It’s different being gay nowthan it was in, say, October. In October, the progress we’d made as a movement seemed relatively secure, and our view was set on how we might better secure our freedoms. Now whatever we’ve achieved feels fragile, and our energies are occupied with trying to prevent a slide backward. We have had to give up on the future in attempting to save the past.
It was both unsurprising and traumatic to learn on Monday about a pending executive order that would take away our basic rights, and though it was a relief to learn, the next morning, that that executive order would not be issued, the stir of vulnerability will not soon quiet down. Donald Trump was contemplating rescinding President Barack Obama’s executive order granting protections to LGBTQ Americans working for federal agencies. That Trump did not, that day, expose us to legal discrimination by our own government does not mitigate this Administration’s dark view of those who deviate from its narrow definition of normality — white, U.S.-born, heterosexual, able-bodied, and Christian — which excludes the majority of Americans.
On Wednesday, The Nation published a draft of a new executive order that would allow anyone to enact prejudice against LGBTQ people on the basis of personal religious beliefs. Many medical services, elder-care services, and disability services are administered through religious organizations that could refuse help to those of whom they disapprove. One in five of the four hundred thousand kids in foster care identifies as LGBTQ, and under the order placement agencies would not be obliged to take care of them. The daily roller coaster of rights tenuously sustained or completely undermined is dizzying.
The problems surfaced before Trump took office. Following the election, in Sarasota, Florida, a seventy-five-year-old gay man was pulled from his car, assaulted, and told, “You know, my new President says we can kill all you faggots now.” In Austin, Texas, vandals spray-painted “dyke,” “trump,” and a swastika on the front door of a lesbian couple’s home. In North Canton, Ohio, a lesbian couple who had lived in their home peacefully for years found their car door and hood defaced with the slur “dyke.” In Bean Blossom, Indiana, vandals painted “heil trump,” “fag church,” and a swastika on the side of St. David’s Episcopal, a church that had welcomed LGBTQ congregants. A North Carolina couple received a chilling message on their windshield: “Can’t wait until your ‘marriage’ is overturned by a real president. Gay families = burn in hell. #Trump2016.” A similarly hateful note appeared on the car of a Burlington, Iowa, minister: “So father homo, how does it feel to have Trump as your president? At least he’s got a set of balls. They’ll put marriage back where God wants it and take your’s away. America’s gonna take care of your faggity ass.”
All of this was in keeping with the publicly expressed views of the new Administration. During his tenure in Congress, Mike Pence, as head of the Republican Study Committee, supported a constitutional amendment against gay marriage, opposed the repeal of the military ban on openly gay soldiers, and averred that “societal collapse was always brought about following an advent of the deterioration of marriage and family,” suggesting that gay families would operationalize such a disruption of the social order. He believed that being gay was a choice and said that keeping gays from marrying was simply “God’s idea.” He later proposed cutting funding for AIDS research and diverting the money to “ex-gay” therapy programs. As governor of Indiana, he championed and signed the anti-LGBTQ Religious Restoration Freedom Act, which he softened only after considerable pressure from big business.
Trump himself opposes gay marriage, and has nominated Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. In response, Lambda Legal has, for the first time, declared pre-hearing opposition to a nomination, announcing, “Judge Gorsuch’s judicial record is hostile toward LGBT people and his nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court is unacceptable.” Rea Carey, the executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force (I serve on the board of the National LGBTQ Task Force Action Fund), observed that Trump “has been playing deeply harmful games with LGBTQ people’s lives throughout his campaign and every single day of his days-old presidency. The problem for him is we are everywhere—so when he signs executive orders designed to demonize and dehumanize anyone—Muslims, women, refugees, people of color, immigrants—he is attacking us all. President Trump does not get bonus points for discriminating a little. Not on our watch, not in our name.”
Even if Hillary Clinton had been elected, there would have remained work to be done. The endless fight for a trans-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) would have continued, twenty-three years after it was first introduced in Congress. ENDA was designed to establish as national law a prohibition against firing people just because they are gay — as can still be done in twenty-nine states. LGBTQ populations likewise sought housing protections, so as not to be ejected by landlords who objected to their sexual orientation.
Over all, the country has tolerated an increasingly tiered system, in which those with higher income and education, who live in the liberal states, have had adequate liberty while others have not. In that calculus, I was one of the lucky ones, but it is easy to mistake relative privilege for insulation against an onslaught. Like many other gay Americans, I have been thinking a lot about Germany in the early nineteen-thirties, when gays and Jews who were woven into the social élite thought it couldn’t happen to them. I have also thought about my time in Kabul, fifteen years ago, when I pored over an Afghan friend’s childhood photo album from the nineteen-sixties, with its images of women in miniskirts on the same streets that I had seen awash with burqas. I have thought, too, about the gradual dismantling of reproductive justice in this country, undermined a little further every year. We can never afford to be complacent; there is no such thing as security when it comes to human rights.
Emma Lazarus, who wrote the well-known poem inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, also wrote, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.” It’s hard to bring out the confetti and balloons to celebrate the fact that one anti-gay executive order didn’t get signed as we watch people who endured the long and gruelling refugee process denied entry to the United States. Some of those people are gay, fleeing countries where their sexual orientation makes them murder targets.
When I was in Libya reporting for The New Yorker, I befriended a medical student named Hasan Agili. He is gay, and when gay people started being massacred in Tripoli he fled to Beirut, where he had no legal status, and wrote to me in despair. We spent two years getting him refugee classification, first from the U.N. and then from the U.S. government. I was able to obtain the support of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, and Hasan was admitted to the United States in June. One condition of his coming here was that he have a permanent residence for at least his first six months. By the time that six months was over, he had become a cherished member of our household. Having a Muslim immigrant living with us sends a message to the people we know, to our children, and even to ourselves that someone who has been called “other” can become not only familiar but also loved.
When I was away for a few days this summer, not long after Hasan arrived in New York, he sent me an e-mail one night about what had been, for him, an astonishing experience. He had been sitting on the front stoop when two men walked past, hand in hand. They stopped to kiss each other, then ambled on. In much of New York, such mundane intimacies happen all the time, but for Hasan the men’s lack of shame and fear came as a revelation. He wrote, “My heart was beating so fast, out of excitement or euphoria . . . I don’t know.” I felt so proud of my country and its casual liberalisms.
There is another, more intimate level at which LGBTQ Americans experience the surge of prejudice. For those whose own families have treated them with ambivalent hostility, the upswing of hate crimes since the election recapitulates old experiences of rejection. While most people who share familiar characteristics across generations have a safe refuge among their families, gay people often do not. Latino kids are not rejected by their parents for being Latino, nor are most Muslims disowned by their parents for being Muslims, but those who are gay are often the target of their families’ disapprobation or outright hostility. To have the power of the new Administration ranged against us conjures those formative years when those on whom we depended for protection expressed the most vicious prejudice.
During the height of the AIDS crisis, gay activism sprang from despair; during the Obama years, it reflected idealism; and now it is fuelled by paralyzing anxiety. It’s hard to live with what is going wrong right now without anticipating everything else that could go wrong shortly. There have been waves of anti-gay prejudice for centuries, of course. But one crucial difference now is that many of us have children. My husband and I have tried to explain to our children what is going on, but I would, at the same time, like to protect them from the reality that the people who now run the show would invalidate our kind of family. My life with my children seems nonthreatening enough; it includes taking them to school, cooking dinner together on weekends, sitting through tennis matches and swim meets, helping with homework. Prejudice against an ordinariness that the movement has only so recently achieved feels newly shocking.
When I was twenty-three, I went with my parents to the Dachau concentration camp. There was a display of photographs, including many grotesque images showing emaciated prisoners in tattered stripes, mounds of discarded clothing, slave crews working on pointless exercises. I found my mother, who was not given to public displays of emotion, weeping quietly in front of a photo of a woman walking with a child whose hand she was holding. It was an innocent-looking picture, but it was captioned, “On the way to the gas chambers.” My mother felt dissociated from the prisoner photos, but in that one she saw herself and me. We wondered what that mother had told her child about their destination. My children live in a world that suddenly requires a surrender of their innocence, as I try to explain why we may be less than other families in the eyes of the changing law. We are nowhere near a holocaust in the U.S., but, amid all the nationalistic frenzy of the past few weeks, I have found myself more than once wondering how to tell my son about the people who hate us, from whom I will be able to protect him only imperfectly.
Surrounded by friends, married with children, I nonetheless feel very alone when my government turns against me. I had told Hasan that it wasn’t like that here. I had told my children that we were safe and lucky. I had told my husband that we would go on and on and on and on. Perhaps all of that will remain true, but perhaps it won’t, and that is an adjustment that sears itself into our most mundane activities. No, in October, our family felt very different from how it feels now. We were an open landscape, but now we are a citadel.