Anticipating Trump, an HIV Psychotherapist Considers Long-Term Survival and Solidarity
The morning after the election, my parents left on a road trip to Manzanar, the internment camp in central California where my family was imprisoned during World War II. My mother was born there. When I talked to them before they left, they were glad to be getting offline and out of range for a few days. They were going to scatter more origami cranes on the now empty, dusty block where my family was housed when my mother was a baby.
In a poll several months before the election, nearly half of Trump's supporters said they thought the internment camps had been a good idea. Never mind the presidential apology under Republican President Reagan almost 30 years ago.
I didn't think the presidential election was going to go this way. Maybe it's because I was born and raised in a Southern California neighborhood nicknamed the "red hills" because of the communists and artists who moved there in the first part of the 20th century. Maybe it's because I live in Berkeley now, with the living history of the Free Speech Movement and a retrospective of hometown Black Panther Party organizing on display at the Oakland Art Museum.
And, I was wrong. What that means is that, in the days leading to the election, I wasn't mindful enough with my psychotherapy clients about their terrors. Many of them have come to my clinical practice specifically because my history as an AIDS and queer people of color activist is visible, and we often talk about the broader context of the worlds and communities in which they live and struggle and survive, and where we sometimes overlap. I answered casually when they asked whether I was worried. I asked whether they were worried, and they took their cues from me.
What does it mean clinically, that I wasn't worried enough? That I wanted to have a little more faith in the country we live in? I forgot about the shadow side of hope -- the struggles against which it must be measured -- that is a defense against the panic of recognizing what is actually at stake in our survival. I forgot about moving back and forth between the macro and the micro, which is the work of psychotherapy and the work of community building and solidarity.
In the first round of shock and analysis, there's pundit talk about the electoral college, polling and analysis of voting patterns and demographics. And while all of those things matter, the ways in which they matter to each of us is part of what locates our proximity to the privilege of assumptive survival. What I mean is that the possibility of revisiting 30-year-old questions of quarantining people living with HIV, or continuing the criminalization of black, brown, Asian and Pacific Islander, indigenous, trans, sex worker, homeless and undocumented bodies is not an academic question, but one of actual life and death consequences for those of us who are members of those communities and who have loved ones in those communities.
Within hours of the election, there were reports of an escalation in anti-Muslim hate crimes. That these stories are emerging is not surprising. That we expect them is horrifying and heartbreaking. Maybe this is part of the source of my clients' terrors -- and my own. We now must be even more deeply and actively invested in each other's survival. And there is fear and the question of whether people will be invested in ours.
But maybe therein also lies the source of a little of my cautious hope. Last week, leading into the 25th anniversary of Magic Johnson's public disclosure of his HIV status, a collective of community organizations and AIDS service providers came together to celebrate survival and connection, hosted by The Magic Johnson Foundation and HIVE. The room was filled with people from different communities in the Bay Area, many of whom in earlier decades of the epidemic might have struggled to organize with each other, cautious about each other's identities and in competition for limited funding and resources. We talked easily about treatment access and how different communities could support each other. There were several generations in the room that night, including long-term survivors and a giggling group of young kids running around the perimeter.
And so, there are moments of hope, both explicit and subversive.
I've been rereading speeches and articles from some of our now dead ACT UP warriors for reminders of how we do any of this. Vito Russo, in his 1988 speech, Why We Fight, said:
So, if I'm dying from anything, I'm dying from homophobia. If I'm dying from anything, I'm dying from racism. If I'm dying from anything, it's from indifference and red tape, because these are the things that are preventing an end to this crisis. If I'm dying from anything, I'm dying from Jesse Helms. If I'm dying from anything, I'm dying from the President of the United States. And, especially, if I'm dying from anything, I'm dying from the sensationalism of newspapers and magazines and television shows, which are interested in me as a human-interest story -- only as long as I'm willing to be a helpless victim, but not if I'm fighting for my life. If I'm dying from anything, I'm dying from the fact that not enough rich, white, heterosexual men have gotten AIDS for anybody to give a shit. ...
... We're so busy putting out fires right now that we don't have the time to talk to each other and strategize and plan for the next wave, and the next day, and next month, and the next week, and the next year. And we're going to have to find the time to do that in the next few months. And we have to commit ourselves to doing that. And then, after we kick the shit out of this disease, we're all going to be alive to kick the shit out of this system, so that this never happens again.
And so now, we talk about fighting back. We know how to do it. And that's the unspoken shadow anxiety about the stakes of this fight. There's been a lot of talk already about "we've been through this before and we've survived; we can do it again." Queers, people of color communities and long-term survivors, especially, have honed the skills of fighting back. But with fighting back comes grieving. Because we will not all get to be long-term survivors.
We don't all survive. We won't all survive this. Our lives are at stake. Some of it is chance -- right place and right time, right doctors, right support networks. Some of it is about the privilege of access. But what would it take for all of us to make it through this next phase of cultural and political maneuvering and change? We would have been asking that question this week no matter who won this election. Yes, the nuances and the terror would be radically different. But that's the question that we will always have -- should always have -- until there is a cure, until there is easily accessible responsible and ethical health care. Until criminalization of HIV-positive bodies is no longer a threat. Until families of origin and choice are honored equally and not separated by the boundaries of state and nation.
The story is told by those who have survived.
Maybe that fear is what I missed with my clients last week. The stories they tell, that we tell together, are made up of their survival and the memories of those who have not survived. And we want so badly, all of us, for those losses not to be true.
The thing is, we would like hope to cancel out the fear. The grief. The terror. But, it doesn't. They don't cancel each other out, leaving complacency. They coexist. That's the exhaustion, the bone-deep terror. But also, that's the hope: that these experiences can coexist in us and remind us of our vitality. We grieve. We mourn. We rage. We take care of those we love and those we don't know. We remember. We fight back. We always have. All of it. Just more, now.
Keiko Lane is a psychotherapist and educator in Berkeley, California. She writes and teaches about the intersections of queer culture and kinship, oppression resistance, racial and gender justice, HIV criminalization, reproductive justice and liberation psychology.