Coping with Post-Election Fears in an LGBT Context
There are countless blogs being written this week about the election results, and since I write the blog regularly, it seems only fitting that I contribute. But I wanted to offer something I haven’t seen written yet, which is coping with the election of Trump in a more specific LGBT context. With all due respect to the grief, fears and worries among groups like women, Latinos, Muslims, environmentalists, and many other groups likely to be threatened or impacted by the new administration’s policies, since my focus is on LGBT mental health in general and gay men’s mental health in particular, that’s my focus today.
Right after 9/11, a friend of mine said to some straight co-workers, “Welcome to my world.” What he meant by that is that gay men had already seen collective tragedy and loss that demanded coping skills on a massive scale, meaning the AIDS crisis and the general fight for gay rights before that. That same sinking feeling I felt in the pit of my stomach, I feel now. But we must maintain hope, despite the very likely fight ahead.
The LGBT community is resilient. When California Governor Pete Wilson vetoed AB101, a bill for LGBT protections, we protested en masse then, screaming and making noise to drown out his (already-squeaky, obnoxious) voice at a speech at UCLA. We marched in a huge group through Century City Shopping Center. We staged a sit-in at the intersection of Wilshire and Westwood Boulevards in Los Angeles, at one time said to be the busiest intersection in the world. When Prop. 8 was passed, we marched again, and began a prolonged and relentless campaign to see that overturned. In short, when we are oppressed, we don’t cower, fight back.
How do you cope with the fears that the Trump administration brings? Already, he’s appointed officials from the Family Research Council, designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its use of lies and manipulation of the public to influence law and policy, to his transition team for domestic issues. Anti-LGBT figures will likely be appointed to the departments of Health and Human Services (which influences health care research, medical care, medications, etc.) and Education, which will likely bring back “abstinence-only” and “don’t say gay” restrictions on federal funding. The list goes on, and the fears are real. But for right now, the fears are still vague, because the actual policy changes are yet to be identified and implemented as law of the land.
What are the steps to coping with this? They include these:
Step 1: Identifying and Recognizing Fear
The first step in coping with fear is just recognizing it and naming it. It can take the form of numbness, perhaps even cheerfulness, obsessive thinking, chattiness, irritability, clinginess, compulsive work/exercise, impulsivity, and more. All of them are forms of fear. Fear is the mind and body’s way of protecting us throughout evolution (there, I said that word). If we didn’t have fear to protect us from harm, humankind would have died out years ago. But we want to differentiate between real fears and potential ones. Fear motivates us to protect ourselves to act, both after something has happened and in response to the threat of something about to happen. The way to deal with fear is to assess the situation, and deal with things both as they are right now, and what they could be in the near future (think about instinctively driving a car to avoid a potential hazard on the road ahead, or about buying insurance to ward off the fear of a loss like fire, flood, or theft at your home, or an accident with your vehicle).
Step 2: Making the Fear Specific
Right now, there is much anticipatory anxiety of what the new administration with Trump and his cabinet will bring. It’s a bit of an unknown quantity, which both makes it scarier on the one hand, and offers hope on the other. Some people have written that the election of Trump means more about the economic frustrations of an unemployed or under-employed American heartland than it does about bigotry, but we’ve already seen an uptick in hate crimes in just the past few days, so if it’s “still about the economy, stupid”, the side-effect is that bigots have been emboldened from the government level to the schoolyard.
Try to make your own fears specific. Are you afraid of being personally harmed in a hate crime? Are you afraid of losing money or benefits as an LGBT person? Are you afraid for things not related directly to you, but to people you care about that you have empathy for, such as students at an elementary school? Are you afraid for policies that will harm other groups besides the LGBT community? Are you afraid of foreign policy issues, or even war? Whatever your specific fear is, is where your coping response should be. Whatever that primary area of fear is, is where you can direct your efforts to help. How does your fear manifest? Do you feel it in your body somewhere, or does it “come out” as an emotional expression, or in your interpersonal relationships?
Step 3: Converting Fear into Motivation
While the first step is fear (perhaps after shock and numbing), the second step is mobilization. From the days before Stonewall, to Stonewall, and on to ACT-UP or Prop 8, the gay community has been nothing if not able to mobilize when there is a challenge. And it seems that we are indeed challenged. While the election might have been a referendum from rural, Rust Belt America that they were sick of feeling ignored by the Washington status-quo and enraged at not being heard and validated, well, they aren’t the only ones. They put their faith in a new government that already we know will likely disappoint them when the factories don’t reopen and the jobs shipped to China and India don’t return to Main Street. But in the process of trying to elect some kind of economic savior, they also elected a domestic policy villain who is an enemy to diversity and to any group that isn’t rich, White, straight, Christian, and male. If they expressed their anger at being devalued by voting in Trump, we can express our anger at being devalued by voting him (and his ilk) back out, whether it’s the 2020 presidential election, the 2018 midterm elections, or even the local school board. Think globally and nationally, but act locally. America will continue to be increasingly diverse, and the “old guard” of straight while male privilege that is having its last gasp is on the way out, demographically.
My book is Self-Empowerment: Have the Life You Want!. In it, I describe how we shouldn’t just complain about the gap between how life is, and how we want it to be, but we have to work to close that gap, in our thoughts, feelings, and (perhaps most importantly) behaviors.
We have good LGBT organizations that work well for us, for the most part. There are problems with Human Rights Campaign raising more money than they are effective, and complaints that the LA LGBT Center raises huge money but pays its staff less than a living wage. And we have to work to hold those organizations accountable, at the same time that we help them (and so many other organizations who advocate for LGBT rights) hold governments (federal, state, and local) accountable to our community. The organizations do good work on their lobbying level, but we can also act locally and speak out against discrimination and oppression wherever we see it. If our kid is bullied at school, demand action from teachers, principals, and school boards. If we or our colleagues are discriminated against at work, organize to protest to supervisors, managers, directors, boards of directors, and shareholders, and fight for anti-discrimination legislation. Support only LGBT-friendly local political candidates, especially at the very local level like selectmen or city councilmembers, and tell them so. If Trump and his right-wing agenda was elected by one person/vote at a time, and individual action, then it can be reversed one person at a time, too. Meet very feeling of fear that you have with the question to yourself, “What can I do, right now, today, to take my fear into action that is contributing to LGBT advocacy?”
Step 4: Practicing Self-Care
For now, though, your fears might be front-and-center, and advocacy might be down the path a bit. Focusing on the basics of food, sleep, exercise, work, and stress management with yourself and your own home/office first. Keep the daily machine oiled. You can’t help others breathe if your breathing mask is not on first, as the airlines say. You’d be surprised how much more effective you are as an advocate and activist if your body and home are intact first.
Deep breathing, mindfulness, and positive self-talk are things you can do wherever you are, whenever. Progressive muscle relaxation (from your toes to your head) is another good exercise. Have regular medical visits (as needed), regular dental visits, and keep your personal finances (taxes, debt management, retirement planning, etc.) in good order. Tell those you love that you love them, regularly. Practice “selective hedonism” and find things to enjoy in every day, week, month, and year (vacations). This battle to regain our protections, civil rights, and dignity is a marathon, not a sprint.
Step 5: Keeping Your Eye on the Prize
If Hillary Clinton had won the election, the LGBT community would be looking at the “gay agenda” of achieving full equality, such as passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and other federal legislation that represents full and equal legal civil rights. And this goal to move forward does not disappear just because we are on the defensive not to lose ground with the new administration. The fight to not lose ground is perhaps the primary task for years to come, but net advancement is, too. The future four years is likely to be combined with some losses (due to the sheer power of the White House, House, and Senate) but also with some LGBT advances that perhaps even a President Trump will break ranks with his anti-gay Republican colleagues and support, because we all know he is not one to be influenced by others and tends to do whatever he pleases (for better or worse). My hunch is not so much that the (Manhattanite) Trump is all that invested in being anti-gay (he’s not a religious bigot, per se) but he will be surrounded by people who are, and how much he is influenced by their aggressive anti-gay agenda remains to be seen. My hope is that he is dismissive with them (and we all know he can be dismissive when he wants to be), but he will appoint anti-gay figures in positions of power that he might not be able to directly stop, or will overlook trying to.
In all of this, the LGBT mobilizing to defend what we have and move progress forward is a dual agenda. It’s also a dual agenda to see things from a national perspective, but also a local/personal one. We can’t control how a federal official conducts business in Washington, but we can control whether we protest, make calls, write letters, stage boycotts, and generally make life hell for those who make life hell for us.
The other “local action” is taking care of yourself, ultimately, as an individual. This is what I’m here for, which is to help and support others individually in therapy (or a couple, in couples therapy). You have a dual focus of helping your LGBT brethren, but there are also times when you need to work on your own individual quality of life challenges, which might not have anything to do with government (such as your coping with a psychiatric condition, other illness, death in the family, surviving abuse, building/managing your career, or the other issues I help people with every day in my office or via webcam). When the going gets tough, the tough get going. How you define “get going” is unique to yourself, but coping with fears and getting mobilized is a way to protect what we shrinks call your “self-efficacy”, which is your ability to improve your own life through your own efforts (with appropriate help from others).
As FDR said, “Let me assert my firm belief, that the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.” He helped us get through a Depression and a world war with that perspective; I think it will work for us, too.