This was originally a paper for an anthropology class. Please excuse any potential hoity-toityness.
I have often received both criticism and approbation, both from the
right and the left, for engaging in discourse on topics related to
social justice, the core of the work that I do is driven by reasons not
immediately apparent to many.
It is often self-evident to outsiders why I engage in the work I do.
Few but the most deluded can ignore the systemic and institutionalized
injustices in our society. Racism, economic disparity, sexism,
homophobia... it’s all too clear that efforts need to be made in order
to correct these ills. Capitalism, empire, and the state all work to
oppress the working class and the policing of social movements warrants
One factor, however, to which little attention gets paid, is my
personal motivation and inspiration for engaging in this sort of work.
Far beyond the most obvious and superficial reasons-- I have been fired
from the Armed Services for being queer, I have been homeless-- is a
deeper connection to concepts that drive movements like the ones I have
taken part in.
Social movements often stand in stark contrast to the narrative
established by the ruling class, which states that social change and the
betterment of our fellow humans is one that must come descended from a
hierarchy of privilege. The wealthy and powerful would have us believe
that justice must come from above; either charity from the rich or
magnanimity from the state would grant us the resources or rights we
desire and deserve. With recent studies indicating the wealthy donate
little to charity and historical trends indicating the state is
primarily being used to advance the agenda of the already-powerful, this
is a narrative and idea that simply won’t do to correct the societal
injustices of our nation and planet. What instead is needed is
solidarity: where the oppressed, underprivileged, and poor stand
together to demand change and the betterment of the social order in
resistance to the goals and exploitation of the ruling class.
This concept first truly crystallized for me amidst a personal crisis
of an extreme degree that I faced in my own personal exploits. While the
example I outline below is but a microcosm of the concepts that I
espouse previous, it illustrated to me quite neatly that charity, asking
for help from those better off than I, is neither desirable nor
In February, 2009, I moved from Eugene, OR a newly-diagnosed
HIV-positive, unemployed 20-something with little in the way of goals or
plans for the future. After spending close to a year working in a porn
store, I secured a job at a local bathhouse located on Capitol Hill. I
was making an hourly wage that wasn’t half bad, had a partner that I
thought I was in love with, was accessing HIV treatment, and had a
lovely apartment with a great view. Life was good.
The bathhouse proved to be my downfall, however. Much like many gay
male-identified people, I had dabbled with hard drugs over the years. A
brush with addiction to cocaine had been overcome some time previous,
and an occasional brush with methamphetamine was not uncommon every few
months or so.
This changed in the bathhouse. The Seattle gay sex club scene is rife
with crystal meth use. This particular bathhouse even had someone living
in one of the rooms full-time who made brisk trade selling meth to
patrons. I, slowly, gradually, and finally explosively, became a
full-time meth user.
This was undoubtedly the darkest time of my life. I stopped reliably
taking my medications, to include both HIV and psychiatric medications. I
have a small frame, and what little weight I had started to melt away. I
stopped caring for my personal appearance, and my friendships with
non-users started to suffer. My relationship became troubled, with my
partner confused and baffled; a previously happy healthy Ian instead
became angry, brooding, prone to explosive outbursts. I sometimes didn’t
sleep for a week at a time. My job performance became erratic and
spotty at best; I always showed up to work (where I could get the drug
upon which I had come to depend), but the quality of my work suffered.
My life finally fell apart and I had no recourse but to admit I had a
problem. My partner, finding out that I was using, left me. I lost my
apartment. The only thing left I had was a job that enabled me to find
and use the drug that was slowly killing me. When I became homeless, I
too started living at the bathhouse, just up the stairs from the dealer
that gave me the substance that was destroying my life. I took a step
that was one of the harder things to do: I admitted I had a problem,
publicly and openly, and sought treatment.
In the weeks between my admission and my registration at an inpatient
addiction treatment facility, living at the bathhouse was clearly
untenable with my goals of getting better. I had to seek out another
place to stay; someplace where I would not use. I turned to my non-using
friends to try and find housing; none of my calls, messages, emails
were returned. Those best equipped to help me would not. I was left
without any recourse.
Except, of course, from my fellow addicts. Many of them were years-long
addicts, and while they still used and would not necessarily admit that
they had problems, they recognized the deep and disturbing problems in
their lives. They saw that I had made a choice to try and change, a
choice that many of them desperately wanted for themselves in their own
lives. In the end, the ones who took care of me and encouraged me most
were those who were themselves in the thrall of addiction.
I lived, in those weeks, on an addict’s couch. One addict, as the
weather was getting colder, made sure I had warm clothes. Several shared
their groceries with me and made sure I ate. While they were not able
to encourage me to quit my use immediately, they at least assisted me in
my other material needs and sent me off to treatment with well-wishes
and the hope that I would accomplish my goal, that of being meth-free.
This illustrated to me something crucial to gay meth culture in
Seattle. While it was a seedy scene driven by sex, drugs, and the
immediate gratification of baser instincts and wants, it was a cohesive,
if dysfunctional, community. While infighting occurred, mostly
squabbles over money and drugs, there was a sense of solidarity. We were
all sick. We were all living in fear of getting caught by police. We
were all in fear of overdose and death. So we helped each other to survive.
The juxtaposition of the reaction garnered from my non-using friends
and those who shared my addiction is stark. I asked for charity from
those best able to give it and it was denied; asking for help from those
more materially privileged had been useless. However, when leaning on
my fellow addicts, my needs were met and I was able to save my life.
This gave me an essential understanding of the concepts of charity and
solidarity and has shaped a great deal of how I view the struggles of the
working class and underprivileged. We can beg for scraps from a richer
table and ask for charity, either in the form of resources or rights.
This will likely lead to the failure of the working class and the
continued oppression of the many peoples who find themselves the victim
of white, capitalist, patriarchal exploitation.
It is instead in the solidarity and shared struggle of our fellows that
we get by, and we must harness that in order to seize the needs for
which the ruling class would have us petition, request, and beg. It
won’t be until we break this paradigm of trickle-down justice that we
more truly empower the disempowered in our own destiny.
I don’t pretend to say that my experience as an addict is a universal
one, but it is indeed a small subsection of experience that informs a
valuable praxis of political activity. I wonder what other stories are
out there, other cultural experiences that fuel concepts such as
mutualism and solidarity. As we enter into a new age of radical
resurgence and political unrest, however, we would do well to remember:
begging will get us nothing. We must provide for ourselves, and the only
way we can do that is together.