During this excruciating election season, as Donald Trump and his sycophantic mobs have shattered society’s glass walls of decency while normalizing verbal and expressive violence to a degree few could have imagined possible, I have found myself frequently revisiting a traumatic memory from many years ago.
I was out walking with my boyfriend, my first love, on an unusually warm autumn evening in Paris, in the Marais. By then my boyfriend was a hollowed-out shell of his former self, his face atrophied by AIDS, his body sapped from throwing up several times a day. Yet he insisted on hearing the sounds of the street, doing a round of the Place des Vosges, and walking past the pungent cheese store at the corner of his street. He often joked that he would smell it even once he was dead.
Suddenly someone was shouting as he approached us. “Dirty faggot! You will die and burn in hell, look at his disgusting face!”
These profanities were hurled at my boyfriend by a young man in his late teens or early twenties. I flinched and then looked at the assailant, fearing that a physical attack was imminent. He leaned toward my boyfriend, spat on him, and walked off insouciantly, holding hands with a young woman who uneasily attempted to give the assailant a smile of endorsement.
There was no one nearby and as I looked around it was unclear whether the people a few feet away in the street had seen what happened. “I want to go back home now,” my boyfriend said to me quietly as I attempted to collect myself.
In the steep decline of his deteriorating health, my boyfriend was haunted by the assailant’s words; he would often stare into mirrors afterward, murmuring, “that man was right, I’m hideous.” He refused to go outdoors again, despite my efforts to persuade him, and never once set foot in the street after that day.
One night after that aggression, I awoke to help him to the bathroom and he was shaking, asking me if it was true that he would burn in hell forever, that he deserved this fate because he was a “faggot.” It was difficult for me to determine whether his faculties were failing him or whether his subconscious was surrendering to mother’s religiously driven homophobia.
The street incident became the defining feature of the last days of his life. His thoughts became increasingly paranoid. When I got home from running errands he would be waiting for me, afraid the young man had found me outside and attacked me.
He died a few weeks later, on a damp afternoon in a cold and sterile Parisian hospital, a world away from the warm Mediterranean shores of his childhood.
After his death, I tried to explain away this incident, telling myself it was only words, not real violence. But in the years since, I have found this distinction increasingly hard to maintain. Language, the principal vector for dehumanization and stigmatization, is inseparable from violence. It was through words that this young assailant learned to hate gay people, and through words he amplified the message and targeted us. It was through words he injured my first love’s soul in the last days of his life. It is through words that others are encouraged to act on these hatreds, and then strike with their fists and shoot with their guns.
Trump and his enablers have helped make the nation a hostile environment for the targets of their expressive and verbal violence. As a transgender woman, sadly this is something I know too well. The corpses of transgender women, murdered in record numbers in the past year, have not materialized in a vacuum; they are the final outcome of the dehumanizing words directed at us.
Transgender people, and trans women especially, face a barrage of verbal and expressive violence that has been normalized by society. The ridicule and mockery directed at us, amplified by the media, produce groups of men pointing to us in the street and laughing; the portrayals of us as sexual perverts leads others to swear at us or spit on us in public. We are often physically assaulted by men trying to prove themselves to one another, and too often those assaults turn deadly.
As the frequent object of mockery and harassment through living in a transgender body, I really can speak first hand about what it is like to experience socially normalized and accepted verbal and expressive violence. It is disturbingly common to hear men who have murdered transgender women express the idea that we are sub-human or that no one would care if we were killed. These fears have plagued me for many years, every time I leave my house and walk past a group of men. They terrify me especially now as a mother, when I take my children out into the world and fear that someone will insult me or assault me in front of them. The dehumanization those of us living while trans experience daily is infernally difficult, and explains why forty percent of trans individuals attempt suicide or why one out of ten trans women of color will be murdered in America.
History has shown us time and time again that the first step in exposing individuals and groups to murderous violence is to dehumanize them with words; this makes it all too comprehensible how a seemingly civilized nation like Germany could perpetrate unprecedented mass murder of civilians on an industrialized scale. The Hitler analogies to Trump may be sounding worn-out to some, but they should give everyone pause. The verbal assaults Trump unleashes on his victims are just the first step. Women, Muslims, Latinos, and other objects of his hateful language have already been primed by his vitriol, to the point that justifying unspeakable atrocities on some or all of them will be a simple task for a Trump regime to undertake.
All of us who have been targets of Trump’s expressive violence will join an ever-expanding group of categories, and under his regime we will all be lambs to the slaughter. It will not only be Muslims or Latinos, or whoever is Trump’s target of the moment, but journalists, activists, and critics. His regime will need many scapegoats for its inevitable failure to deliver on his apocryphal promises. In excusing his rhetoric, or dismissing it as exaggeration or flamboyance, we are paving the road to socially sanctioned brutality.
In giving Trump even a substantial number of votes, America renders its stamp of approval to normalizing expressive violence. In that case, we will have to ask ourselves what exactly our purpose as a nation is, if even the fundamental elements of decency are null and void. This election has shaped up to be an existential hour in our life as a nation and it is we who will define it. Hillary Clinton’s words in her recent USA Today piece eloquently articulate the decision we face:
“My opponent has run his campaign on divisiveness, fear and insults, and spent months pitting Americans against each other. I’ve said many times that Donald Trump has shown us who he is. Now we have to decide who we are.”
We should go to the polls with that in mind.