Column: When you try your best but you don’t succeed – Cambridge and activism

Alice King 9 October 2017

One of my closest friends matriculated while I was JCR LGBT+ rep. St John's at the time, despite its size, had about five queer people total (it has VASTLY improved since), and I was hoping for enough new LGBT+ freshers that the events I tried to run might actually involve more people than just me and my college husband sharing a bottle of wine in my room. I did my part of the JCR freshers' talk wearing a basketball shirt that said GENDER IS OVER in big letters. The second or third time I met this friend in person, they told me that seeing me in that shirt had been the first big sign to them that Cambridge was a place where they, as a queer non-binary trans person, might find a community of people like them.

In between the genuinely emotional moments like this – the moments where you realise that, even in a small way, you really have made a difference for someone – activism is fucking hard. It can be especially hard at Cambridge, where a big portion of the stuff that needs to be changed in people's day to day lives to make the uni accessible and welcoming to them as marginalised students has to be changed thirty-one separate times. The things that can make the biggest difference – gender neutral toilets, wheelchair access – are often those that affect fewer students, and so can often involve a long and difficult fight for something that doesn't end up widely celebrated, or even noticed. One of the most important things I've learned in three years' worth of Cambridge activism is that the most thankless work is often the most important.

I read The Politics of Everybody by Holly Lewis over the summer, in which she criticises certain kinds of activism that put the majority of their resources into ‘awareness campaigns’. My instinct was a knee-jerk defence of the various campaigns, such as Make No Assumptions, that have been my babies over my years at Cambridge; but on reflection, I saw her point. Awareness campaigns are important for opening conversations, but people talking doesn’t necessarily equal effective action. Peeling open the boxes of badges and zines you’ve designed is a lot more fun than meeting with endless committees (sometimes hungover, at 9am, during May Week…) in order to push through a change that, even if achieved, leaves you with very little immediately tangible result. But both are necessary parts of an activism seeking to change both social perceptions and material conditions.

How do we deal with the knowledge that sometimes things we put days of time and energy into will yield neither recognition nor results? I’ve met people who are genuinely so well-adjusted that they seem to manage on the self-sustained inner glow of knowing they’ve made an effort towards positive change. I’m not. I’m insecure, frequently bitter, and more than a little vain, and before I can rationally collect myself and analyse what the weak points of my efforts were and how future activism can be more effective I need someone to tell me they’re proud of me, damnit. I need to hear that my work is valuable, even if it doesn’t always work out as well as I dream it could have. And I want to reassure everyone who feels the same way that that’s not an unreasonable need. Aggressions, micro and macro, will always be around to invalidate who we are and what we do. It’s ok to want – and ask – to be validated for a change.