We’ve just passed the second and third days of the Week of Action 2016 and so far I’m two for two on changing the topics I was going to write about. Today, more than anything, I found myself thinking about the overarching theme we chose for this year – “take back the trails.”
It’s interesting to me that this was the theme we chose to focus on not just for a day but throughout the entire event. It doesn’t directly relate to combatting anti-LGBT violence nor is it an action one can take that will tangibly benefit LGBT people as a whole – and yet, this was the message all four of us agreed that we wanted to feature this year.
On the one hand, the phrase is, of course, intended to be read literally. I first saw “take back the trails” used in the wake of the 1996 murders of girlfriends Julie Williams and Lollie Winans in Shenandoah National Park. Spearheaded by the family and friends of the former, the TBTT movement was created both to honor her life through a continued engagement with something that had been important to her and to unite the women (and women who love women) who no longer felt safe in the outdoors in light of her story and others like it.
I took up the sentiment and the phrase in its literal sense in 2013. It was partly a response to those in my life who, upon hearing about the related story of what happened to Rebecca Wight, declared they could never go back into the woods now that they had a renewed reason to be fearful – creating new distress in marginalized individuals who were already intimately aware of their precarious position within our society was certainly not what I intended or wanted to achieve in bringing the story to their attention. It was partly a response to my own irrationally-heightened fear of being in nature, especially on those trails that take you through deep woods, which I had also acquired after hearing the stories. There may not have been a huge number of them – thankfully, murders on the trails are relatively rare as it is – but the few that have happened were so horrific and excessively awful, it only took those few to exacerbate any unease I had previously felt in the outdoors.
When I rolled the phrase around on my tongue, I found I quite liked it – enough that became a sort of defining personal goal in the years that followed. It was a cry of reclamation and resistance which seemed to evoke a collective feeling in those who embraced the challenge: I am tired of being afraid. If you walk with me, I will walk with you, and we will stand together against the people who want to take all of our joys away from us.
What we like about it is – though the origin of the phrase and idea as I tend to use it refers to reclamation of natural spaces specifically – that the trails don’t have to be literal. We chose to focus on this as the overarching theme of the WoA 2016 because the phrase can also be read metaphorically. “The trails” as we use the word broadly to refer to the outdoors are but one of many sites which have been rendered unsafe in the eyes of vulnerable populations of people due to the acts of individual and social violence which have occurred within them. When we encourage our community to “take back the trails,” what we’re really encouraging LGBT people to do is to take back their trails, the places and spaces they used to enjoy or find solace in that have since become yet another reminder that we are not safe anywhere.
As we have mentioned earlier in the week, the four women who run the Stories Project are all trauma survivors. As survivors, and as people who bear witness to the trauma of fellow members of our community, each of us has that one place we can no longer go because it has been tainted by what has happened to us or people like us there. We are all additionally familiar, to varying levels, with the exhausting state of perpetual fear that can arise when your very existence in this world is precarious, something which is constantly reaffirmed by the looming threat of social violence.
We say “take back the trails” because the people who have committed acts of small-scale and large-scale violence against us have already taken so many precious things from us we can never get back. They have ripped people out of our lives and out of the world; they have stolen pieces of ourselves from us. They have left a dark stain on our ability to feel happy and hopeful; they have done everything in their power to shatter any semblance of safety that we may ever feel. They have given us new reasons to be afraid of the places which used to bring us joy and peace.
This week, we are saying enough is enough. We are tired of being afraid. We are tired of carving out one space in this world for ourselves only to have it ripped away. This week, we intend to send a message to those who have committed violence against us and our community: you can’t have this. We are taking back our trails because they have always belonged to us. And if you, readers and participants, want to take back your own trails with us, we will walk alongside you and reclaim our power together.
Co-created by Meg, Alice, Taliyah, and Maya, written down by Meg