Young children have a tendency to use slurs and other disparaging words without really knowing what they mean. Often times when you hear a child say X slur, you can ask that child “What does X mean?” and quickly find out that they have no idea. The only thing they know for sure is that X is an other, and of course that means X is deserving of scorn and ridicule. I was no different when I was younger, and although I used to think that I grew out of that phase later than most, looking at the polls for this year’s presidential contest has me wondering if that’s really the case.
One of those “others” in the eighties, when I was in grade school, was gay people. Looking at the social progress many minority communities have made in the past hundred years, it’s tempting to think that the “arc of moral justice” Dr. King spoke about is a constant arc, but the LGBT+ community (be warned that I’m likely switching to using the term SAGA shortly) had such a rough road in the 1980s that it’s hard to think of it as anything but a huge step back. Part of this was the conservative/Reagan Revolution of that decade, and the fallout from the whole Anita Bryant thing, but a lot of it had to do with the discovery of AIDS.
Ignoring the highly problematic media coverage of AIDS back then, and the horrid responses (or lack thereof) from many politicians, the initial public response to AIDS — especially back when it was called GRID and people thought that only gay people could get it — really turned the LGBT+ community into a pariah caste. Not that the community had ever been well-accepted by America at large, but there at least a few overtures in the 1970s towards undoing that shameful legacy. When AIDS added a physical, measurable “danger” to the “moral danger” that conservatives were always harping about with the LGBT+ community, though, the results were nothing short of disastrous, and the community is still trying to undo some of the damage the eighties did to the LGBT+ rights movements.
The eighties is hardly the ancient past, and while much has been made of the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage in America over the past decade, it’s important to remember that Republicans used that as a huge wedge issue less than twelve years ago, right after Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage and President George W. Bush was running for reelection. When everything came down to Ohio in the last weeks of the campaign, same sex marriage became the huge issue for conservatives to campaign on in Cleveland; like Toledo, Cleveland is a de facto blue city because of the role that unions have played there, but there’s an underlying social conservatism because of the city’s higher-than-usual Catholic population. Same-sex marriage became Republicans’ go-to issue as they clawed out votes for President Bush in Ohio, and with as close as the state wound up being on Election Day (and would have made John Kerry the next president if he’d won it), it’s not a stretch to say that the issue was why Bush won reelection that year. There are students in grade school right now who were alive when that happened.
I’ve been saying for a long time now that transgender people are going to be the next target of right-wingers as they try to scare people into voting for them. While acceptance of gays and lesbians in “mainstream society” is higher now than it’s been in my lifetime, there just isn’t that level of tolerance, or even knowledge of what transgender people are, with those same people. Yes, Laverne Cox and others have done a lot to educate people about transgender issues, but I don’t think anyone would dare suggest that transgender people aren’t facing a significantly harder time in America right now than gays and lesbians. (Not that gays and lesbians aren’t still facing way too many problems in America right now, because they most certainly are.)
The whole issue of public bathroom use has always been at the top of many conservatives’ lines of attacks on transgender people, and it’s easy to see why: There’s a visceral quality to bathrooms that trigger many people’s squeamishness regardless of why they’re brought up. Many people — myself included — just feel uncomfortable with public bathrooms because no matter how well they’re maintained, they’re still icky places where people do icky things. For conservatives, though, the issue allows them to recycle one of their oldest tactics for going after all LGBT+ people, the notion that anyone who deviates from sexuality and gender norms in any way must therefore be a “deviant” in all possible ways, up to (and especially including) pedophilia. It’s much harder for them to convince people with that argument when it comes to gays and lesbians now, but those old stereotypes are still tenaciously clinging to transgender people, and the “guy in a woman’s restroom” spectre is something that conservatives can use to great effect, even outside of the conservative base.
“Bathroom bills” like the one just passed in North Carolina have been in the news for years now, and perhaps none of us should be shocked that conservatives are pushing this issue so hard, especially in an election year. It’s only a matter of time before they come to Ohio, especially since our shitstain of a governor is still trying to get people to think that he should be the next president. (For those of you who remember my first taste of John Kasich, when he said a couple of weeks ago that he “appreciated a political protest,” I damn near put my fist through my television.) In any other year — even a presidential election year — this would be an outrage and a huge call to action.
After the violence that’s been happening in this election cycle, though, news like what came out of North Carolina this week is nothing short of terrifying to me.
It’s hard not to watch the scenes of violence that have been playing out at Donald Trump rallies and feel like I’m still in America. Just the mere violence would be bad enough on its own, but when Trump gins things up by claiming that “back in the day” protesters would be so brutalized that they’d have to leave on a stretcher, he not only recalls America’s worst days of overt racism and sexism and homophobia, but he legitimizes both the violence and the stereotyping of “the other” in America that will lead to more violence. Regardless of whether or not he follows through with it, when Trump says that he’ll pay the legal bills of anyone who gets in trouble for roughing up protesters, it fuels all this mob violence by allowing his supporters to feel like they won’t suffer any real consequences for assaulting people whom they disagree with.
Even on the best of days, and in the best of locations, being visibly gay or lesbian in America (or any non-hetero sexuality), or transgender, can feel like a huge risk when you’re in a public space like a mall or a park. Many Americans already receive too many messages that can make them believe that assaulting or killing LGBT+ people is not only acceptable, but that they’re doing everyone else a favour by getting one more “other” off the streets. When the most visible presidential candidate, who was already a huge celebrity in his own right, not only fans the flames of violence but pours gasoline on top of them, it’s making many LGBT+ people feel even less safe leaving their own houses.
America is angrier now than I can ever remember it being in my life, and I don’t blame people for being angry; I’m angry too, albeit for much different reasons than most Trump supporters. Anger is no excuse for violence, though. Beating up someone simply for disagreeing with you isn’t going to change their mind, it’s probably going to make most other people dislike you, and despite whatever promises Trump may make about legal fees, it could still very easily land you in prison. As long as Trump keeps putting forward the idea that violence in the name of stifling non-violent dissent is acceptable, though, and as long as the media fails to do its job of deflating that narrative, it’s hard to believe that not only will the violence at Trump rallies continue, but that it will start spilling out into the rest of American society.
Regardless of who you are as an American, I have to believe that everyone feels like they’re walking on eggshells these days in the current political climate. Some of us have a lot more to worry about, though, and as this presidential election plays out, and the rhetoric from all the Republican candidates keeps getting worse, it’s getting harder for us to feel like we can go to the store for a quart of milk without getting beat up or worse. If this is how America is being “made great” again, I may have to swim to Canada just to save my own skin.