Emily is a rising senior and is a Development Intern at Sanctuary for Families. Sanctuary for Families is a nonprofit that combats domestic violence and sex trafficking by providing a range of services for victims including legal, clinical, and economic empowerment.
Ever since I began studying women’s history, feminism, and social movements through this Moxie Project I keep returning to the issue of definitions. By definitions I mean, how to define a concept such as feminism so that I can discuss the issues that pertain to feminism. I struggle with identifying myself as a feminist, I believe, partly because I still don’t have a solidified definition of what feminism is. This is the issue I ran into when I was asked to comment on whether I believed the Pride Rally I attended last Saturday was a form of activism. In beginning to reflect on this question, I realized I wasn’t completely sure how to define activism. What does activism mean? So finding a definition was my first step.
I began by looking up the word in the dictionary. Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines activism as “a doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue.” I would certainly consider gay and lesbian rights, issues underlying the rally, to be controversial. But the event was organized, structured, and had a supportive and welcoming atmosphere. There were no screaming protestors or instances of outrageous protesting strategies. Instead there were speeches and performances that made it clear that the point of the rally was to raise awareness for the struggles facing the gay and lesbian community.
The rally also aimed to gain more support from any community members, not only those who are part of the gay and lesbian community, in order to work toward eradicating discrimination based on sexual orientation. The speakers detailed accounts of individual discrimination as well as examples of more widespread discrimination such as restrictive laws. Speeches and song performances: do these count as the radical, vigorous action I originally conceived? I would have to say no. Sure, these strategies moved me and were raising awareness for a cause. But is raising awareness for a cause enough to encompass the definition activism?
After thinking about the impact the rally had on me, I find myself considering the definition of activism to be a bit different than what I initially believed. I had never seriously considered the serious struggles facing the gay and lesbian community before as these struggles didn’t seem to pertain to my life. But after hearing Damian Furtch’s story of being beaten and teased for his decision to live as a gay man, I began to see that I too don’t think it’s right that any group of people be subjected to this kind of treatment. I also realized it’s important for everyone, not simply those in the gay and lesbian community, to become aware that this discrimination is wrong and needs to be addressed.
Social movements can only progress and work toward achieving their ultimate goal if there are a large group of supporters actively working to change the way society views certain issues. Perhaps I was under the wrong impression of what activism is. But my definition now includes any strategy that allows individuals to become aware of issues in need of address. So, yes, at least a part of activism is raising awareness.
Despite not being directly affected by the issues brought up at the rally including same-sex marriages and immigration laws, the rally allowed me to see the tough battles that have been fought and will continue to be fought if social change is going to happen. Because my eyes were opened to consider these issues in a new way, the rally serves as an excellent example of activism. Individuals are fighting, albeit more calmly, for acceptance and equal rights and these individuals are allowing me to recognize the importance of supporting the struggle. Maybe there is more to activism than raising awareness in the community, but raising awareness is a necessary first step.
This one rally won’t completely get rid of the discrimination facing the gay and lesbian community, but it did allow me and perhaps others like me, who don’t know much about this struggle, to acquire new perspectives. But this doesn’t mean it can’t be considered activism. Opening others’ eyes to issues in order to acquire more supporters is important. In order to make progress in mass movements toward social change, this initial stage of activism, which includes raising awareness, is key.