A few years ago, a close friend of mine refused to offer me help when I asked them for it. I was experiencing one of the lowest periods of my life thus far. It was a time when it took all the will and nerve I had just to get out of bed in the morning. Facing the start of the day, I didn’t know how I was going to make it to the close. I was exhausted, I was scared and I was alone. When I asked this friend for help, feeling at the end of my rope, they said no. They were too busy, were struggling with stresses of their own, and did not have time to support me.
It was many months before we spoke personally again, and when we did I was doing much better. Even though I had been alone in my struggle, I had gotten through it alone–a feat I hadn’t believed I was capable of in the midst of it–and on the other side I was stronger, more confident and much more self-reliant. My friend apologized sincerely for what had happened, wanted to make amends and heal our friendship, and asked my forgiveness. I had to think long and hard about how to respond to this request–in fact, it took me a whole month. During that month I thought about how hurt I had been, how angry I still was. I thought about how terrifying it had been to turn to the only person I thought I had, and be rejected. I went back and forth, wondering if my feelings were legitimate or not, what I owed my friend, what they owed me. Finally, I was ready to confront them. I said no. I forgave them for their moment of weakness, but told them I could not trust them again. I told them I needed people in my life, people close to me, who would respect me and protect me through any scenario, and that they were no longer one of the those people.
This was one of the hardest conversations I had ever had, not only because I had to return to a difficult period, but because I had to let go of someone I really loved. I was afraid I was wrong, that I wasn’t being fair, that I wasn’t being as forgiving as I should. Though I had rehearsed what I needed to say hundreds of times, I didn’t think I was strong enough to say it, to hold myself and my friend to it. Holding people accountable, standing up for myself and saying no are not things I have historically been good at. But when I did, I felt strong and accomplished in a way I never had before. I felt myself blooming, as though I was being fed, being cared for in a way I didn’t know I had needed. I felt more respected and protected than I had ever before in my life. And I felt so because of something I did, a decision I was making, not because of someone else.
This last year an intimate partner hit me for the first time. While the moment was one of a new kind of sadness and betrayal, it was also one where I realized how much I had grown. I recognized a situation in which I was not being treated well, and I ended it immediately. I did not accept alcohol as an excuse. I decided that a sincere apology did not warrant my reentering the relationship. I knew I deserved better, and I held on to that belief as a partner attempted to belittle me, to play off my insecurities, and to convince me this was the best I could do.
For some people these steps seem logical, and these abilities come easily. For me they do not. I can think of times in my very recent past when I was less convinced of my value and my power. I don’t think I would have been able to get out and stay out of that relationship in the way I was able to this time around. It has taken struggle, it has taken hard and lonely moments, and it has taken loads of active practicing. But I have gotten better at saying no. I have learned that it is my right to decide who gets to be a part of my life, and that I can choose who I am willing to fight for.
What had kept me from having these realizations earlier was my fear of being selfish. I had learned somewhere in my activism and community work that to say no was to take a negative stance, a contradictory approach. It seemed cold, closed off, a means of shutting down other members of my community instead of joining with them in collaboration. As I was forced to learn these lessons, however, placed in situations where I knew I could only respect myself by saying enough is enough, I found that no can come from a wholly different place than I had originally understood. In cases where one is faced with violence, with utter disregard, with a total lack of respect for one’s personhood, saying no is anything but selfish. On the contrary, not only is it necessary for self care and preservation, it is a form of accountability and responsibility to protect the value others may not recognize. And just as individual persons are faced with such treatment, so, too are the communities to which we belong. What I have really been learning lately is that not only is saying no not at all in contradiction with building community, it is exactly what our aligned collectives must learn to do if we are to be self-empowered as we confront the forces that devalue us.
The better I get at saying no, the more I see how it makes me a better partner, brother, and family member, and how deeply it informs and empowers the work I do as an activist, educator and agitator in larger collectives. I have found myself saying no to many more things lately, all things I once did not believe I had the right or the choice to. I have been saying no to public school classrooms as the only space in which I can be a teacher, no to a form of education that bans the conversations that are at the tips of my and my students tongues everyday–the things we most need for our survival. I have been saying no to the club scene, and alcohol as an inevitable component of social interaction. I am saying no to relationship models that force me to give up any piece of my mental, physical or emotional health I am unwilling to. I’ve been saying no lately to allyship–not because I don’t need allies, but because I am in a space where the healing of queer people of color, of poor and working queer people, of queers who have a queer relationship to more than just sex and love, is precisely what I require. And what I say no to today I may be ready to say yes to tomorrow. The decision to change is mine, also.
What I feared for the longest was that to say no was to care solely for one’s self. Sometimes no seemed brash, other times it seemed like a retreat, but it was always something I felt guilty for saying. What I have learned is that saying no is about the profoundly radical power of being discontented, and the ability to listen to yourself when you are. It is about recognizing what you need, what you are deserving of, and when you’re not getting it. It is about the clear vision of what the relationships, the struggles, the world you want can look like, and being clear in demanding that vision be honored. It is about the plural as much as the personal. It is about a moratorium on blaming ourselves and each other for poverty, racism, assault, deportation, and the other institutions that tell us the problems we face are the result of our own personal shortcomings. It is about consent. It is about calls for justice and an end to violence that do not rely on further violence–the prison system, policing, militarism–to achieve their goals. It is about holding governments and movements accountable, as much as it is about our partners and friends. And perhaps most importantly, it is about hearing the no’s of others, of holding ourselves accountable when those we love and care for say no to us. All of these are values our communities need to incorporate into their movements just as we are learning to incorporate them into our daily lives.
No is not a wall, it is the fierce and compassionate force that breaks the wall down. And when we say it with fierce compassion, we love our whole communities as we love ourselves.