by Penny Guisinger
I smell the world burning. Can you?
The orcs have pushed through the gate, clambered into the castle, and are preparing to lay waste to everything we care about, everything we have built. Does the acrid scent make the hairs on your arms stand at attention? Do you want to be a warrior? I do. But I also don’t. I’m not sure I can. I live in rural America. I live in Trump’s America.
My town isn’t even a town: it’s an “unorganized territory” which is as apt a metaphor for American politics today as you’re likely to find anywhere. Year round, we have about 300 residents. The nearest orthodontist is over one hundred miles away. So is the nearest Pad Thai. Trader Joe’s is a half-day’s drive. One way.
Nine out of ten lawns in my unorganized territory sprouted Trump signs late last year. Seems that we’re more organized than we know.
“I listened to the football game on the drive down here.”
She was calling me from her room. Not a hotel room, exactly, but a room in the lodge where the training would start in the morning. She would be there all week. Away from me and our dogs and our wood stove and our family.
“On the radio?”
“Yes, on the radio.” She sort of laughed a little as she said it. “It was the Broncos. The championship.”
She did not mean the Denver Broncos. She meant the Broncos from Western Michigan University. And so she did not mean the Superbowl. She meant whatever college football teams play in. I didn’t get the details. This was not my world. I don’t even like the radio. I was secretly grateful that I wasn’t in the car.
“You would have hated it, but It was fun for me to listen to the band. It was fun to know that there were people there that I know.”
I wondered if it was likely that she still knew people in the WMU marching band. She had logged miles of green yardage as a brass player during her undergraduate years there, but had graduated nineteen years earlier. Could there be, still, a conductor she knew from back then? Or a drum major? Or whatever they’re called?
“They played the fight song.”
This is one of the areas in which our two selves diverge. I have no background in marching band. I fail, over and over, to understand its beauty, its artfulness. I also hate football. I don’t understand the point. I can’t grasp the rules. I recoil at the war metaphors, the hard language. Gridiron. Running back. Advancing down the field. Gains and losses. My wife – she understands football.
And I don’t even know what a fight song is.
I want to make a case for staying quiet. I want to make a case that you may not need to be the one wrapped in the rainbow flag or, worse, with the flag over your casket. I want to make a case, not for the closet, but for its threshold. Maybe keep one foot at the edge of the louvered door in case a speedy escape is called for.
You’re reading the same internet articles I’m reading, and these are the words we see: resist, fight, revolution, march, protest, call, write, scream, yell, use your voice.
We’ll resist, and we’ll fight, but I get scared when I scroll through the memes because I think some young gay guy is going to choose the wrong moment and get himself tossed from the back of a scallop dragger. I worry that some fourth grader with a gay mom is going to have to defend her on the playground against a pack of middle school boys whose parents voted for Trump, and finish her day in the emergency room waiting for X-rays. I worry that some transgender teenager is going to burst out of the easternmost closet in America and find that the only lasting result is her own suicide the following year. I don’t want to lose my own people. I don’t want to lose any of you.
Maybe I’m making a rural case. Maybe it’s a case of “you-don’t-have-the-anonymity-required-to-be-that-kind-of-warrior.” Maybe you can lie low. Maybe that can be fine.
The next night, because I told her I was writing this, she sang the fight song to me on the phone.
Fight on, fight on for Western,
Take the ball, make a score, win the game,
Onward for the brown and gold,
Push ’em back, push ’em back,
Bring us fame!
Fight on, fight on for Western,
Over one, over all we will reign,
Fight, Broncos, fight,
Fight with all your might,
Western win this game!
Across the 164 miles between our house and the conference center in the woods where she was staying, she chanted the fight song into her flip phone. It came through the air, bounced to my ear off a satellite somewhere over our heads. From the satellite, 164 miles isn’t far at all. On the ground, it’s an epic journey.
Her phone voice is louder than her usual voice, and she is never afraid to sing at top volume. I held the receiver an inch away from the curve of my outer ear, and could hear the fight song just fine. From the satellite, it wasn’t audible at all.
Or was it? If I had been on the satellite, could I have heard her singing to me? Once our voices become 1s and 0s or Xs and Os, are they decipherable by the human ear? Can we hear each other anymore?
I’m 48 years old, and I’m a rookie gay person, but I’ve logged decades as an activist. I’ve been a door-to-door fundraiser. I’ve been a phone fundraiser. I field directed a congressional campaign. (We won, thank you very much.) I was a lobbyist. I have a fancy degree in public policy that propelled me into mid-level administrative public service mediocrity for many years. I have crusaded quietly and not-so-quietly, and when I was straight, I crusaded for the environment. For health care. For better recycling laws. For consumer protection. To prevent a turnpike widening. I adhered five pounds of bumper stickers to every car I had in the nineties and weighted my Levi jackets with campaign buttons. I argued with people in bars – people I didn’t even know. I wrote letters to the editor. I went to protests.
I worked with the Cinton/Gore people in ’92 when my boss, the incumbent congressional candidate, was defeating the evil heiress to the L.L. Bean fortune, Linda Bean. (Now the whole country knows she’s a radical conservative. I’ve known for a quarter of a century. I literally forced her husband, Don, to climb partway up a streetlight pole with a video camera to get a shot over my head. It’s a funny story. It’s for another time.) The night we won and Clinton/Gore won and the city of Portland passed a law forbidding discrimination based on sexual orientation was the best party I’ve attended or ever will. None of us had actually seen sleep when we piled into cars and drove, blinking in the November sun, to the shipyard to thank to union workers who helped. Then breakfast over headlines about winning everything. I had frizzy hair and wore a striped flannel shirt. I only remember the shirt because someone took our picture holding up copies of the paper. We grinned as if full-on-winning-election-nights were the new normal.
I eventually turned 39, stopped being straight, and became gay. Became a lesbian like some people throw a switch. That transition is not this story. I made the changes I needed to make, and I made them in time for two Maine referendums on same-sex marriage in three years. The first one, which started about five minutes after I came out, circled above and around my life like an unreachable moon. I was drowning in divorce, in an unhappy boss, in the carnage I rained down onto the lives of my children. I was intellectually interested in the vote – because I am a political junkie – but I didn’t lift a finger to help. (I can tell you this: If a Honda drives over a “Vote Against Same Sex Marriage” sign, the sign will spring upright again. However, if the Honda then backs over the same sign, it does not rise again. I will not tell you how I know this.)
We lost at the polls. I didn’t care.
So I Googled “fight song” because the phrase held some heat somewhere in its DNA. Turns out it’s the name of a song by pop star Rachel Platten. I don’t pretend to know who that is – she’s young and skinny and blond and traditionally pretty the way pop stars seem to be. The video is unremarkable: she wears a variety of ridiculously stylish outfits or barely anything at all and moves between scenes in a bed, in a nightclub, in a forest, in a car. She ragefully crumples up pieces of paper while draped across white sheets and wearing only a bra or sings with a kind of staged determination into a microphone on a stage bathed in red and blue lights.
We do not know what, or who, she fights against. The paper-crumpling scenes make me think only of writer’s block and I spent the other three minutes wondering who thought that hat was a good idea. People that beautiful, living in Victoria’s Secret catalogs, don’t need fight songs.
It’s ok to hide out for a while. Take the HRC sticker off your car. Let your hair grow a little longer or cut it a little shorter. Maybe not hold hands in public if the hair on the back of your neck tells you not to. This may not be the time to be militant – to sing too loud.
After we lost at the polls, we caught our breath. “We” are Maine’s LGBT people. “We” are allies. “We” are also the majority of voters on Maine’s native American reservations, who voted with us because they know the feeling of an oppressor’s boot on your neck. We took some time. Took three years. Equality Maine, the nonprofit that turned this thing inside-out, went door to door changing hearts and minds, shaking hands, putting faces to the threat.
We tried again. Back on the ballot.
My partner and I were married by then, sort of. We had eloped to Massachusetts and exchanged vows on a Wellfleet beach, but joked that our marriage license had burst into flames the moment we crossed the bridge back to Maine. Married. Then unmarried. Now campaigning to be remarried.
I joined exactly one phone bank. I did not foot canvass. I did not buy a T-shirt. I did not try to change the hearts and minds of my neighbors. Instead, I made mental lists of who had “Vote No” signs on their lawns. I filled imaginary ledgers with lists of debits for those proud to broadcast their distaste for my family, though I doubt they thought about me at all. They hated “those people” because “those people” were an abstract group of child molesters and militant gay-agenda-pushers. I would have done well to introduce myself, shake some hands, put my face to the issue, reduce the theat. I did none of that. We hosted one quiet fundraiser at our home and I put one bumper sticker on my car, and that one sticker made me hurry when I pumped my gas or waited my turn at the bank drive-through.
I thought of Matthew Shepard who died just miles from my aunt and uncle in Laramie. I thought of Charlie Howard, who died no more than one hundred and ten miles from the very place I stood pumping gas. I thought of Harvey Milk who died in an office on the other coast. I Googled crime statistics. I hunkered down.
The first thing I did after we won was remove the bumper sticker.
I am still hunkering. You might be too.
There is no actual ending to this. We make gains. We are pushed back. We make gains again, maybe a little farther. We are pushed back. This is the story of oppression in America, but this time feels different. Google the statistics.
You may be safer campaigning for the environment right now. Today, maybe just make a few calls in support of Obamacare. There’s a lot of work to be done on climate change. You can resist without your own body being damaged. I don’t want to lose you. It is not noble to leave your parents in bereavement or your children unparented. A lot of good has been done in Matthew Shepard’s name, but his mother just wants him back.
Rachel Platten’s song became Hillary Clinton’s campaign song, did you know that? This is her fight song, take back her life song, prove she’s all right song. Take the ball, make a score, win the game. For the 2016 Democratic National Convention, a bunch of celebrities were brought together to create an a cappella version of the song, and a video played on giant screens hanging over the convention floor. Not everyone sang on key, but everyone sang. They sang even though everyone was listening. They sang, not privately into flip phones from dark highways, but in full color for the whole country to hear and you can watch it again and again on Youtube. I did. Just yesterday.
I’m not saying to sit it out. I am saying to sit it out. I don’t know what I want you to do. Just watch your back. Get a big dog. When the hairs on your arms stand up, listen to them. Get out of there.
Over one, over all, we will reign. And I don’t really care if nobody else believes.