I've been thinking a lot recently about opting out. I don't mean that I have been considering opting out of anything, but I have been thinking about the freedom to do so. In the last few months we have had a global pandemic1 and seen the explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement as yet another black American seemingly2murdered by police officers proved to be the straw that turned systemic racism into an ongoing wave of international protests. A blog in which J K Rowling defended herself against accusations of transphobia3 as well as an attempted rollback of trans rights in the UK have caused similar protests by and on behalf of trans people. Meanwhile, in an unregarded little town on the eastern spiral arm of the United Kingdom, I had some shopping to do.
What has any of this got to do with any of the rest of it, much less an email I failed to send asking my MP to support financial measures to protect the arts industry during lockdown? Well I had intended to send the email, but for various reasons I didn't. As I lay awake in the middle of the night wondering whether I should get up now and send the email, I told myself that I can't get involved in everything. Some fights I can step back from, which is lucky. Not everybody has the luxury of opting out. If you are black, especially it seems in the United States, you can't go out of the house safe in the knowledge that you have opted out for today so you won't be racially abused, arrested for no reason or shot at by a civilian because your clothes frightened them. Trans gender people don't get a day where nobody tells them they are unnatural or mentally ill and they can go in whichever toilet they wish without fear of physical assault. If you're the victim of prejudice you can, in some cases, pretend to be someone you are not, but you can never opt out of knowing that sections of society are violently opposed to you even existing.
I am not claiming to be in that situation. As a straight, white, middle class, Cis4- gendered man I was born on the safe side of any axis of prejudice. My wife wasn't. She was born working class, disabled and female, which is a lot to carry but is at least bigotry bingo. Right now she is staying away from shops and people, so the shopping is my job. No complaints per se there, shopping is not hard when you can see and breathe properly like I can. But right now I am finally, after 39 years of cruising, stuck in a fight I can't just opt out of. The fight is to keep people at a safe distance. Because in the UK, or at least the bit of it that I inhabit, that's all pretty much out if the window. So in an effort to keep safe I have gone from shopping in about 7 shops at the start of lockdown, to shopping in five where I felt safe, then only first thing in the morning, then finally online.
There's an argument, of course, that I am not really trapped in this fight. I can choose to be careless in a way that you can't choose not be gay, for example. All I say is that I remember the first time I woke in the middle of the night to find that my wife was having a seizure. I remember thinking she was dying and the memory still genuinely fills me with dread. For that reason, as well as the time I was not allowed to visit her because the hospital thought she might have meningitis and the years we have spent trying to understand why she has blackouts, I find imagining the worst fairly easy. I can see her unconscious on a ventilator struggling to breathe while I try not to think about ongoing death rates and somehow persuade myself that she will be fine. I am shopping largely with people less likely to get the virus, and less likely to die if they do. They can afford to be careless. I can't. But it's become impossible to be careful around people who have stopped caring.
What this proves, I guess, is that you should always opt in. You should defend black rights, and trans rights, and gay rights and disability rights. You should do that because it is the decent thing to do, but when you feel that maybe you have done enough decent things and you might sit this one out, you should remember that one day the person needing support might be you.