Several members of my family and friends supported Donald Trump in the presidential election. I’ve been trying to understand why, while grappling with the fear of an uncertain future.
Fear is a familiar concept to any marginalized group. As a member of the LGBTQ community, I’ve experienced it all throughout my life. And in the wake of this historic presidential election, I’m feeling fear that I never hoped I would have to face again and fear that I’ve never quite faced before.
I didn’t realize just how rooted in fear my life has been until I began trying to process my feelings after Donald Trump became the President-Elect. I come from a small coal town in West Virginia – a state that has become thoroughly red. And while I love that little town and the people in it, fear entered my consciousness early and stayed there. As a kid just discovering the concept of sexuality, I feared the attractions I was having, because what I was feeling was different than what I believed I was supposed to feel. I feared allowing myself to be okay with those feelings, because that would make me different…wrong…an abomination. I feared someone figuring out that I was different, even if I wasn’t yet admitting that I was. I feared the schoolyard bullies who figured it out anyway. Eventually, when I did allow myself to be okay with being gay, I feared coming out. I feared losing my family and friends. I feared being a disappointment to my parents. I feared that someone in that little town might hurt me because I was different.
Each time I faced one of those fears, I realized how unfounded they were. I had become so worried about imagined negative outcomes that I failed to consider any other option. Or maybe I just didn’t believe any other option was possible. But with time and experience, I learned that those feelings I felt were okay, that being different could be a beautiful thing, that my family and friends loved me, that my parents are proud of me, and that the people in that town had more acceptance in their hearts than I'd given them credit for.
The fear subsided the older I got and the more progressive and accepting society became. I began to feel safe. Over the past eight years, I’ve seen an advancement in LGBTQ equality that I wasn’t sure I would ever see in my lifetime. I can now marry the person I love and feel secure in the legal binding of that vow. I can raise a family. I can have the same life that all my heterosexual friends and family have never had to fight for or live without.
Today, however, I find myself once again grappling with fear – a familiar yet quite different fear. Over the next four years, that safety and security could be taken away from me. Because for many of us, there’s still the very real fear that marriage isn’t a right – it’s a privilege. I don’t want to feel that way. I don’t want to fear that way. While I’m neither married nor a parent, many of my close gay friends are both and are currently distraught over the possibility that their marriages and families could be in danger. It isn’t an overreaction. It’s real, grounded fear.
That fear stems in part from partisan politics. It was going to surface if the Republican candidate for president was elected, no matter who it was. If Trump hadn’t been the Republican nominee – if a more rational choice had filled that slot on the ballot – I would still be feeling that fear. I would be fearful about the social progress we’ve made being reversed with a shift in political power. But that’s the familiar side of this fear. It’s the other side that is new and deeply unsettling. I worry that the American people have become so divided and so collectively fearful for so many different reasons that I don’t know how we begin to heal.
I don’t need to rehash all the horrifying things Trump said during his campaign – or the horrifying things he’s said and done for many years. That’s all well documented. The fact that those horrifying things propelled him to the most powerful position in the country says to me that our culture is very damaged. I fear that people are already seeing these disgusting actions and remarks as okay, as celebratory even, and are being empowered by them to spread hate and violence. Many Americans responded to Trump’s behavior by choosing to support him because of them. We’re seeing that in the many dangerous responses to his victory. My Facebook feed already has examples of homophobic and racist treatment of people in the name of President Trump. And it goes both ways. Many people against Trump are participating in violent protests and falsifying claims of violence in the name of his presidency, which only serves to worsen the damage and widen the divide.
I also fear the message this is sending our children, many of whom feel that they’re in danger simply because they are different. It’s already happening. And it’s scary. My teacher friends have talked about being unable to comfort minority students who worry that they’ll be targeted for violence or deportation. Another friend’s son, when waking up for school to hear that Trump won the election, said “Rest in Peace, America.” What message are we sending to our young people?
It’s been almost too much to process, but I knew that I had to, because it has happened. And because I have to find a way to be okay with the fact that so many people I love supported this vile man. Some members of my immediate family did not vote for Trump, and there’s solace in that for me. But others did, and I couldn’t understand why.
The immediate response when I saw someone I know express support for Trump was to unfriend or unfollow them on social media – to create a cocoon in which I am only exposed to views similar to my own. That’s the easy thing to do. But I love my friends and family, even those who believe differently than me. So as I struggled to comprehend how they could support someone that instills so much fear in me, and how I could continue to consider them part of my life, I decided not to run from them but to try and understand, especially as the holiday season approaches, when I’ll be back in that town, surrounded by people who feel so differently than me.
The easiest thing to do is to lump all Trump supporters into one category – to imagine them all as clones of Trump himself and assume they all harbor the same prejudices as does he. The difficult thing to do is empathize with them – to understand why, in spite of the character traits that frighten me (the racism, homophobia, xenophobia, misogyny, etc.), they saw and heard the same things and voted for him anyway. They condoned these behaviors. So Wednesday morning, while my fear and disappointment were raw and my emotions high, I began trying to understand by weeding through the posts of Trump supporters on my Facebook page. It was an eye-opening but helpful process.
I had to remember that we all lend our support to political candidates whose agenda aligns most closely with our personal beliefs and circumstances, which in turn shape our priorities, and we condition ourselves to ignore faults while clinging to the solutions we seek. A year ago, I was in a doctor's office waiting room in a rural community similar to my hometown where a group of people, including a woman whose husband was an unemployed coal miner, were discussing politics. In response to who she thought would make a good presidential candidate, this wife and mother, in her camouflage, ankle-length dress and blaze orange flip-flops, shakily said, "He scares me, but Donald Trump." I couldn't fathom her thought process. As I read through the many posts of my friends and relatives this week, the reasoning became evident – and while no less disagreeable and disheartening, at least somewhat more understood.
I realized these are people who feel so failed and forgotten by the current system that they chose to support Trump, in spite of those terrible comments and actions, simply because he spoke to their own fears with the solutions they hoped to hear. They’ve lost jobs, and Trump said he would create them. They lack health care and are dissatisfied with the Affordable Care Act, and Trump has vowed to repeal it. They want a coal resurgence, and Trump promised one. Particularly unsettling, some of them (not all, which is important to say) fear people who look and live differently than they do, and Trump promised to remove those people and keep them from entering the United States. I have to accept that their desire for these things, as flawed as I think some of them are, is as strong and guiding as is my desire to be treated equally as a citizen of this country and not have to live in fear anymore.
My rights to live, love, marry and raise a family just the same as anyone else are vital to me. Issues like the economy and health care are equally vital, obviously, and I educated myself on my chosen candidate’s plans regarding them, but in all honesty, they weren’t the driving factors behind my vote. At the moment, I do have a steady income and health insurance, so I don’t have to face daily the absence of those things. And I haven’t experienced, firsthand anyway, the ramifications of the poverty, unemployment, lack of health coverage and substance abuse problems that have emerged in my hometown in the wake of coal’s decline. I see it when I choose to return home, but I admittedly don’t do that very often. I think some people believe I do that because I’m, as folks might say, “above my raising.” It isn’t that. It’s that my life – my views, my interests, my goals – has never quite meshed with the way of life in such towns. It’s not about being better than. It’s about being different from. And often in small towns – in any town – “different from” is a very difficult thing to be.
But that statement brings me back to my original subject: fear. I do fear what could happen under Trump’s leadership, as did many of these same people under President Obama’s, I know. I also fear that the promises Trump made to sway people like those I’ve discussed here were nothing more than the propaganda of a carnival barker saying whatever lies were necessary to achieve his quest for power, because to think that a New York billionaire has the best interest of a West Virginia coal miner in mind just doesn’t compute for me. But I am also beginning to accept the fact that this has happened and that many people in my life helped us get here, for better or for worse, and understanding why they made that choice despite the harm I feel it could do not only me but our entire country and world. And at least that’s something.
Don’t misunderstand me. I’ve purposely used the word fear a lot here, but I’m not buckling under it. I’m just acknowledging it, so I can begin to move forward and work to help ensure that the progress we’ve made together isn’t undone. I’m still processing, as we all are doing. I also know this won’t last forever. That’s how our political system works. President Obama won with a message of change in 2008. He brought change that upset and mobilized enough people to not elect someone who would continue his agenda. In four or eight years, the same thing will happen again. This too shall pass. But what progress might be undone in the interim, and where will we be as a society when we get there?
To end where I began: those are things I fear.
When I first posted this piece, I wasn’t trying to force my beliefs on anyone. Instead, I set out to better understand the motivating factors of others and to possibly lessen the divide between us. I was worried that the people I was writing about would receive it as angry or insulting, not the respectful and honest attempt to understand that I wanted it to be. But I posted it anyway.
And something remarkable happened. I immediately heard from many people about their reasoning, their circumstances and fears, and our mutual love for one another on all sides of these issues. I even connected with people who admittedly knew little about what was causing my own fear and expressed an open-minded willingness to learn. It warmed my heart.
Has any of us changed our mind? I don’t think so. I certainly haven’t, but, as I said above, that wasn’t my intent.
Have I at least been able lessen what I thought would be a very difficult divide to close? Yes, or I’m off to a healthy start, at least. I hope those of you reading this – especially those of you feeling fear for whatever reasons – can begin to do the same thing if you try.