A Call To Action For Refinery29
Ok, the unthinkable has happened; the hot tempered reality star with the golden elevator and trigger happy tweeting thumbs is coming in to the most powerful position in the free world. We have handed a drunk teenager the keys to America's Nuclear Party House, he gets to stock the Supreme Court fridge, and crash the Foreign Policy Ferrari. We will watch as he tries to grab Planned Parenthood by the pussy, chuck millions of immigrants over a wall, and turn the Prison system into his own private fight club, while we're left scrubbing Swastikas off middle school bathroom stalls.
It makes sense that this happened. Trump is a divider, and we humans are weak to the temptations of something to hate. We love a good rush, to get worked up in the defense of our way of life, even if the enemy is a fact-free cartoon. We love to pretend that this hasn't reliably happened throughout history, when humanity was pied-pipered away from it's civil decency by the indelible smell of freshly baked fear. Rwanda, Bosnia, World War II, all atrocities with wheels greased by campaigns of dehumanization. The propaganda is "us" vs "them". "They" are all a certain way, which is not "our" way, and therefore, "they" have to be stamped out before they wipe us off the map! And did we mention that they are subhuman monsters? Cockroaches, deviants, rodent scum. Send them back to where they came from.
I stepped onto the TED stage in late 2012 a jittery mess. I'd only ever given one hour and a half long public ramble before, and I was stressed about cramming years of ideas into a clean 18 minute manifesto. I was freezing and sweating at the same time.
I was there to tell the world about a project I had been working on, called Self Evident Truths. For it, I had set out to photograph several thousand people in the USA, who identified as anything other than 100% straight, with the intention of humanizing a community that was legally discriminated against. Back then, I had photographed 1700 people in 15 cities, and had discovered that people were moving away from identifying as simple "gay" or "straight". They felt more honestly themselves with nuanced definition of their identity. I was going to use the story of my unorthodox upbringing, identifying as a boy and dating both genders, to humanize my points.
I got through my 18 minutes without peeing my pants and went back to my canapés. Then 2.5 million people watched what I had to say and everything changed. I realized I would have to expand my goal to 10,000 faces, shoot in all 50 States, and when I was finished, I wanted to take this massive document of a community to America's great center of protest art - the National Mall.
Three years later, I'm at 9,804 faces, from every State in this Nation, and everything has changed again. I wrote a book about my story, and I realized that despite my accepting upbringing, I had been ignoring an essential element of my self; I was still, at least partially, what I had been since I was born - a boy on the inside. As I traveled the country speaking to auditoriums full of students hungry for answers, I found myself unable to clarify some for myself. People wanted to know - am I transgender? Will I transition? What pronoun do I use? What does it all mean? I inched my way toward "he/him/his", but all I could really tell people was what felt right that day, until finally I made the switch to “he/him” officially.
As it became clear that tangerine Mussolini was actually going to take the Oval Office, many liberal people were overcome with a feeling akin to the flu - a poisoning of the body that would last several days. The only thing that picked me up off the tissue littered floor was a slew of emails and text messages from friends and collaborators relighting the fires of activism and communal gathering that had perhaps fizzled out in recent years.
The question became, "what do we do now?" We are all aware of the dangers of division, but how do we overcome it?
This thrilled me to my core. My phone has been exploding with emails and invitations, groups of concerned friends forming around a need for togetherness. Many of them are women who are interested in gathering groups of women. Some of them don't know that I am using male pronouns. Some of them do, but don't know how to handle it. Am I still invited to sit at a table of women gathered to discuss a positive impact on young girls?
In my original talk, I asked where discrimination draws the line. Where does straight end and gay start? At what point are you no longer entitled to the legal protections of a heterosexual? How gay do you have to be? Now, all this exploration later, I find myself in the same conundrum. Where do we draw the gender line? Is it at pronouns? Or at my breasts? Do I stop being included in these conversations once I have a beard, or is my awareness of a manhood within my spirit enough to leave me at home with the rest of the boyfriends? I don't identify with Trans culture particularly, but if I were forced to pick a label, technically that would be the correct label for my dysphoria. Am I still gay? Am I still allowed in lesbian spaces? I do have a vagina. At what point is this divisiveness more constraining than it is empowering?
In contemplating how this train wreck could have come to a halt in our front yard, many are looking at what “we” could have done differently – us being liberal minded, or even conservative people who draw the line at corruption, sexual assault, and outright racism in the White House. News anchors and pundits spend hours on air dissecting “how the blue wall crumbled”, and why millennials didn’t turn up to vote for “her”. I’ve watched great minds of my generation, thinking people, double down and entrench themselves, heels dug into their belief systems, unwavering in their certainty of “our” rightness, and “their” wrongs. “We” are sane. “They” are dangerous. “They” must be stopped, stamped out, set straight.
Who are “we”? Who are “they”? Since when do we buy into this notion of a people who unilaterally believe the same things? When did we jump ship on nuance? Is it really a Republican thing, or just a human thing? Are “we” not just as capable of lumping people together under the banner of the threat they pose to our way of life and trying to ship them out of our field of view?
Essentially, in our eagerness to drink the cost-of-safety Koolaid, we ourselves begin to froth at the mouth, hungering for a taste of savagery. Somehow it becomes ok that Trump is endorsed by the KKK, because he's going to protect us from those rapists across the border. It doesn't matter that his top adviser hates Jews and loves the alt-right, because those Muslims like to blow stuff up. How could these uneducated hillbillies support this charlatan? They must be savage, camo clad, long-bearded beasts waving their AK47s around, protecting their plantations and colonies of white people.
Trump did not invent the tornado of vitriol, nor the pack mentality, he simply paved the way for unfounded conspiracy theories to ensconce us like ethnocentric dust storms, because he encouraged us to divide and simplify. He awakened an ever-present tendency in ALL of us, to reduce each other's beautiful humanity to tweet-length summations.
I am calling on all of us, “free-thinking”, “liberal” and “conservatives” alike, to re-examine how we group and dismiss people. I am asking us all to spend some time contemplating the dangers of generalization, and the horrors that follow when we strip people of the details that give them humanity. Will we survive a future through the long lens of assumptions? I doubt it. Will we now, in the face of this surely torrid coming four years, entrench ourselves in our online echo chambers and start twitter wars with those we disdain, never coming to know them beyond their outermost layers? Or will we begin to dismantle the myths, laid in our path like rice krispie treats in front of a diabetic, by getting to know eachother. There ceases to be an “other” when we embrace the fact that everyone is an other to someone else. Everyone’s shadows house someone else’s life.