Facing an existential threat yet again…
On one level I understand why during many election years so many Americans talk rather blithely of it being simply a choice of the lesser of two evils. Earlier this year Stephen Colbert and John Stewart incorporated it into a small skit in which they pretended that Stewart has spent all of his time since retiring from the Daily Show living in a cabin in the woods somewhere, and Stephen shows up at his door desperate for help with the election. Stewart says, “Don’t worry! I’m sure Jeb Bush will be fine!” Stewart says.
From the viewpoint of many people, it usually appears that the major parties have each nominated basically similar guys, who have some differences on particular policies, but both talk about opportunity and freedom and respecting the Constitution. Depending on what your personal priorities are, one might say more things you agree with regarding taxes, for instance, but the same candidate says just as many things you disagree with in the topic of medical care. The other one says stuff you disagree with on taxes, while saying things you agree with on law enforcement.
So superficially it can feel as if being asked whether you want a red napkin or a blue napkin with your meal. You’re still going to get a meal which contains some food you love and some you don’t, and the bill is probably going to be a little higher than you hoped in the end, so why should the napkin matter?
For some of us, it has never been like that.
I wasn’t out of the closet in 1980. I was still several years away from the moment I would say aloud for the first time, “I think I might be gay.” But I had had more than a few furtive experiences with other guys and had been wrestling with the conflict between my conservative Christian upbringing and the fact that no matter how much I pleaded with god, the feelings wouldn’t go away. And for several years I had been watching political campaigns to pass laws to make it legal for people to fire me, to deny me housing, to send me to jail, and much worse simply because I fell in love with other guys.
In 1980 one party had for the first time in history adopted a plank saying the people shouldn’t be discriminated against because of sexual orientation. The other party very clearly was in favor of not just discriminating, but actively persecuting people like me.
My ability to live freely was on the ballot the first time I was allowed to vote for a president.
By the time 1984 rolled around, people like me were dying of a then-mysterious and scary disease. I had sat in church with my head bowed and then felt the horror when the pastor unexpectedly thanked god for sending AIDS to kill queers. One party was still saying it shouldn’t be legal to discriminate against me, and now the other one was encouraging the people who were explicitly saying I should be dead.
In 1992 the Democratic Presidential candidate didn’t just leave the rhetoric of protecting us from discrimination in the platform, he actively and frequently argued that not only should we be protected by anti-discrimination laws, and not only should we not be left to die if we got sick, but we should actually be allowed to serve openly in the military. That may seem like a little thing, but it was clearly a statement that we were full citizens deserving not just tolerance, but respect. This forced the other candidate to openly say what had mostly been implied by his predecessors: that queers didn’t deserve legal protections, that our very existence wasn’t just regrettable, but it somehow made America less safe.
By 1996 the same candidate who had pledged to help us had been maneuvered into a compromise that made the situation for queers in the military worse, but the other side, oh my goodness, the other side! In my local state the Republican party had planks in the platform that literally equated us with witches and demons, that literally equated tolerance for us with witchcraft, and that literally called for locking queer people up in medical facilities. Yes, the party had been hijacked by what we all thought of at the time the fringe, but our state wasn’t the only one. And plenty of Republicans all over the country were talking about us as dangerous, as needing to be locked up, and more.
In 2000 I found myself arguing with someone who I had thought of as a friend who lived in another state where she was enthusiastically voting for a candidate who promised to make it illegal for queers to work in medical jobs, in child care jobs, or as teachers, and wanted to create a system of “medical camps” where queer men would be “quarantined” for the safety of the rest of the public. While at the top of the the ticket Bush and Cheney both made conciliatory statements about tolerating gay people, they still opposed full civil equality. All up and down the ticket you could find plenty of their candidates arguing that the very existence of queer people was dangerous, that our physical relationships should be illegal (and in many places still were prosecuted as crimes), and so forth.
And then in 2004 the Republicans hit on the strategy of actively pushing for state bans and constitutional amendments to more deeply encode our persecution into the laws of the land! There were far more candidates on that side saying to recognizing us as full citizens would cause god to destroy America.
A lot of people try to make the lesser of two evils argument because in 2008 the leading democratic candidates were arguing for civil unions and against letting queer people marry. To do that ignores the folks on the other side who were still arguing that it should be legal to fire us everywhere (not just the 29 states where we lack antidiscrimination protections), who were angry at the Supreme Court for saying the laws criminalizing our relationships were unconstitutional, and thus were campaigning to make being queer a crime again everywhere. Again, one side thought we were people deserving at least basic rights, the other argued we were dangerous things that needed to be controlled.
In 2012 the Republicans were spouting all the same anti-queer rhetoric even more vehemently because the other party was arguing that we should have all legal rights, including the right to civil marriage.
And in 2016? This year the Republican party platform is even more viciously anti-gay than the 1996 state platform I mentioned above. This year, a lot of other people feel (rightly) that their very right to exist is on the ballot. This year in the name of fighting illegal immigration and defending us from terrorism, one party is arguing that people of some religions don’t deserve civil rights, that people of some races are automatically suspect as criminals, that people who are poor deserve it, that women who want medical care should only get what conservative white men think they,, deserve, and so on and so on.
And while for a lot of people this feels new, it feels as if a sudden lunacy has seized one party—it’s not. I hate to break it to you, but Romney, McCain, George W. Bush, Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan were all spouting equally racist, misogynist, sectarian, and homophobic policies and values as the most deplorable Trump supporters are now. Trump isn’t a disease that has suddenly surfaced, he’s a symptom of a decades-long movement in the party to fan the flames of fear, promote racial resentment, foster religious division, and encourage hate. The Trump supporters who call for lynching journalists, beating people of color, deporting non-Christians, scalping people who support same-sex marriage, burning black churches, who claim Hillary is a satanist, insist that Obama and Clinton are literally demons, aren’t the lunatic fringe of the Republican party. They are simply enacting the rhetoric that Republicans have been using to rally their troops for the last forty years.
- You may have thought that Reagan was talking about the Constitution when he argued for state’s rights at a speech in Nashoba County, Mississippi, but everyone in Mississippi who had lived through the previous decades of civil rights struggles knew that he was saying that in the matter of white privilege vs black civil rights, he was on the side of the white guys while the blacks were clearly the enemy.
- You may have thought that the elder President Bush’s frequent evocation of Family Values was just wholesome-sounding empty rhetoric, but the thousands of people at the Republican Convention holding up signs that said “Family Rights Not Gay Rights” knew he was telling the anti-gay bigots that he was on their side and the queers had no moral values.
- You may have thought when Bob Dole said that “disabled people is a group no one joins by choice” he was simply arguing for more rights for disabled people, but he was telling the anti-gay people, the Creationists, and the anti-feminists that queers, atheists/non-Christians, and feminists deserved to be discriminated against and worse.
- You may have thought that when George W. Bush said as part of a speech about racial equality that African Americans had earned opportunities that he was arguing for respecting everyone, but the Republican base knew he was saying that only some people of color deserved respect, and it is perfectly alright to mistreat any you didn’t think had earned it.
- You may have thought that when John McCain said “that both parents are important in the success of a family” it was empty pro-family pablum, but anti-gay and anti-feminist members of the Republican base heard him saying the queers who adopt are harming children, and so are single parents (including women fleeing abusive relationships).
- You may have thought when Romney said that employers should be flexible and let female employees “go home and fix dinner” for their kids instead of making them work late, that he was talking about personal compassion, but the Republican base clearly heard that women only deserved respect when they were mothers and taking care of their man.
I could find a lot more examples from the previous six Republican nominees where they said things that signaled to the racists, homophobes, misogynists, et al that people of color, queers, women, and non-Christians are less valuable than cisgendered heterosexual white Christian men. They have been cooking this nasty stew of hatred for decades.
It’s not just Hillary and The Donald on the ballot. It is also the right for Americans of all races, genders, orientations, and beliefs to live with equal opportunity and dignity in this society. And I don’t just mean the right to be free—for many of us, our very right to live is on the line.It won’t be enough for Trump to lose. He needs to lose decisively. And the politicians down ballot who support him and the policies that have brought him to us need to be defeated, as well. We need to send a message, yes. But we also have to extend hope and a promise that the American republic and the democratic institutions that protect our rights will remain intact. Because when Trump talks about “opening up libel laws” and “locking up” his opponents and “getting rid” of legal impediments to deportation and more, he’s talking about ending the checks and balances that have existed since this country’s founding.
It isn’t just an existential crisis for the queers, people of color, women, and non-Christians this time. It’s an existential crisis for the republic itself.
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