Love Trumps [blank]

The New York Bubble exists, though not quite in the smarmy and oblivious ways the Right indicates that it does. We function and think as island people––our thoughts are right, our opinions have weight, our culture is our greatest export. We are as worldly and intricate as the city we live in. We are the beating heart of the great American experiment, the product of melding cultures from distant nations. We love immigrants, Muslims, and queer people because they are our neighbors, our colleagues, and our friends. Our exposure to otherness is at the core of our defense of and allegiance to otherness, so as politics go, we tend to think we’re all roughly on the same page. 

At times, it seems as though the eight-or-so million of us Over Here are blissfully missing out on what’s happening Over There on the continent attached to New Jersey. If you don’t go above 14th Street much, it’s easy to forget that Donald Trump isn’t a New York anomaly, existing at once with the gaudiness of an oil baron and the classlessness of the racist, sexist uncle who gets rolled out for the holidays as a reminder of your past life. He is of this place, we have more like him, and plenty more who love him.

A few weeks ago, I found myself in a beautiful New York City apartment with four millennial women. I only knew one of them, so we made small talk. At first glance, they were a pretty mixed bag of backgrounds and ambitions. But the conversation turned when my ears perked at a sentiment roughly along the lines of, “Ugh, poor people.” 

I must not have hid my shock well because within moments they clarified that they were Trump supporters, all unapologetic in their admission. They freely admitted that birth control, preventive care, and temporary food stamp assistance were among the things they deemed unworthy of their tax dollars. They dismissed them as “Monday problems.” Nothing ruins a weekend like combatting poverty.

I finally pushed, “Don’t you believe that as a society, as Americans, it is our obligation to help those in need and who are without?” 

“No,” they replied in unison. Another added , “It’s just Darwinism. If you won’t get a job, you should starve.”

What had seemed to be a room of allies––self-professed lovers of gay men––was actually hostile territory not only for a Democrat, but for a feminist. It was unclear to them “what the whole deal with feminism was” and they wondered why the Left couldn't hold civil conversation with the Right. I didn't raise my voice once, but was yelled at for almost a full hour. I learned an important thing about what is fueling our long national nightmare: Love trumps hate, but wealth trumps love. 

I grew up to a single mom in Norfolk, Virginia. By the time my father left, he had drained the retirement she’d earned by forty, leaving us with no car, the need for food stamps, and a mile walk to the closest grocery store, which is a marathon for a five-year-old holding up his disabled mother. I moved outside of the city to cheaper housing when I was very little and into what could now decidedly be called Trump Country. I remember boys who could shoot automatic weapons before they knew how to drive a car, much less scramble eggs. I remember one who would scream “Sieg heil” at me and tables of black kids. This was in middle school, this was in 2004, this was in a state with a good economy, with good public schools, and in the Navy town where ethnic diversity wasn’t at all uncommon. 

My Thanksgivings were furnished by municipal food banks, and often what was under my tree was given to me by school donation programs. My lunches were free, and I was humiliated for that for years––kids asked, “You think you’re special? Just because you don’t have to pay?” Imagine if I'd had to sweep floors for it like Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia’s First would have had me do. All of these things were so, yet I am still a white, cisgender, college-educated, able-bodied man. Any of these things would have been made exponentially worse on account of race, religion, ability, or gender, without a question in my mind, and that is never lost on me.

Cornered in conversation with wealthy, white people indicting the working poor, I found myself in the echo chamber.  The expectation seemed to be that I should shut up and listen to a lecture for poor people, me, by rich people, them, on what it’s like to actually be poor, with an emphasis on opinion over lived experience. As if tone deafness were an Olympic sport, the gold medalist of the event told me with a straight face that making $250,000 per year basically meant that you were impoverished in New York City, while sitting in a high-rise as she insisted that our experiences and struggles were “the same.”

Spoiler: They aren’t. 

I framed my liberalism with the story about my mother and my childhood so that they could better understand my views and was met with, “Well we all have problems,” which ignores the simple fact that some problems derail a person’s welfare more easily than others. When it came to public spending they were all guided by the same idea, that human life has worth only if it isn’t at a dime’s expense for other people.

I should never be the most feminist person in a room where I am the only man. I’d thought by now it would be impossible. But here’s the kicker: In the fight for reproductive health? Should the wealthiest third of the 53% of white women who voted for Trump need an abortion, or should they wish to remain on birth control, they know that they can. To their standard, it isn’t a public health issue, it’s a private health issue. To their standard, if you are a woman that can’t get a safe abortion because a clinic is too far away, if not in another country, or because it’s too expensive, then you should have just been more responsible. Or just not had sex in the first place. 

The nihilism of modern conservatism says that you deserve what is coming to you if you can’t afford to prevent it. By this same logic, if my PrEP goes away, it must be because I’ve made decisions in my life that OUGHT TO PREVENT me from affording a medication that costs $1500 per month, and that the risk of HIV infection comes with daring to be sexually active AND poor AND gay. If birth control becomes prohibitively expensive, it’s seen as "a price that must be paid" for low-income women “who should be more responsible about having kids in the first place,” not a Problem. It sidelines the necessity for treating potentially life-threatening reproductive conditions to say definitively that contraception is a luxury not everyone can afford, as though a woman’s reproductive health is less a human right than a mere choice to up-charge for guacamole. If you need a safe abortion, access is all but guaranteed to those who can afford it because by their standard nothing is unattainable if the price is right, while ignoring the women who cannot afford it and shaming them for both their decisions and their poverty.

“America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.” 

Gay men have plenty of skin in the game for women’s physical rights, and it’s high time we all took notice. White, cisgender gay men have a newly attained luxury that is not afforded the rest of our community––to do what is socially expedient and convenient, sometimes in lieu of what is right. These women I shared an evening with have gay friends who don’t seem bothered by the fact that they voted for Roe to be overturned, for healthcare to become untenably expensive, and for guidance from the White House that protects transgender people to go away, all for the sake of money. 

This is to say nothing of the fact that we are now five (count 'em––five) state legislatures away from Republicans having the kind of control to start flying Constitutional amendments through the ratification process. For those who aren't brushed up on their civics, all you need is an amendment to make an unconstitutional thing constitutional, which can jeopardize access to abortions, just as it jeopardizes gay marriage. We’ve become comfortable thinking for a second that the fight was over, and because gay men sometimes have the luxury of being able to pick and choose when we are angry, we sometimes sit back when it is our obligation to be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with women. Without wanting to understand, or worse, by being disinterested in women's physical rights, we cannot fully protect queer rights. But they are inextricable.

Misogyny and homophobia are cut from the exact same cloth. But the equality we once demanded for ourselves we sometimes only selectively afford to others. Ah, the seduction of privilege! Yet that newly gained privilege obligates us to use the same might and focus we used fighting for marriage equality to advocate for women, for their equality, and for their reproductive health. We did not get to the steps of the Supreme Court alone. We got there on the shoulders of suffragettes and the women who held us when we were sick and marched for us when we were gone—extraordinary women who demanded nothing less than equality for themselves and for us. To turn a blind eye now, to ignore when women’s rights are traded away, is a betrayal of the community we promised we were and that we strive to become. 

To anyone on the fence about the worthiness of their money going to healthcare for all women, there has to be social capital in the wealthiest country in the history of the world. I should not be deadlocked in a conversation about how I grew up poor and am happy to pay my fair share of taxes to the benefit of the American people with folks who grew up wealthy and believe that institutionally helping others is tantamount to communism. “Free money,” as they call it, is fine when people need access to care, shelter, and food, and until we live in a world where welfare reforms do not automatically disadvantage women and people of color, I am happy to throw my weight and what few dollars I have to spare behind ensuring a better life for all of us. Nothing is worth having to live like this. Help doesn’t have to come in a box that I––or you––individually say is worthy of my tax dollars, it just has to come at all. 

My advice for the long road ahead of us is this: Do your part as best as you can, whenever and however you can. Every time you get paid, take two dollars out and give it to the first homeless person you see. If someone has leftovers at dinner, box ‘em up because folks have to eat. Give what you can where it can do the most good. Be a clinic escort. Set up a monthly donation for an organization you believe in, even if you only have ten dollars to spare. Be a good ally—know when it's time to speak up, and when it's time to yield the floor and listen.

Ian Stearns is an advocate, contributor, and erstwhile secondary lead of Victorian comedies. His upcoming series CIVICS FOR ANGRY PEOPLE will soon be available where YouTube is streamed. He enjoys dark chocolate and prestige political drama. 

 

 

 

Ian Stearns