The Power of Community

by Jefferson Ellison. Published on May 04, 2021.

I must admit to you that I have been having a hard time. My mental health has been taking all the wrong turns, I am constantly crying or fighting with someone, and I think my body dysmorphia is working overtime. Needless to say, I've been having bad days, bad times, and I have not been enjoying living in my world. I've upped my therapy and my THC intake to fix that, and I've booked some travels for the summer. I am currently in the middle of my first trip, and while I am feeling a little better, I don't think it's a change in scenery.

This past Saturday night, I was dragged and guilted to a backyard soiree at a friend's house - actually, it was a backyard drag show. I had heard rumblings but had no immediate plans to attend, and then the night before, I ran into the host at a bar and drunkenly agreed to go. The next day I tried to get out of it, but my friends wouldn't let me and I was forced to attend. They promised it'd be small; they'd promised it'd be quick, it was neither. I showed up late because I was running a bit behind, and when I walked up to the gate, there were quite a few people in the yard. Quietly sitting and listening to our host as they shared the rules and the lay of the land.

The initial picture was quite daunting. I didn't think this would be a whole event, so I didn't go home to change. I was in "sweatshorts" and an old #jawbreaking t-shirt. I didn't have on my glasses or even underwear, for that matter, and I wasn't wearing actual shoes. So there I am, walking through a crowd of girls, gays, and theys, looking like who-shot-john and searching blindly for my crew. I stumble onto a blanket with friends - close and distant - and watch what I came to learn would be the last performance. I had missed most of it, and I wasn't that upset because, truthfully, I was self-conscious and just wanted to get home without flashing someone.

What happened next was a crescendo of self-actualization. Cherry (that's the host) comes out in a skimpy top and red fishnets and begins performing my all-time favorite Lady Gaga song - You and I. The crowd starts to cheer, someone hands me a cigarette and some liquor in a plastic cup, and I begin to relax. The song gets louder,the audience follows suit, and then I feel my head start to bop. Cherry runs through the crowd, and they begin to scream, and I find myself standing on my knees. Someone throws a shoe, someone else throws a dollar, and the next thing you know, I'm belting at the top of my lungs. The song winds down, and we all know how it ends, so hands start waving back and forth and beg for the Cherry to begin again. They refused - modestly - but assure us that the night isn’t over. The music gets louder, the drinks are refreshed, and we danced for the rest of the night. There were oldies, and goodies, new hits, and bad choices. One person was twerking by a fire while someone else lip-synched to Beyoncé with their cell phone, and all I could do was smile. I looked up at the sky and saw the stars for the first time in what felt like an eternity and felt the wind on my skin. I hugged my friends and danced with strangers and then it was time to go. As I walked down the street to my friend's car, I couldn't stop saying how much fun I'd had, and for the last three days, I couldn't put my finger on why. I've reached for my phone almost hourly to text Cherry and thank them for the evening they made possible, but I couldn't fully express what I experienced. And now I know. What happened that night was freedom.

The night reminded me of the first time I ever went to a gay club, the first time I ever went to a family reunion, and the first time I fell in love. It was the warmth of freedom. The nearly-unbearable lightness of safety. There in that backyard, under the stars and God, space was held. Surrounded by people I knew, and people I didn't, I felt safe. I felt seen. I felt welcomed and unjudged. I didn't feel pressured. I didn't feel loud. I felt like everyone was looking at me for the sole purpose of seeing me, consuming my presence and offering me a mirror, a window, and a light.

I have spent my entire life living in the shadow of my ineptitude and my impotence. Not as straight as I should be. Not as thin as I'm supposed to be. Not as white as society deems acceptable. I've never been the smartest or the fastest. And I've never been the girl that guys pick at the end of the movie. I have to live with that. And through therapy and the love of my mother, I have accepted that. I don't owe perfection to anyone. Through that realization, I've found myself - my conviction, my voice and I've learned to take up space. But if I'm honest with you and myself, it's been really fucking hard. The most difficult thing in the world to be is true to yourself. The more I'm willing to fight for the person I want to be and the life I want to live, the harder - it seems - it is to love me. And that's a tough pill to swallow. What was offered to me through a crowd of strange, sweaty, vaccinated liberals was the opportunity to love myself. That's what community does. Sure, they love you, and they support you, but they also offer you the space to love and support yourself.

Many would argue that the power of community is in the numbers. They assume that outliers bond together as a way of validation by numerical power, but I would disagree. The power of community is not about inward validation; it's about outward expression. That when you scream into the world, there is someone to hear you and recognize that you've screamed. Whether or not they know what you said, or agree with it, they have agreed to hear the scream. The chills I got were not from validation. I don't feel less alone because I spent some time with people who the world also hates. I don't feel revitalized because I've met my fellow sinners. I feel called to myself because I felt free to discover myself. It was like being in a think tank. Everyone is processing and seeking answers in pods that feel productive, all with the common goal of answering to their God, feeling the sun on their face and defining themselves for themselves. But they also want that for you.

The last year has been so intimate and so specific it has blurred and fogged my memory of big love. I've been so busy trying to engage in conversation, and change hearts and minds, and grow with people that I forgot to foster an environment where I could grow with and for myself.

I'm not sure why I'm writing this. I'm not sure if there is a question or answer or even call to action. But if there was one, it'd be to seek community. To look for spaces where you feel inspired to try new things. Create moments where you offer people grace to fail. Bring people together over big pictures that elevate even the smallest detail. For so long, I've sought people with a common path only to be disappointed when they make a left at the fork in the road. Now I think I'm seeking people who have a common destination. And I don't give a fuck about how we get there. Just get there… soon.