Nightmare on Penn Street

I’ve decided to consider the next four years as an existential opportunity to be liberated, not by hope, but by fear. I’m not joking. I’m waking up at night in a cold sweat I usually reserve for mice infestations. The election really did happen. And in about two weeks DT’s sneery face really will be delivering rambling addresses in front of the presidential seal, as he distractedly tweets poisonous nonsense and toys idly with the big red button that could nuke us all.

And with no further ado, his host of actual Nazis and climate change-deniers and billionaire conmen and anti-gay, anti-women vigilantes will be unleashed to chew up, shit on, and destroy every aspect of the government from regulations shaping the entire US economy to the federal Justice Department. Probably, the only thing left standing will be the military, which will be given bright and shiny new toys.

Bye-bye Obamacare and my beloved migraine meds. Along with the liberty and justice I still don’t regret pledging myself to.


Already the subways and streets are bubbling up with increased hostility thanks to the hateful tweets of the Bigot-in-Chief and to a media that no longer distinguishes what is newsworthy from what gets hits. And as the hate speech is amplified and becomes normalized, so does violence. Anti-queer, anti-women, anti-Muslim, anti-Jew, anti-black, anti-anything violence.

Not everybody on the Left seems sorry. I’ve read more than a few posts by a rainbow of activists smugly dismissing 50 years of social progress to announce that with the election of DT we’re just uncovering America’s true face of bigotry, war-mongering, and unbridled capitalism. The implication is nothing’s ever changed, especially for social minorities. That the streets Zora Neale Hurston walked down a few years out from slavery are exactly the same as those of Claudia Rankine. My own life is no different than my grandmother’s who was born into a world where she couldn’t have her own credit card, file rape charges. Vote.

Why are we so incapable of saying that things have changed, but not enough? Not for everyone? It’s like we believe having some kind of historical perspective is a betrayal of today’s pain. Fire must be fire whether you’re considering a candle or a burning house, the flaming towers of 9/11 or the melting mushroom clouds of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nobody suffers more than me. The incremental progress of a democracy is never real, only its failures. Love never beats out hate.

It’s a problem because I don’t see how we can strategize effectively unless we face that DT is our backlash president. And that the reason we elected the whitest, straightest, most pussy-grabbing-est mogul on earth was precisely because we’d had eight years of Obama, a ground-breaking bid by Hillary, and a decade of escalating progress for queers and a visible racial justice movement. Sure there were a few election missteps, and Russian interference, and yes, the white working class is struggling to find a way forward, but the biggest predictor of a vote in this election wasn’t income, but how much the individual hated women and blacks and queers.

How can we imagine the future and seize the one we want, unless we admit that it is new, in fact, for modern America to install actual, overt Nazis? To embrace an administration hostile to civil government itself, which aspires to pure autocracy with a soupçon of rabid nihilism that makes Heath Ledger’s Joker look positively sane.

Everything follows from what comes before. Everything has roots, and unintended consequences. Perhaps some of them will even be good. Because the same brutes bashing Muslim women on the subway are harassing young Jewish girls and turning menorahs into swastikas, Muslims and Jews are now joining forces against bigotry.

Maybe our big mistake wasn’t celebrating incremental progress, but shaping movements based on the belief that history is bent in an arc toward justice. We understand now that progress is not inevitable. Democracy is fragile. God is dead. If history resembles anything it is the mountain range of an EKG, bumping up and down. The only questions are: Is this downward dip the big one, or will it go back up in our lifetimes? Or even flatline entirely with one big boom? How can we shape it?

Believing in an arc made us too cautious, subservient. Now maybe queers can quit pretending that if we prove ourselves worthy, sanitize our movement, emphasize love and marriage, dress up chastely in suits and sweater sets, transition undetectably to the appropriate gender, use the right words in the right order, that we’ll continue to collect our rights like Girl Scout merit badges. Now that we know things can turn around in an instant, we can refuse to cling to crumbs, become generous, open our arms, and our movement. Embrace each other. Why be careful when we can be free?

Kelly Cogswell is the author of “Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger,” from the University of Minnesota Press.