Over the last couple of weeks, the SGM community in Korea has been mourning the loss of an ally (I’ve come to dislike this word – but that’s another column!) who worked tirelessly on its behalf…
and I didn’t have good relationship with her.
She did a lot of good work, supported a lot of people, contributed to many causes, and worked really hard to make sure that people were not isolated or alone. In the university where she worked, she advocated tirelessly and endlessly for greater inclusion of sexual and gender minorities through its human rights committee; this extended to the professional organization for English teachers that she belonged to. She also suffered from depression, and in a period where the depths of despair appeared to be too much for her, she took her own life.
And I can hear you asking ‘What’s your problem?! This person sounds like a veritable saint! Why couldn’t you get along with her?’
Well, why don’t oil and water mix?
I wanted to have a good relationship. We corresponded on Facebook, I went to a couple of events at the university where she taught, I became part of a group for SGM teachers. However, when I made certain comments which lampooned the current American president, or used a term which referred to an aspect of fascist government I thought to be parallel to the actions of the current government, she reacted quite negatively.
I consider questions of ‘who was right/wrong’ to be unhelpful. I honestly can’t see how the comments I made were inappropriate, given the nature of the current American administration. I accept that she didn’t hear or view them in this way. However (and I know there are those who will disagree with me violently), I’ve concluded that what I experienced in these run-ins was someone taking herself too seriously. And in my experience, the worst thing you can do in many situations is take yourself too seriously!
It got to the point where I felt the need to keep this person at a distance, so I un-followed her on Facebook. I didn’t banish her completely from my social network circle, but I needed to keep her at arms’ length. I wasn’t alone. I have heard of at least one additional person who had a falling out with her. Regardless, what precious few of us knew was of her struggle with depression. And fewer of us knew the depths to which her last downward trajectory would go. I realize there is some debate around whether Winston Churchill suffered from mental illness, but there is little doubt that he would be wary of the visits of his downward mood swings which he termed ‘the black dog’, apparently so much so that he would be wary of where he stood on train platforms:
‘I don’t like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is passing through. I like to stand back and, if possible, get a pillar between me and the train. I don’t like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water. A second’s action would end everything. A few drops of desperation.'
This person’s death has hit a lot of people hard, especially one person who has had a terrible start to their year. They’ve endured loss and trauma (I mean, trauma) in the past twelve months. Coming out as non-binary has led to their being excluded and discriminated by many people, especially the SGM community in Seoul, that they hardly get involved anymore. They were looking forward to having a friend in whom to confide when they moved at the beginning of this year – and that friend is around no more.
These and other stories make it clear that there’s a good reason we don’t speak ill of the dearly departed. Whatever issues I may have had, and no matter how justified I may have been in keeping this person at a distance, that doesn’t matter. What’s more important is honoring the work she did and the lives she touched, as well as caring for those who are affected by her loss whenever and wherever I can.
More importantly, I can follow her example, an example I never really appreciated until now. It seems to me that her work for expat English teachers and for SGMs was endless and public. When it came to the debate around SGM issues in Korea, there was no mistaking which side she was on! It reminded me of a point made by Brittany Ware, the 2018 Ware Lecturer at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly:
‘(An) ally tends to be a self- congratulating, temporary presence, that makes a sometimes effort for something they sometimes care about. Sometimes an ally shows up, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes an ally listens, sometimes they paternalize. Sometimes an ally takes action, sometimes an ally just talks about taking action. Accomplices, on the other hand, choose the risk even though they don’t have to. They’re willing to lay their bodies and reputations and security on the line because they know that’s the only way to properly leverage their privilege. Accomplices stick around. Accomplices are in it for the long haul…’
I think it’s time for me to take a look at my own activism, or lack of it, and ask, ‘Have I been an accomplice? If supporting the SGM community were a crime, would there be enough evidence in my own life that my only option would be to say, “By God, I’m guilty!”?’
I pray that I may have the grace to live a life and exhibit a witness worthy of being an accomplice!
 As I’ve written before, the acronym SGMs (Sexual and Gender Minorities) seems much more manageable than the LGBBTTQQIAA, etc, etc acronym that seems to have no end!
 Compare, for example, Ghaemi,M (2015, 24 January) Winston Churchill and his ‘black dog’ of greatness, in The Conversation [online] (accessed 6 February 2019 at http://theconversation.com/winston-churchill-and-his-black-dog-of-greatness-36570) and Breckenridge, C (2012) The Myth of the “Black Dog”, Finest Hour: the Journal of Winston Churchill 155, pp. 28-31.
 Alluded to in Breckenridge (2012) and quoted from Churchill: Taken from the Diaries of Lord Moran, in Ghaemi (2015)
 Unitarian Universalist Association (2018-19), WARE LECTURE BY BRITTANY PACKNETT, GENERAL ASSEMBLY 2018, in Unitarian Universalist Association [online]. Accessed 28 August 2018 at https://www.uua.org/ga/past/2018/ware.