Mindfulness and Social Action in the Age of Trump

November 14th, 2016

by Kip Williams

We must be very strong and love each other in order to go on living.
-Audre Lorde

Election day, 2008. I took the day off work and made myself available to the Democratic Party of San Francisco. They sent me to the Castro, San Francisco’s historic gay neighborhood, where I spent the day knocking on doors and getting out the vote. I was still knocking on doors when the neighborhood erupted with jubilant cheering. I called my mama in Tennessee, who told me that Barack Obama had just been declared the President-elect. The polls in California had not even closed yet. I finished my volunteer shift, stopped by Democratic Party headquarters to turn in my report, and rushed back to the Castro with my handheld video camera to witness the celebration. The streets were crowded with a spontaneous block party. People were elated.

Then the results of the state elections began to drift in. In a surprise upset, we realized that Prop 8 was faring better than expected. Something was at stake: If Prop 8 passed, our state’s Constitution would be amended to ban same-sex marriage, stripping away the right to marry that we had achieved through the California Supreme Court earlier that same year. Anxiety, grief, and anger mingled with the celebration. I interviewed people in the streets about their mixed reactions that evening; you can see that video here. Realizing the potential for civil unrest, the police cleared the streets and shut down the neighborhood.

The next morning, we learned that Prop 8 had passed. California voters abused the democratic process to strip rights away from a marginalized group. As a young gay man who moved to San Francisco from rural East Tennessee to find respect and community, Prop 8 was a direct attack on my sense of safety and acceptance. It reopened old wounds from childhood bullying and abuse. On the other hand, it compelled me and many others to rise up and take to the streets – across California and across the country.

What began as a decentralized grassroots uprising developed into a national movement. We brought 150,000 people to march on Washington for full federal equality in October 2009[1], and we continued organizing throughout President Obama’s tenure. We saw many victories in the following years: the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009; the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in 2011; the overturning of Prop 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013; and affirmation by the Supreme Court of the fundamental right to marry in 2015. These years also saw numerous victories at the local, state, and federal levels for gender and sexual minorities, including many executive orders issued by President Obama.

Like many others in the movement, I pursued activism in those years from a position of acting out the rage I felt about many personal traumas in my own life. On the one hand, this was a productive way to channel my pain and anger, and we made a real difference. On the other hand, this approach to activism led to extremely toxic interpersonal relationships and, for many of us, severe burnout. One day in May 2010, I disrupted President Obama’s speech at a Barbara Boxer fundraiser in San Francisco to demand the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell[2]. As the police escorted me out, President Obama said, “His heart wasn’t even in it.” He was right; I was tired and burned out. That was about the time I decided to go back to grad school to become a therapist. I’ve dedicated the last five years to my personal, academic, and professional preparations as a Marriage & Family Therapist.

Here we are in November 2016, one week after a devastating election. In the words of Senator Harry Reid, our President-elect is “a sexual predator who lost the popular vote and fueled his campaign with bigotry and hate”[3]. Trump’s vulgarities, insults, and threats over the course of the last year and a half have taken their toll; now we’re faced with the reality of this man and his administration implementing their vile agenda. Our disgust, heartbreak, and panic this week cannot be reduced to the sour grapes of a lost competition. In a poignant blog, John Pavlovitz said:

Every horrible thing Donald Trump ever said about women or Muslims or people of color has now been validated. Every profanity-laced press conference and every call to bully protestors and every ignorant diatribe has been endorsed. Every piece of anti-LGBTQ legislation Mike Pence has championed has been signed-off on…. We’re not angry that our candidate lost. We’re angry because our candidate’s losing means this country will be less safe, less kind, and less available to a huge segment of its population, and that’s just the truth.

It is good this week to remember November 2008. I don’t pretend to understand what it’s like to be Black in America, or a Muslim, or an immigrant, or a woman. But I know very well what it’s like to have the electorate turn against you, roll back victories already achieved, and strip your rights away. I also know first hand that these painful defeats can set the stage for movement building and for future victories we can’t even imagine in this moment. We get started, of course, by accepting things as they are. I don’t just mean that we accept the results of the election or the polarization and dysfunction in our nation; we also must accept the pain and suffering this brings up for each of us personally and the prejudice and bigotry inside all of us.

Based on my experience first as a leader in the national movement for gender and sexual diversity in the years following Prop 8, and now as a psychotherapist working primarily with sexual minority men in the Bay Area, I would like to share some of my reflections on how we cope with the trauma of this election and commit to the struggle of the months and years ahead. We have our work cut out for us.

1. Regulate your consumption of news and social media

News and social media can help us to stay informed and process our thoughts and feelings. By participating in the conversation, we have an opportunity to express ourselves, to hear other people’s perspectives, and to find out about opportunities to take meaningful actions. But be careful! Sensationalized news and agitated, reactive online conversations add exponentially to the amount of information we have to process. All that unprocessed information is like background noise or a distorted filter that makes it harder to take perspective. Also, scrolling through your newsfeed can be addictive and mind-numbing. Try to limit your intake, and don’t reach for your phone every time you have a free moment. If you notice yourself using the news and social media compulsively, take a break. Notice your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. When we get off of screens and out of our heads, we can start to pay attention to the present moment. It’s also important to get outdoors and connect with the natural world.

2. Take a look inside: pain and fear

For many of us, Trump’s hate-filled campaign and upsetting victory bring back memories of personal experiences of bullying, abuse, assault, and marginalization. He also has made specific policy statements based on resentment, fear, and anger toward human diversity, so many of us worry about our future. When we react to these feelings impulsively without noticing and exploring them, we end up lashing out at the world and at the people who really matter to us. This contributes to alienation, shame, and pain in our personal lives, and it results in movements that are less cohesive and effective than they could be. Tending to our personal traumas, therefore, is good not only for our individual well-being; it is necessary for building healthy and sustainable movements to facilitate social transformation.

This work begins with acceptance – a willingness to experience our painful thoughts and feelings without turning away from them or acting automatically. A combination of individual and/or group therapy and mindfulness meditation can be a great support. Here are some resources for finding a therapist to work with. Note that some of these resources are identity based and/or limited to California; the last two resources are nationwide and all-inclusive.

3. Take a look in the mirror: prejudice and bigotry

A common psychological trap in these moments of crisis is to blame others for what is wrong in the world. Have you noticed how frequently people employ us–them language to imply that Trump and his supporters are the source of all prejudice and bigotry? We all engage in processes of prejudice and bigotry, both internally and externally; the us–them dichotomy is an illusion that lets us pretend that it is someone else’s problem. In addition to looking inside at the personal traumas and fears elicited by this election, we must also look in the mirror and see the qualities we condemn in others reflected right back at us. We can begin to do this by considering questions like:

  • How do racism, classism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia show up in my own thoughts and feelings?
  • How do I handle these thoughts, feelings, and sensations when they arise?
  • How does disavowing these processes contribute to the dysfunction and polarization in this nation and to the continued oppression of various marginalized groups?

This work also involves acceptance – a willingness to experience our own prejudice and bigotry without turning away from them or pretending that they are other people’s problems. We cannot do this kind of work alone; we need support. Some therapists are equipped to support this kind of work individually or in groups. Several non-therapeutic organizations in the Bay Area also offer support specifically to white people who want to engage in this work:

4. Commit to participation in the civic process

The devil whispered in my ear, “You are not strong enough for the storm.”
Today I whispered in the devil’s ear, “I am the storm.”

-Origin unknown

Self-reflection is necessary, but it’s not enough. We are ultimately responsible to participate in the world, to stand up for what matters to us. Civic participation takes many forms, some of which may be public and explicitly political: getting out the vote, lobbying, marching, canvassing, running for office, and organizing our communities, to name a few. Other forms of civic participation may be more private: giving money, volunteering for environmental or social service organizations, and voting, for example. Still other forms of participation are somewhere in between: speaking out on social media, writing blogs or letters to the editor, making art, or bringing together friends and family for sharing and dialogue.

Life circumstances can make participation difficult – school and work, family obligations, health concerns, personal crises, and psychological difficulties can make us feel that we don’t have anything to offer. On the other hand, participation has many personal and social benefits – social connection and support, self-transcendence by being part of something bigger than ourselves, and an opportunity to help others and make an impact on the world. There is no right way to participate, but all of us must ask ourselves if we are doing what we can. In the months and years ahead, I encourage you to stretch your comfort zone. Given your life circumstances and experience, what kind of participation would qualify as bold action for you?

For those who are unclear what kind of work needs to be done, I would like to share a few of Trump’s public statements on the issues. This list is not intended to be exhaustive. Also, given the incoherent and inconsistent statements Trump has made on a number of issues, we have yet to find out what he will actually do. If you feel compelled by these issues or others, do some research on the groups and organizations that are working in your own community and across the country.

  • Trump has stated on several occasions that he will require all American Muslims to register in a federal database[4]. He has also made various statements about deporting immigrants and banning Muslims from immigrating to this country[5].
  • Trump has repeatedly called for and encouraged violence against protesters[6]. He has called for increased policing that puts communities of color at special risk: he openly supports racial profiling[7]and stop-and-frisk policies[8] that increase friction between police and minority communities[9].
  • While Trump has repeatedly promised to preserve social security and Medicare, his transition team includes privatizers[10] and Paul Ryan supports privatization as well[11]. Despite campaign promises to repeal the Affordable Care Act, he has recently signaled he is open to compromise[12], although his campaign manager has also said Trump is considering convening a “special session” of Congress to repeal the law on the day he is inaugurated[13]. It is difficult to discern his intentions at present, but many people are concerned – especially low-income seniors.
  • Trump has made predatory and misogynist comments toward women over the decades[14], and his vulgar comments about grabbing women who do not want to be touched by him[15] amount to sexual assault and promote rape culture. He opposes women’s reproductive rights, and he even promoted legal punishment for women who abort their pregnancies, though he later disavowed his statement[16].

Trump on gender and sexual minorities

Many LGBTQ Americans are especially confused and anxious about what Trump’s election means for us. His comments over the years are inconsistent, so it’s hard to determine a coherent agenda or policy position. Whatever his personal views, the Republican Party released its most explicitly anti-LGBTQ platform this summer[17]. Trump’s running mate Mike Pence has a strong and consistent anti-LGBTQ position[18], and his potential cabinet appointments are a who’s who of homophobic bigots[19]. Seriously, even allowing for my earlier comments about looking at oneself in the mirror, these are some of the most hateful human beings in the country.

Here are a few helpful resources I’ve found to make sense of what this all means for LGBTQ equality.

  • Despite Republican opposition to same-sex marriage – and the history of our rights being taken away, as in Prop 8 – Shannon Minter of the National Center for Lesbian Rights reassured us that marriage equality will not likely be undone[20]. In an interview on the weekend following his election, Trump himself said, “[Marriage] was settled in the Supreme Court. I mean it’s done”[21]. This means that our marriages – and our spouses’ immigration status – are probably secure, and that same-sex couples will likely be able to form new marriages in the future.
  • PinkNews published an overview of what we can actually expect[22]. They included research and specific references. In particular, Trump will likely dismantle every executive order President Obama issued, including the policy allowing transgender students to use the school bathroom of their choice; sign the First Amendment Defense Act to protect and fund discrimination on religious grounds, including so-called “conversion therapy”; and appoint anti-LGBTQ conservatives to the Supreme Court. The Democrat-supported Equality Act, which would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to ban discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation, is dead. Among other things, this means that we will not see federal protections for employment and housing.

I would like to end with this call to action to LGBTQ folks from my friend Kerry Eleveld at Daily Kos:

As LGBTQ Americans, we are called now to do more than just bear witness to the injustices that are surely headed toward us and our allies across different communities. We must stand in our truth and be loud. For those of us who feel safe doing so, it is incumbent upon us to raise holy hell about every right stripped away by Donald Trump, every indignity his administration levies upon us.


Kip Williams is a Marriage & Family Therapist (#93170) in the San Francisco Bay Area and a PhD student in Psychology at Saybrook University with a specialization in Consciousness, Spirituality, and Integrative Health. You can learn more about his practice or contact him here.


References

  1. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/12/us/politics/12protest.html
  2. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/05/25/obama-heckles-his-heckler_n_589730.html
  3. http://www.reid.senate.gov/press_releases/2016-11-11-reid-statement-on-the-election-of-donald-trump#.WCd7muErJAY
  4. http://www.nytimes.com/politics/first-draft/2015/11/20/donald-trump-says-hed-absolutely-require-muslims-to-register/
  5. http://www.nbcnews.com/politics/2016-election/his-words-donald-trump-muslim-ban-deportations-n599901
  6. http://www.nytimes.com/video/us/100000004269364/trump-and-violence.html
  7. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lEsxU_arSvI&feature=youtu.be
  8. http://www.cnn.com/2016/09/21/politics/donald-trump-stop-and-frisk/
  9. http://www2.nycbar.org/pdf/report/uploads/20072495-StopFriskReport.pdf
  10. https://theintercept.com/2016/11/10/donald-trump-ran-on-protecting-social-security-but-transition-team-includes-privatizers/
  11. http://www.salon.com/2016/11/11/paul-ryan-wants-donald-trump-to-let-him-privatize-medicare-gut-obamacare/
  12. https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/11/12/heres-why-trump-is-already-waffling-on-obamacare/
  13. http://www.cnn.com/2016/11/13/politics/kellyanne-conway-trump-special-session-congress/
  14. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/politics/donald-trump-sexism-tracker-every-offensive-comment-in-one-place/
  15. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8wM248Wo54U
  16. http://www.businessinsider.com/donald-trump-abortion-womens-health-platforms-positions-2016-11
  17. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/19/opinion/the-most-extreme-republican-platform-in-memory.html
  18. http://time.com/4406337/mike-pence-gay-rights-lgbt-religious-freedom/
  19. http://www.towleroad.com/2016/11/donald-trump-cabinet/
  20. http://www.nclrights.org/now-that-trump-has-been-elected-can-our-marriage-be-undone/
  21. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/trump-promises-pro-life-justices-supreme-court-same-sex-marriage/
  22. http://www.pinknews.co.uk/2016/11/09/here-is-what-president-trump-means-for-lgbt-rights/

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