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'Renewal of American Spirit'

by Jeremy Hooper

For LGBTQ people and our associated rights, the second decade of the 21st century has been a time of unprecedented progress. Despite setbacks and goals yet achieved, we are living in landmark times for our civil rights movement, and the history books will surely reflect this rise.

But it didn’t necessarily feel that way at millennium’s turn. Throughout the aughts, we experienced a number of setbacks that made the road ahead seem stark, lonely, and treacherous. It was a depressing time; it was a dispiriting time. Wins seemed out of reach around 2004, and after.

And yet we persisted. LGBTQ people and allies dug down and did enoromous work. Costly work. Tedious work. Often soul-crushing and back-breaking work. But work that we proudly took on because we knew that the end justified the rough means of the day.

That journey, from the wilderness of the 2000s to the monumental gains of the 2010s, represents the American spirit at its finest. Digging in and standing firm at times when the ground seems the softest and the trails so poorly lit is fundamental to American spirit. It is this spirit that propels a movement through scary votes, bad polling, well funded opponents, and threats of physical and mental persecution. This gritty determination is a uniting aspect of the American character. It is a spirit that people from all walks of life, and all political parties, roundly applaud. 

This journey across the 21st century’s first sixteen years was, in essence, a renewal for the LGBTQ rights movement in America. It was, up until recently, a journey that felt like it was headed in one decided direction. While we knew there were tough fights ahead, and while we were (and are) prepared to fight them, it was easy to get caught up in the history of these moments and see them as the irreversible gains of an enlightened society. One could be forgiven for taking the time to celebrate---and breathe.

And yet here we are. Here we are at---something. A crossroads? A plateau? An avalanche? A tiny flick on the arm that we’ll barely notice in the long run? We’re at a---something.

But it would be hard for most LGBTQ activists to say where we are now is at a time of “renewal of the American spirit.” For us, that renewal is sort of what we’ve been living through for the past few years. Times were initially bleak, then we moved forward to a White House that was literally illuminated in pride colors. Because of the deep spirit of our movement, we experienced our great renaissance. It felt like a renewal, it certainly felt spirited, and it damn well felt American.

And so as the President gears up to address Congress with a much-ballyhooed speech his administration is shaping under the theme “Renewal of the American Spirit,” the LGBTQ community has to wonder how, exactly, the decisions we have already seen from this 45th presidency make up a renewal for us as Americans. How does a Cabinet with a Rick Perry and a Tom Price and a Ben Carson (to name just three outspoken anti-LGBTQ activists in the ranks) represent hope for administrative policies that might reflect our lives? How does an administration that floats a draft of an anti-LGBT executive order supposed to feel like a friend? How does that same administration make us feel respected, to say nothing of protected, when it’s near-certain that a so-called “religious freedom” executive order (which would grant anti-LGBTQ activists some measure of protection when they discriminate against us, so long as they use religion as justification) is going to drop any day now? How does transgender students feel safe when this administration just removed guidance granting them the right to pee in peace?

Looking toward the Congress that the President will be addressing, how do we take comfort when both the Speaker and the Majority Leader have abysmal voting records on our rights, current members have taken multiple steps to weaken the effects of our gains, and the President has indicated he would sign the anti-LGBTQ movement’s most sought-after legislation?

“Renewal of the American Spirit?” Can easily feel more like a cancellation.

It’s of course no shock for politicians to use overstated maxims to sell a campaign, speech, or policy proposal. In fact, one will find instances of Kennedy, Nixon, and Reagan using the “Renewal of American Spirit” theme, verbatim.That slogan, like “Make America Great Again,” was actually a favored phrase of Ronald Reagan’s campaigns and administration. In that sense, it’s a somewhat innocuous theme for President Trump’s first address to a joint session of Congress.

And yet it’s not. I’m of course only focusing on LGBTQ, but many Americans feel that we far from a time of renewal. Even ardent Trump supporters seem to see this more as a time for building a whole new enterprise than a time for renewing anything of recent memory, from either party. This was reflected in the President’s dystopia inauguration speech, and it is ingrained in just about every move he has made since. Despite its “great again” tendencies, this is not an administration that seems to be that concerned with customs or traditions or protocol, favoring the construction of new walls over the return to deeply rooted American norms.

For LGBTQ people, it’s only more pronounced because the renewal we just lived through was so strong. The conceit of taking steps backward every other decade, as if someone is flicking on and off the lights in some sort of sick trick against our lives, is not a set of terms that we are willing to accept. If the coming years are going to build on rather than weaken our progress, this administration is going to have to prove it with tangible promises, not slogans. Our spirit shall not be crushed behind anyone’s twisted sense of renewal.

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