So one year, I was asked to speak at the Dyke March. I was flattered, but I’ll say right here – I blew it. I was absolutely terrified to speak with this group of women and felt like I had nothing to say. I was super anxious and I did not prepare and it was horrible. I sat in our car beforehand having a full-fledged anxiety attack.
It was 2009. I was still new in my job and feeling overwhelmed. I taught a lot of classes so I was comfortable speaking in front of groups, but there was something about this experience that made me feel anxious. My mistake was not planning – if I had written down what I wanted to say and read my notes, I would have at least been acceptable.
I have no idea what I said. As I spoke, I kept scanning the crowd and imagining everyone thought I was stupid and ridiculous and had no credibility. It was the quintessential “I’m a fraud and they just figured it out” moment. And I couldn’t salvage it. It was a horrible moment. I felt like I had let down the event organizers and the spirit of the event and people who read my blog and all of humanity.
I’m pretty sure that I started to cry after the speaking was over and Laura hustled me to the car. It was truly sad and I almost didn’t march.
But I did. And then we had dinner with an old friend of Ledcat’s and that was fine. And I lived to march another year and another year. I didn’t ruin anything and no one ever brought it up to me – Ledcat can’t even remember it.
Here are some photos! I can tell how tough this was on me because almost none of the photos include anyone’s face. I usually dart around and capture better shots. I just walked and clicked.
That’s how terrible anxiety can be – I’m among a group of like-minded peers who are all about being supportive and helpful and “get” what it is like to be queer, a woman, disabled and so forth. It is the one of the few queer events that actively promoted accessibility – always having a vehicle so that those with limited mobility could participate. I didn’t know most of the women, but the very reason that brought them to the Dyke March – of all spaces – should have reassured me. I should have felt reassured and liberated and okay no matter what. I should have felt safe.
But it didn’t. Sometimes I think that I do fine with either friends or strangers – it is the casual acquaintances that get me all tangled up in my expectations and insecurities and trepidation. I am fine talking on the radio to tens of thousands of people. I can handle television fine. But when I’m around these amazing queer folks who make the world better with actions big and small and do so in the face of a lot of adversity, I feel like a fraud.
Lest you think this is just about the Dyke March, let me assure you – it is not. They are a terrific bunch of folks now known as the Dyke and Trans March. It just an example of a situation where you would think a lesbian blogger would NOT have anxiety about social interactions, right? Wrong.
That’s how it works – it hits you even in the best of circumstances. I didn’t even know that I had social anxiety in 2009 so I had no tools or skills to cope with this situation. I instantly internalized it as a reflection on my character weakness and lack of value to the dyke community. And I felt like I had to make it up to them so I began a massive amount of lobbying around police protection to offset the harm I believe I had done by giving such a terrible speech.
May is Mental Health Month so I urge you to stop and think about how you can make your event more accessible to people living with mental illness such as social anxiety. These are a few suggestions that work for me.
- Be direct that your event is welcoming and inclusive of people with different abilities. The statement about the truck for people who wanted to ride along is perfect – a clear and specific commitment to making the event accessible.
- Promote your event to communities that might have networks or relationships with people who are differently abled.
- Designate some greeters. Assuming everyone will mingle is not a good idea. If you have some extroverts, ask them to go around and welcome people individually. That can make all of the difference.
- Have some water on hand. A few extra bottles, etc. Many of take meds that dehydrate so that’s another small way to help people participate.
- DO invite people with disabilities to speak. I wish I could redo my experience speaking to the Dyke March – I would love to tell these wonderful neighbors what they mean to me and what the Dyke March represents to me personally. But I doubt I would ever have the guts to attempt it. So I’ll just say it here.
- If you can incorporate MH advocacy or outreach into your event, excellent. Ask Persad to set up a table or distribute some flyers. Take advantage of the chance to get people connected with even more supports than they may have.
- If you have a pre or post event, try to have at least some of it be not at a bar.
Creating safe spaces requires us to think beyond the idea that marriage equality and queer bashing are disconnected from sexism, ageism and ableism. Now that I know what is going on, I can own what happened in 2009 and try to let it go. That’s my part in this.
You never know who is struggling, my friends. Your part is to pay a little closer attention and see how you can be helpful.