This week, the president made the profoundly misguided and dangerous statement that there are "two sides to the story" of the hate-filled events in Charlottesville, Va.
While it can sometimes be challenging to know what to add to the cacophony of condemnations of hatred and the president's outrageously inadequate responses, at this moment the wisdom of those who are aged has something essential to say: There are no two sides to the story of white supremacy, neo-Nazism, and the other repugnant forms of hatred advanced by the hundreds of torchbearers who came to defend the statue of Confederate "hero" Robert E. Lee. The only side of the story that we at SAGE, and people of decency and goodwill, can tell is that white supremacy along with its twin, white nationalism, neo-Nazism, and all related bigotries are always repugnant, always to be relentlessly opposed and confronted, and always to be defeated.
Our LGBT elders fought against and repeatedly were forced to shed their blood as a result of other malicious false equivalencies: that liberation from sexual and gender oppression was the equivalent of moral degradation. That same-gender sexuality was the equivalent of bestiality. That gender dissonance was the equivalent of severe mental illness. That same-sex love was the equivalent of sin. To know and to have fought other false equivalencies in other contexts is to begin to understand the unique danger and destructiveness when false equivalencies are deployed to defend this country’s original sin of racism.
Our elders know full well that when politicians like Donald Trump propagate false equivalencies — whether about race or gender or sexuality or any other social fault line — it is not by accident and it is not ad hoc. Age and longevity allow us to see patterns that reflect strategies and structures, so while we are outraged and deeply saddened when we see events like those in Charlottesville, we are not surprised. The acting out of hatred, whether it takes the form of torchbearing white supremacists clubbing and killing their opponents in public or haters murdering transgender women of color in the dark of night, reflects the encouragement, manipulation, and organizing of individual bigotries rather than random acts. Some may profess to be surprised at how many white supremacists turned out in Charlottesville, how organized they were, and how brazenly they were defended by the president. Sadly, this is not surprising for those who have lived long enough to recognize the political strategies that create and the social structures that encase and prop up these hatreds.
Over the years, those of us on the front lines of gender and sexuality have confronted a steady stream of intentional manipulations of traditional religious beliefs, sexual and gender insecurities, and other social fears that have been weaponized not just to win a specific argument or vote, but to construct and maintain structures that work to keep us in our place. When it comes to race, age allows us to see decades-long — indeed centuries-long — strategies of intentional manipulation of fears and insecurities to pit poor and working-class white people against people of color in order to construct and maintain structures that grow the privilege and wealth of the few and buttress the political power of those who do their bidding.
This is why for those of us, like SAGE, who are committed to building a world of equity, the issue is not who engaged in violence in Charlottesville — though only one "side" arrived with torches mimicking the KKK and used a car to kill and maim those with opposing views. Instead, the decisive issue is who showed up in the name of white supremacy, neo-Nazism, and hatred versus who showed up in the name of inclusion, equity, and love. No matter how much the president may try to turn reality upside down and legitimize so-called white nationalism, there is only one story to be told here. It is told by Confederate flags, Nazi salutes, and the vicious words and actions of those who stood behind those banners and fists. SAGE elders know — and have taught us — that there is only one side of this story to tell and only one side of this fight to be on.
Recognizing the story, the structure, the pattern, and the repetition — and that none of this is accidental — tells us that the most effective counter-responses will be intentional, organized, and sustained as opposed to ad hoc and occasional. SAGE’s response to this recognition, guided by the lessons of longevity and a commitment to the long haul, has been the launch of a multiyear initiative designed to consciously construct equity frameworks around race, gender, and other critical fault lines in our society.
We use those frameworks to inform and drive our work with and on behalf of LGBTQ elders and our efforts to build a truly intergenerational community of LGBTQ people and allies. For example, SAGE’s deep involvement in the Diverse Elders Coalition, a national collaborative of people of color and LGBTQ elder communities that works together for equity for marginalized older people. Those efforts help us see that the organized racist and anti-Semitic hatred on display last weekend in Charlottesville are part and parcel of what we must confront and overcome as LGBTQ elders and allies.
SAGE will always be on the side of equity, inclusion, and justice and against white supremacy and the structures and politics that support and accommodate it. We refuse to be silent. We refuse to be invisible.
MICHAEL ADAMS is the CEO of SAGE, which provides advocacy and services to LGBT elders.