“Ask Kai: Advice for the Apocalypse” is a column by Kai Cheng Thom to help you survive and thrive in a challenging world.
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I recently got out of an abusive relationship with an organizer/artist within the QTPOC community. Over the course of our relationship, she continually pointed out my “problematic” behaviour to shame me for not being inclusive enough in my work and undermined my achievements because of the privilege that I hold. In this way, she has planted some seeds of deep self-doubt in me.
I have become increasingly paranoid when entering community spaces because I don’t know what has been said about me. When I tell people about her abusive behaviour, they are quick to defend her. I’m seriously questioning my friendships with a few people, but don’t feel like I can fully cut them out because we exist in the same social or work circles. I’m a queer artist and afraid that if I do so, my livelihood will be at stake. I’m in great distress because I am unable to escape this relationship within my community and I feel like I have nowhere else to go.
I am so sorry to hear that you are dealing with this precarious situation. As those of us who work in the arts know all too well, the queer and trans artistic community is small. Personal relationships often become entangled with artists’ livelihoods and working experiences—even more so for queer and trans artists of colour, who share even tighter circles of kinship and collaboration. I want you to know that what is happening is not your fault, and that you have the right to leave relationships without the fear of reprisals or punishment in your working life. You have the right to access art, community and the economic resources you need, no matter what.
The “seeds of self-doubt” that you mention are important to address. Unfortunately within the queer community, the use of social justice language as a tool of abuse has become a very real phenomenon. Indeed, I believe that we sometimes engage in this abusive behaviour unknowingly, in the same way that some religious groups use spiritual language abusively in the belief that they are being righteous.
While activists’ terms and ways of seeing the world are important and powerful tools for inciting social change, their power can also be abused when used in personal relationships. And while I can’t speak definitively about your particular situation, I do always feel concerned when I hear about people being shamed for “problematic” behaviour by their partners and friends (you didn’t specify whether the abusive relationship in question was romantic/sexual or more platonic, Anonymous, and I don’t want to assume). In general, I would feel concerned about a dynamic of repeated shaming in any relationship.
It may be helpful to distinguish here that it is possible for a social justice-based critique to be correct while still not being contextually appropriate. That is to say, it’s possible that your work could stand to be more inclusive (I’m not in a position to judge, obviously, but I imagine most artists could be more inclusive/progressive in some way). However, it is not appropriate for a partner or friend to use this critique to make you feel bad about yourself, manipulate you or cut you off from the people and things that you love.
In a healthy relationship, there is room for critique and disagreement even if legitimate, honest feedback about our flaws and mistakes makes us feel bad, defensive or even guilty. However, especially in a relationship that is meant to be long-term and mutually nurturing, critique is meant to empower us and help us grow.
That doesn’t mean our loved ones can never get mad at us, or that they have to “baby” us through our process, but it does mean that a healthy relationship holds room for us to make amends, improve and move on—even if the relationship has to end. Indeed, a key sign of a healthy relationship is openness to things ending if they aren’t working out, as opposed to a constant demand for the other person to improve in ways that are unreasonable or impossible.
In her seminal text, All About Love: New Visions, Black feminist author bell hooks describes love as a “willingness to extend one’s self in order to facilitate the spiritual growth of oneself or another.” She challenges the notion that emotional connection alone is enough to qualify as love, arguing that an openness to mutual learning, compassion and growth are key to a loving relationship.
I would urge you to look back at the whole of your relationship with this organizer/artist, Anonymous, and to trust your own sense of what went on. Were they open to self-reflection, or was their criticism directed in only one direction? Were they critiquing you in order to help you grow as an artist? Or were they making you feel afraid and ashamed in order to gain control over you?
When it comes to your other relationships in the queer, artistic community, it may be helpful to remember that individuals with abusive behaviour patterns are often abusive in many parts of their lives. Personally, I have found that such individuals are often tolerated (and even enabled) in artistic scenes where they have power and influence over other people’s access to income and acclaim.
So when people defend this person who abused you, they may simply be afraid of acknowledging the truth. What this means is that you may not be alone in your experience with this individual, Anonymous—there are likely others in the community with similar experiences. If someday you should ever become aware of such a person, you might be able to work together to increase safety for each other, in whatever form that takes.
In the meantime, I would suggest attending to your immediate needs for physical safety. If you are in danger of physical violence or immediate, severe harm, I would suggest seeking emergency services as soon as possible, such as an emergency hotline, a shelter for survivors or other suitable services. Physical safety and access to basic resources are the first building blocks to being free from abuse.
Next, you might consider—carefully and intentionally—developing a strong support network that is “immune” to the abusive individual’s social power. It might be easiest to begin with people who are not socioeconomically invested in the arts. If you have close friends that you trust outside the sector, now could be a good time to start deepening those relationships and asking for help from those who have the emotional capacity (it’s always a good idea to explicitly check if someone has capacity before asking for support). You might seek out a therapist or counsellor, revisit old social scenes or try out new ones and do research on professional opportunities in your field that aren’t influenced by the abusive person.
Even starting with just one person who believes you and who doesn’t have any connection to the abusive individual can open up a different world of possibilities. Once you have a solid base of support, you might consider seeking out individuals in the queer arts community that you trust and let them know about your experience. The idea here is that, as you develop more relationships that are able to hold space for you and sustain you, the amount of power that the abusive person has over you will diminish—hopefully to the point where you feel able to make whatever choices feel best for you. Those could include going public with what happened, simply avoiding the abusive person in perpetuity or otherwise setting boundaries in some way.
When it’s friendships that you are questioning, Anonymous, I would suggest that times like these reveal people’s true colours. Our crises show us which people we can trust. If you need to keep people who don’t support you in your life (and unfortunately, many of us do for survival reasons), then harm reduction may be the key: Stay polite if you have to, keep the interactions limited to what’s relevant for work and keep your eyes open for potential collaborations with more trustworthy colleagues. You don’t need to explain to them if you don’t want to—you don’t owe intimacy to anyone.
A metaphor that I like to use for situations like that of a growing tree: A seed starts off small and takes time to put out roots and rise out of the ground. Similarly, when we are entrenched in a community with someone who has been abusive to us and cannot fully “escape” them right away, we often need time to make connections, widen our networks and eventually break free. Remember that trees are capable of growing through tough and infertile ground—roots and shoots break through concrete and stone, given enough time.
I believe that all survivors of abuse are that strong, Anonymous. Even if it takes us a long time; even when it feels impossible. We all have the strength to get free.