I was 19-years-old when I came out to the very first person. Sheltering myself under a pile of blankets on a particularly cold November night, I told my roommate — and best friend — that I had something to confess. It took over forty minutes for me to curve my lips and exhale my voice in such a way to enunciate the sounds that formed the words, “I’m bisexual.” It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever said. It was also one of the best.
Surrounded by friends and family in a cocoon of love and support, in a city where my identity was supported — I eventually figured out my sexuality (I identify as gay today) and seized ownership over my identity.
Above all, this election is about ownership. It is about the piece of American pie that we call our own. Citizens who feel like they have lost ownership in their country are rallying for Donald Trump. In some cases, this loss of ownership is symptomatic of a true (and painful) problem, such as the bleeding of jobs and opportunities out of some of the whitest and poorest places in our country — Appalachia as one key example. In other cases, this loss of ownership is an optics problem. Older white men now live in a country where equality for queer citizens is no longer an open question, and where their life-long beliefs are labeled as bigotry — often by their own children returning from public universities. How “bigoted” those beliefs actually are, varies of course, but the feeling of loss, of a national tarnish onto their American dream, is all too real.
For marginalized people, we feel like things have barely gotten started. Our issues are vast and not comparable across groups, but across the spectrum, there is this feeling of a great incompletion. Lack of protection for LGBTQ+ people in the workplace, not enough understanding of our transgender friends in society, police brutality against people of color, institutional systems that seem rigged against the poor. These and many more issues, for us, are the building blocks of an unfinished America.
For people of privilege, it appears as if all the blocks of a perfect America have been knocked loose sometime over the past eight years. For the rest of us, we know that they’ve never been a part of the structure at all.
Even in a city as inclusive as my college town, you still hear stories. A friend of mine (who doubles as a tireless activist) has been punched on the street twice, met with homophobic slurs. Our friends of color have stories of being discriminated by law enforcement, our classmates from families of immigrants tell us about how badly they want to make it.
I went back to my hometown the summer after coming out. I was walking through a public park with an old friend, catching up on life and how old we were getting. I was wearing jean shorts and a blue tank top; he was wearing cargo shorts and a polo. As we walked parallel to the road bordering the park, a car full of boys in Vineyard Vines polo’s yelled, “Fags!” out the window as they drove by and laughed. I was gay, my friend was not.
“I guess they could tell?” I asked with half a grin.
“We were just fucking walking!” My friend replied in disbelief.
For me, Donald Trump represents the worst elements of America. He represents the drunken punks who punched my friend, the rude kids who scream epithets out the window, the people who act and behave as if nothing is on the line for them — because they are not an ethnic or sexual minority, often nothing is. He says whatever he wants, he degrades any group he wants, he dismisses anybody who does not subscribe to his cultish religion of self-flattery, and he is fully immune to criticism. He doesn’t have to consider other experiences, he doesn’t have to engage in dialogues with people different from him because he is already at the top of the food chain — the status quo works just fine for him. He has said so himself, boasting of influencing politicians through money and gifts.
That’s not to say that Hillary Clinton is a perfect repudiation of that. She is a policy wonk more than a symbol, and throughout her career, she clearly skirted the lines of legality and ethics to play the political game. But the flack she gets for this — while deserved — is outrageously outsized when considering the sins of her opponent. But he is so outlandish, so hyperbolic, that it is impossible to hold him to the same standard. When Hillary skirts ethical rules the conversation is about how she is corrupt, but when Donald Trump does it, the conversation is about how he is a savvy businessman who exploited the rules of the game for his company.
Contradictory standards. Not too unlike how when a black man is killed by police they tell us all the terrible things he used to be, but when a white man rapes we hear about all the great things he could become.
This Presidential election isn’t about who wins the game, it’s about defining the rules of the game.
In 2014, conservatives across America revolted at the news of a revised AP United States History curriculum. AP United States History — referred fondly (or loathsomely) as “APUSH” by students taking the class — is a course that prepares students for a College Board test that can earn them college credit in high school. The revised course materials emphasized oppressed peoples, the various sins of America, and critically examined ideas like “Manifest Destiny” as racially problematic.
The Republican National Committee eventually joined conservative teachers in condemning the new curriculum, saying that by not emphasizing the “positive aspects” of America, the new coursework was “radically revisionist.”
Last summer I went on a date with a nice guy in my hometown who ultimately wasn’t the right fit. We were walking around an outlet mall, flirting and getting to know each other like any two people on a first date would. After teasing each other inside a J. Crew, we walked out of the storefront onto the front sidewalk where he gave me a quick kiss.
An older man with thinning hair and angry face that we hadn’t noticed stared us down. He looked as if he wanted to say something, but instead he just opened the door to the J. Crew as forcefully as he could, and huffed away. It was possibly the best reaction we could have expected.
A few months later I would once again be living in my college town. Going on a second date with a boy I liked very much, he grabbed my hand as we exited a public park. Maybe he felt me tense up, or maybe he was just extra courteous, because after a few steps he asked, “Is this okay?”
It was, but it wasn’t.
“Make America Great Again,” Donald Trump proclaims. For people who believe that life was better ten, twenty years ago — it is a tempting promise. It should be no surprise that Donald Trump’s biggest group of supporters are older, cis-gendered, straight, white men. These are people who have had their political rights secured since the shedding of property requirements in the 1800s — requirements that were oftentimes left in place for Black Americans.
These are the terms the election is set on. Those of us who see the great American project as an unfinished venture, and those who feel it was completed and done twenty years ago. That is why for those of us who see oppression; our vote is a moral issue. How could we go back to an era that was even fundamentally less free than today? Even if the economy was a bit better during parts of it.
And so my vote for Hillary Clinton is indisputable. It is 100%. It is set in stone. Not because she is perfect, or because I think she has had the best judgment on all things in her career. Her legacy on many issues is mixed, and in some cases, she has taken far too long to reach the far too obvious conclusions on mandatory sentencing, gay rights, and a myriad of other issues. But the alternative is moving backward. The alternative is affirming an America where we don’t want our students to learn about our nation’s sometimes ugly past, where it is okay to harass Hispanic students in your class because your President does it.
The alternative is the demonization of immigrants, the oppression of marginalized people, the belief that our country would be better off if only we could mimic a crueler and less politically free era.
This Presidential election is a contest between things — Enlightenment of casual ignorance, empathy or division, bullying banter or dialogue, acceptance or rejection — that all ultimately boil down to one choice: backwards or forwards. And I chose forward.