The Darker Side of Activism.
Updated: Oct 11, 2022
Guest writer Yasmin Benoit (she/her) sheds light on the challenges one can face as someone who puts themselves forward as a public figure in support of their community. These challenges are rarely realised from an outsider's perspective. However, there are also moments of empowerment and significant meaning, too.
by Yasmin Benoit
Growing up, the prospect of becoming an activist was not on my radar. I definitely didn’t think asexuality was something I’d end up being outwardly vocal about. Yet, this is the path I’ve found myself on. It’s a fulfilling role, but one which also comes with high expectations from others, profound responsibility and nuanced difficulties. Activism also requires making yourself vulnerable, and accepting that there will often be personal and emotional sacrifices to make along the way.
I often say that I realised I was asexual when my peers seemed to realise that they weren’t – i.e., early puberty. I discovered the term asexual when I was fifteen years old and in secondary school, where asexuality had a growing presence on certain corners of the internet. However, the overwhelming whiteness of that presence prevented me from truly identifying with the label publicly. When I started working as a model, spending more time on social media became a compulsory part of my job. I couldn’t help but notice that asexual representation in the queer community and wider society wasn’t really present, and if it was, it was mostly represented by white people. It was then that I realised that I needed to be more vocal, and forge a space out there so people like me could feel represented.
From the outside, I’m sure this seems exciting. Combined with other aspects of my work, activism can mean participating in magazine interviews, going to events such as red carpets, parties and industry networking events. All of these things can come with having a platform on social media and a voice in the wider community that people pay attention to.
However, it’s important to acknowledge that there are also difficulties that come with being more of a public figure who speaks about issues outside of their community. Firstly, the life of an activist is not stable, and never constant. We’re always reacting to current affairs and issues as they develop in our society - steered by our values, we shape our thoughts (often reactively), determining how we can use our voice most effectively. As you can probably imagine, being an activist isn’t financially stable, either.
Whilst we don't become activists for the money, or initially imagine it to become a career, as you find yourself constantly working to benefit a wider cause, it can’t be ignored that for many, activism becomes a full time job.
When you're spreading yourself across multiple projects, volunteering to help other people, studying to remain informed, refining your skills, continuously driving change across different areas, creating new resources and trying to stay connected to your community - the hours rack up. In turn, when you do become more recognised for your work as an activist, it can become more difficult to find and maintain more conventional employment away from this area.
The life of an activist can be predominantly filled with anxiety surrounding finances, which can be difficult for anyone.
However, the experience of being personally misrepresented in the media is one of the more unique aspects of an activist’s role in the public eye. My first experience with misrepresentation happened the moment I truly stepped into the ‘ace’ (asexual) community. I was attending the UK Asexuality Conference for the first time in 2018, where a TV channel was filming footage of the event for a documentary about asexuality. When the documentary aired, I was really disheartened. The members of the community who were interviewed were portrayed as child-like personalities.
I realised that the media preferred asexual people to be as a new alien species that needed to be discovered and observed as they struggled to navigate the world. The ‘asexual type’ was young, white and sympathetically pitiful. It was later that I realised that those who deviated from this mould would be met with even more backlash than those who didn’t. And I just so happened to break the mould.
The misrepresentation observed early on made me even more eager to unapologetically be my proud, Black, asexual self - even if people didn’t understand it.
I decided to use my voice, to stand up for my community and fight for our recognition, despite the fact that the media seems to focus on the supposed ‘contradictions’ between my work as a model and my asexuality. This has represented a real problem for me when thinking about my activism - third parties’ perceptions of how different parts of my identity don’t seem to ‘add up.’
Due to the scandalous depiction of me in the press, I have received negative reactions from audiences which read these publications, and the wider public. Considering the world of social media we live in, and the fact that I am putting myself out there as a public figure, I am very easy to find online, and therefore, anyone can send me any messages they like from behind the safety of a keyboard.
I’ve received death threats, racist abuse, violent sexual remarks. This wasn’t what I signed up for. I wish that people would remember that - despite how dehumanising it is to be reduced to pixels on a screen - we are just regular people trying to get by, like everyone else.
I remember hearing the age-old saying that when you’re ‘known’ for something, people treat you differently. I always assumed that ‘difference’ would be a positive one. In the age of social media, the definition of ‘public figure’ or even ‘celebrity’ has drastically changed. You can now be a regular person, with a normal job, who is perceived as a ‘leader’ - and treated as such.This isn't necessarily better. In fact, it means heightened criticism, less empathy and more dehumanisation - all without the protection of connections, wealth or a team of people to help you.
There’s little warning that activism can lead to being on the receiving end of such a phenomenon. I found myself in the position of a ‘leader’ soon after I became part of the ace community, and so never really had the chance to exist inconspicuously within it. I didn’t get to learn quietly or form connections as just another individual. I was quickly met with criticism, racism and exclusion from fellow aces.
However, there are some tips that I would like to share with aspiring activists out there, which they can use to help them avoid becoming overwhelmed by negativity and things that are ultimately out of their control:
Surround yourself with friends and ‘chosen family’ who you can trust to give their honest opinion and advice.
Try not to compare what you are doing to what others are doing.
Know your limitations - activism can be reactionary and wide-reaching, but don’t give into the pressure to say everything, do everything and know everything.
Always be cautious of doing projects with the press, and make sure you know all the details of scope before you agree to take part - ask for questions in advance where possible.
Set boundaries - agree with yourself that you will put your phone down and not look at it between x and y hours.
Make peace with the fact that sometimes you will make mistakes - own them, and use them as a learning experience.
When looking for management, make sure you get on with them, and ensure they have a clear impression of your ambitions and that they have your best interests at heart.
There is no good or right way of handling the demands and the challenges of activism. I remember seeing social media stars, celebrities and politicians alike fumbling under the weight of roles they may not have asked for, failing to handle criticism and backlash in the ‘right’ way. This is something I can now truly empathise with. There is no easy answer because humans aren't built for this para-social structure we now live in. I deal with backlash by making an example of it and turning it into a learning experience. I deal with the isolation and exclusion – inside and outside of my community – by being open about that experience in a bid to humanise myself, something difficult to do when you’re just pixels on a screen. I try hard to set boundaries in a space where we’re meant to be as constantly accessible and I accept my limits when I’m expected to be limitless.
Fortunately, activism can be a paying job, depending on how you do it. It too, can be a career, but the kind with no blueprint, no clear line of progression, no guaranteed opportunities. For me personally, working as a freelancer comes with a freedom that I’m grateful for, but it also equates to little downtime and continuous pressure to keep the momentum going – not just for my own survival, but also for my community.
Activism has afforded me amazing experiences. And the world, and especially the Queer community, needs more of us. I encourage people to use their voices for good, to educate and empower and to do what they can to make a positive impact on the world. After all, that is what activism truly is.
Yasmin is available to book as a speaker as part of sessions delivered by WE CREATE SPACE. You can find out more about her here. If you would like to enquire further, please get in touch with us via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
While you're here...
Did you know we consult with 100+ Businesses, ERGs and Change-Leaders providing bespoke corporate solutions? Through consultancy we design shared learning experiences, produce DEI insights and craft bespoke content that support individuals with strengthening their roles as change-agents within their communities and organisations. Find out more here.
We also organise FREE community events throughout the year! We offer a variety of ways to get involved - both online and in person. This is a great way to network and learn more about others' experiences, through in-depth discussion on an array of topics. You can find out what events we have coming up here. New ones are added all the time, so make sure you sign up to our newsletter so you can stay up to date!