of course, downtime, took on the plot twists of a James Bond movie. I imagined the Mission Impossible theme playing in the background as she crept from room to room in our apartment that’s too small for my boisterous personality, sneaking in handwritten passages in the bathroom, for instance, as she pretended to brush her teeth (or do something else) while I chopped onions for dinner in the kitchen, most likely singing loudly to RENT or WICKED. Ah, the joy and frustrations of intimacy.
But last night I finally received my gift: messages of love, encouragement, and admiration from my closest friends and family, a reminder of who I am to the people I love and admire the most. And even though it was late, their messages were timely, as they came the night before I have to get on a stage and accept my Lavender Rhino Award from the LGBT History Project in front of a room full of activists that I really don’t know.
What a lot of people don’t know about me — or any activist for that matter — is that though we are constantly surrounded by people, we often suffer from self-imposed isolation. We suffer withdrawal periods from the same communities that we love so much and so hard. I’m pretty confident making this statement because every leader I’ve ever met has told me the same thing: leadership is very lonely. I won’t say it’s lonely at the “top” because I don’t feel like my work can be characterized in this way. I don’t feel any “higher” than the people I care about and thus, fight for. What I do feel is that I’m often at the very center, speaking to, for, and against people all around me, from within and from afar, or at the very edge, pushing the envelope and leading the charge. What this means for me is that I’m often surrounded by strangers, people who don’t really know who I am — what my favorite color is, where I’m from, what I like to do when I’m not “fighting” — and whose connections to me hang ever so lightly on the thread of issues.
Knowing that this camaraderie, this different kind of love is, at best, conditional (what happens if I switch positions tomorrow?) can really mess with you, especially when life happens; when you all of a sudden realize that you’re not superhuman because you’ve gotten sick, or the person who promised you forever dumped you right before the holidays, or you’ve just gotten fired from your job and have no health insurance and your cats are hungry. Sometimes, all you want is to be able to lay down your armor and cry, because nothing’s fair, people suck, you’re tired and you wish you had the money to purchase a small country (with no people in it) so that you can escape from all of this and just be.
It’s easy to lose yourself in a sea of superficial love when you don’t have real friends who know you, plainly, who can look out for you and send you TLC right when you need it. This is why I am SO grateful for all the connections I’ve made over the past four years. I have met some incredible people. I have experiences the most transformative years of my 20s. And yet, I know it’s only going to get better and harder to stay grounded in who I am and what I stand for. That’s why I am MOST grateful for the personal relationships that have sustained and nourished me all these years, including for those of you who I’ve only known for a short while.
To my girlfriend, I know that surprising me with this wonderful gift couldn’t have been easy. So, thank you for staying with it, and for collaborating with the universe to give me this wonderful and timeless gift that all my close friends had a part in, and on the day that I needed it the most.
To my friends and family who contributed to this journal, thank you for keeping me in your hearts even though I know I sometimes appear to be far away; thank you for your constant reassurance that I am not alone, and that I am loved deeply and dearly by you all.
And to all of the people who have supported me as a warrior woman, as an activist, as a sister, as a friend, as a partner, know that I value you deeply, that I have let you into my heart and I cherish you with every fight, with every tear, with every fond memory of peace, play, and justice. YOU are the reason I continue to fight. YOU are my Lavender Rhinos. Thank you for this gift of unconditional love, for it has award me the greatest honor and privilege in my lifetime, which is to be myself.