In the aftermath of Tuesday’s election, I summon my courage. Already in the past five days there are multiple accounts of Muslim women being harassed at the University of New Mexico, in the university library and on the street. This is the direct result of a campaign in which hate speech was normalized and the racist, sexist posturing of internalized white male supremacy was brought from the shadows back into broad daylight.
I recall the shock I felt when Ronald Reagan was elected President. It was my first time voting in a national presidential election, and my side lost. It was another era in which the rhetoric of hatred won. At that time the hatred was focused like a laser on gays and lesbians. I had just come out. A new frightening disease was named GRID, Gay-related Immune Deficiency. Reagan and his right-wing Christian colleagues called it God’s Punishment. They said it was only right and just that gay men should suffer and die by the thousands. The next twelve years (two rounds of Reagan followed by the first Bush administration) resulted in the gay and lesbian community and their allies getting organized, being courageous, coming out and insisting on their rights as human beings. That effort changed lives, public sentiment, public policy and ultimately the laws of the nation finally stopped allowing the legal discrimination of GLBTQ people.
What movement will this election birth?
Maybe we can learn from one example of loving courage during those years. In 1990, I had just been hired as an Assistant Professor in a small progressive liberal arts college in the Midwest when the Vice President of that college decided there were too many gay and lesbian students. He believed that the admissions office was using some kind of secret code to recruit these unwanted students. He went on a mission to compile the names of all the gay and lesbian staff and faculty working at the college. He wanted to purge the school of this undesirable element. My name, of course, ended up on that list.
It brought to mind the pressure on colleges and universities during the McCarthy era to turn over the names of all faculty who were or had ever been members of the Communist Party. This very same liberal arts college had refused to turn over such a list to the government in the 1950s. But here it was another decade and a different witch hunt was being conducted by a senior administrator.
Word about it leaked out and the Director of Admissions, a straight African American man with a wife and five children, learned of it and declared he was gay. He made a public statement that if the Vice President was looking to get rid of all the gay employees, well, he was one of them. Other straight employees soon followed. Thank you, Jimmy Williams! I will never forget what you did, and that you did not even hesitate. You could have lost your job. The College President then made personal phone calls to the gay men and lesbians on the list. Sitting in my office, I received one of his phone calls. I accepted his apology. He said he had friends who were gay. This whole thing was a misunderstanding.
I share this example because we must be prepared to act with the same courageous sense of unity and oneness. We have to be precise and sophisticated about standing together. Let us be unafraid to be specific in our attention and our actions. Here are some of my suggestions about how we might begin to do this.
Since Trump suggested criminalizing women who have had abortions and trying them as murderers, I suggest that all men and women, regardless of their individual experiences or beliefs, wear tee shirts that state in big, bold letters: I HAVE HAD AN ABORTION. Let’s see if they will arrest all of us. Let us not allow women who have made this difficult decision to suffer in secrecy and shame and be tracked down and prosecuted. Our love for each other is bigger and bolder than that.
Let us keep our eyes open to potential harassers as one Native American woman did on the streets of Albuquerque yesterday. She got out of her car to intervene when a young white man began actively harassing a Muslim woman wearing a hijab. When that man was about to punch our Native American intercessor in the face, another white man stepped up and stopped him. This man held the attacker back so both women could safely leave. Yes, that is exactly what we need to do.
Let us be unafraid to stand with Muslim people. Let us actively reach out and speak up and say aloud that Muslims have a place in the U.S. alongside the rest of us. And men and women, if you want to take it another step further, wear a hijab in public and when confronted with ugly hatred, speak your truth. In the words of Civil Rights activist Bernice Reagan, when they draw the circle to keep you out, draw a larger circle to bring them in.
Another target of this most recent wave of hate are Mexicans. We live side by side as Mexico is part of North American. Remember geography class? Mexicans are Americans. Are we going to pretend Mexicans are not our neighbors, family members and friends? Are we going to forget Mexican food, music, art, literature, cultural customs, holidays and humor are part of our own experiences? Are we going to be silent? Use your creativity, people. How are you going to demonstrate your support of Mexicans living in the U.S., legally and illegally? Isn’t it time right now to create a new Underground Railroad of secret houses for illegal Mexican immigrants to be hidden in safety before the violent round-up of illegals begins to take place in our towns and cities? Isn’t it time for all of us to speak Spanish and push harder than ever for a bilingual nation?
And what about Trump’s insistence on stop and search? Policing is already race-based. We cannot be silent about it another minute. How do we organize ourselves more effectively to impact the way African American men and their communities are policed? White people must stop thinking of police attacks on African Americans as unrelated incidents when the pattern is clearly documented. There is a reason why police officers are not held accountable for crimes of murdering African American men and women, and it is rooted in our history. We need Truth and Reconciliation to heal the divide that continues to harm us. Can we begin to be brave enough, heart-centered enough, to hear each other’s pain so that we can begin the long road to recovery? Are we willing to reconcile the ruptures that divide us? Who will lead this? Who will participate? Can we make this happen without government support? Of course we can. We are the people.
Finally, and no it’s not final, but I cannot fail to address the horrifying ridicule of differently-abled people that Trump displayed, and which was re-played over and over just in case we missed it the first time. So how do we speak back to bullying behavior?
Maybe we need to begin expressing gratitude for our differences, whether they are physical, mental, emotional or spiritual. Can we see our differences as learning opportunities instead of wounding opportunities?
If you see someone being bullied for being homeless, poor, blind, deaf, old or in a wheelchair, or for being female, gay, trans, Mexican or Muslim, what are you going to do? Start practicing that now. Role play with your friends while you are safe and comfortable. Get ready to be uncomfortable. Get ready for the moment when you are the innocent bystander so you don’t just stand by. Prepare yourself to respond immediately with intelligence, courage and love. We cannot afford to spend the next four to eight years frozen and numb. And if you are the target of hatred, practice making noise. Be loud! The rest of us will be alert, listening and ready to respond.
In the midst of what is surely becoming the next culture war, how can we remain strong and effective at communicating humility, compassion, kindness? How do we not become our own enemies by ridiculing those who believe and act differently than we do? How do we extend compassion across the boundaries that divide us?
This new movement will create new coalitions. We have a lot to learn from each other. Whether you are wearing a safety pin to show you are a safe person or not, you need to practice compassion and be prepared to bring it. We are not alone in this effort toward greater humanity. The impromptu community that has formed in support of the water protectors at Standing Rock is an example to us. The organizational efforts of Black Lives Matter is an example to us. The Civil Rights Movement is an example. Gandhi’s non-violent movement for Indian independence is an example. The anti-apartheid movement is an example. There are more. Look to those individuals and groups who brought more light, more love, more truth, more beauty or more joy into the world. Let’s emulate that.
Friends, it is time to act with tremendous loving courage. It is time to believe we can be better, individually and collectively. Let us support each other not to give up or check out but to care for ourselves and each other as we take steps toward unity. There is so much at stake.