It’s the sign of a good conference if you’re affected emotionally, but I generally prefer not to end up in tears.
I recently attended Sex Down South, a sex and sexuality conference in Atlanta. It’s a great event featuring sex educators and layfolk discussing sex, advocacy, and relationships in an array of lectures, panels, and workshops. One of the things I love about it is that it explicitly prioritizes the experiences of people of color and queer folk: perspectives that are often overlooked in discussions about sex.
This year’s theme was “The Politics of Pleasure,” and most talks explored that in some way: the idea that how we choose our partners is political, the difficulty of approaching consent around trauma survivors or when exploring complicated kinks, or the process of effective advocacy for healthier sexuality. It was heavy stuff, and by early in the third and final day I was socially exhausted.
I’m pretty introverted, so conferences inherently take a toll beyond the normal long days and lack of sleep involved. Additionally, I try to adhere to the concept of “take space/make space,”1 where people who are naturally quiet should try to make themselves heard and people who tend to talk a lot should pull back a bit and give room for others to speak. I was always the kid with the hand up in class and if I follow my instincts I can easily dominate a discussion without meaning to. Because of that I was working very hard to pay attention to how much social space I was taking up… to the degree that it was exacerbating my natural social anxiety.
On top of that exhaustion, I began experiencing a sort of impostor syndrome. I’m a genderqueer, transgender, non-binary person, and at the conference I was quite visibly so, wearing facial hair and mostly feminine clothes. Still, though, I had a disturbing and unsettling feeling of being “not queer enough.”
Being in a talk with people describing their experiences feeling unsafe as trans folk or feeling unable to be out in public as themselves or having difficulty with their partners reading them authentically began to take a toll. I felt very privileged: my partners are supportive, I’m read as masculine so people don’t really mess with me, I live in a neighborhood where I can walk to dinner at night in a skirt and makeup and not feel unsafe, and the fact that I’m white and well-educated gives me additional comfort that a lot of queer folks don’t have. As a result, I didn’t think I deserved the pain I was feeling.
This wasn’t something wrong with the conference, its organizers, or the speakers. It was something I was doing to myself: simultaneously feeling like I was about to take up too much space and feeling like I wasn’t good enough to contribute. I became visibly distraught to the point that people asked me what was wrong. I finally retreated to the “healing space” provided by the conference and cried in a corner.
My mistake that led to my breakdown was confusing compassion and charity with martyrdom. Recognizing the ways in which I have it easy is great: it gives me perspective and highlights areas where I might be unfamiliar with the struggles folks face. However, the privilege I carry doesn’t make my own pain any less valid, nor does it mean I don’t deserve the same kindness I try to extend to others.
“Take space/make space” isn’t a taxonomy. There aren’t “people who should take space” and “people who should make space.” Instead, everyone should take as much space as they need (whether in a discussion or in life at large) and those who have enough should make space for those who don’t. By focusing so strongly on suppressing myself and wondering if I was “queer enough” to deserve a seat at the table, I was depriving myself of some of the benefit I could have gained and I was failing to give others the faith that they would take up enough space on their own.
After collecting myself, I gave myself permission to be a bit less considerate. I paid attention to how much space I was taking, but I prioritized presenting myself authentically. And I assured myself: I am good enough. And I deserve to exist as me.
Have you had a similar experience of feeling inadequate or trying to be so generous that you hurt yourself in the process? Please share in the comments, if you feel willing and able.
- This concept is also commonly called “step up, step back.” “Take space/make space” is a better wording in a few ways. I haven’t been able to find a good source of either phrasing. ↩