I recognize this dread, having previously experienced it most keenly during eras in which American political discourse vilified LGBTQ people—during the Reagan administration’s callous indifference to AIDS, and again in the push for “marriage protection amendments” under Bush II. In both cases, queers were a “threat” against which America had to be protected. A recurring thought in my middle-aged mind: Do we really have to enact this script again?
America’s political imagination often follows the conventions of melodrama, with a hero, a villain, and a damsel in distress that must be saved. In previous eras, Republican politicians and religious fundamentalists cast themselves as the heroic Dudley Do-Right, with LGBTQ people as the sinister Snidely Whiplash, and the heterosexual family and the nation itself as Nell tied to the train tracks.
Trump's evocation of a "hateful foreign ideology" was an attempt to obscure his support for hateful domestic ideologies. The president-elect is currently assembling a cabinet uniformly opposed to LGBTQ equality and threatening to roll back anti-discrimination advances made at the federal level. More immediately disturbing is the demonstrable increase of hate crimes, which have primarily targeted immigrants, African Americans, Jews, and queers.
“Evil.” Make no mistake: we’re still being cast as Snidely Whiplash. Maybe we’ll occasionally get to go on for Nell, probably at a matinee performance, when the theatre owners are hoping to attract a different audience. But in the minds of the newly empowered homophobes, we’re still wearing a black hat and twirling our moustache.
After the publication of Murder Most Queer in 2014, one colleague asked whether plays with homicidal homosexuals still had as much significance after the decriminalization of homosexuality and the victory same-sex marriage. Wasn’t homophobia over? Haven’t we won?
Well, there may be much that we’ve won. But as someone who has been tracking and analyzing homophobic ideology for over two decades, I’m aware that it’s never stopped being a powerful force across the country. Donald Trump did not create the horrible combination of anti-queer, anti-immigrant, anti-black, anti-Semitic, and anti-woman ideologies. He simply harnessed the forces that have been there all along.
Post-election, I see many of us shifting our energies from electoral politics to movement politics. Obviously the two are related, but I believe movement politics gives us a better opportunity to break out of the melodramatic narrative. We’re not the villain. We’re not the damsel in distress. And heroism is achieved not with the triumph of an individual, but with the collective betterment of us all. The script they’re handing us is not new. Indeed, we know these clichés quite well. And we must continue the struggle to rewrite it.