Leaving a conservative bubble behind doesn’t mean escaping it for good. But even in the face of a Donald Trump presidency, some minorities are determined to stay. These are their stories of witnessing the prejudice from both afar and up close.
By Ann Babe
(Photo: Stephanus Riosetiawan/Flickr)
For many Muslim, black, Latino, Asian, and LGBT people, growing up and living in red America — that is, the states that vote Republican — is hard. Some of them, as soon as they have the choice and the means, decide it’s not worth the trouble.
With their sights set on opportunity and a place where they can belong, these marginalized individuals leave their home states and often their families to resettle in metropolises up and down the coasts. They build new lives. They become active in new communities. But what civic ties do they maintain with their old ones?
Kelsie Pelletier, a gay white woman who lives in Los Angeles but grew up in Georgia, thinks often of the obligation she has to the queer community she left in her home state. Pelletier, a 26-year-old e-commerce marketer, spent the first 18 years of her life in Douglasville, a place she describes as Southern Baptist and ideologically closer to Alabama than to nearby Atlanta. “It’s the only place where I still feel I’m in the closet,” she says.
Pelletier worries for the people still in the closet, in particular the kids and teenagers who need “role models of happy, healthy LGBT adults” in their lives, but instead “feel very alone, especially when they see all the people around them [supporting] an administration that will not prioritize their rights” — people like Pelletier’s own parents. “It feels on a personal level that my family has decided to prioritize their needs above my safety and well-being.”
Pelletier’s migration is emblematic of a broader trend: As increasingly more young people trade conservative prairies for more progressive pastures, our most culturally diverse cities become more so while middle America becomes even whiter. That leads to a net loss of not only the young but also the college-educated (and oftentimes liberal) in inland states.
Those marginalized who decide to leave their red states may be sick of living in a place where they have to look on as their majority peers repeatedly vote against minority interests, but it can be equally difficult to stomach from a distance. And, for many, the 2016 presidential election was the worst scenario they could have imagined.
Watching Donald Trump’s ascension to the country’s highest elected office sparked in some marginalized people, much like other traumatic events in their lives, a fight, flight, or freeze response that’s called into question the civic duties they have to the states they’ve left behind. Just because they’ve moved forward doesn’t mean they don’t look backward — and don’t feel a moral responsibility to do so, for the sake of both the places that educated and raised them, and their marginalized peers who remain there.
For some marginalized migrants, in navigating the chasm between where they came from and where they moved to, a big part of their fight revolves around maintaining their home-state civic engagement, even from afar. Twenty-six-year-old Sidra Zaidi, a Missourian who’s lived in New York since 2012, does this by voting absentee, calling her Missouri senators in support of the Affordable Care Act, and making donations to Missouri chapters of national organizations like Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Born in Pakistan’s Punjab province, Zaidi moved to the United States when she was a baby; from age six onward, she grew up in the conservative city of Joplin, Missouri. In the late 1990s, she and her family were part of a handful of Muslim South Asian families in the community. Over the years, Zaidi says, she’s watched her home state swing further and further to the right. In the 2016 election, Trump won 57.1 percent of the popular vote in Missouri. According to Zaidi, since 9/11, conservative campaigns have taken advantage of people’s fear of foreigners in Missouri, whose immigrant population has grown by nearly 50 percent since 2000, according to the Migration Policy Institute, but still amounts to less than 4 percent of residents.
“The lion’s share of the responsibility has fallen on minorities to have to try to educate people, and a lot of us are just tired of doing it.”
Zaidi says her family has repeatedly been the target of racism and xenophobia. Zaidi was bullied at school, her sister has been called a “sand nigger” on the street, and her father, a pulmonologist, once encountered a patient who refused to be treated by him. In 2006, Zaidi’s parents helped found a mosque in Joplin, donating their own money to its construction. Sixyears later, an Islamophobe named Jedediah Stout burned it down.
Now is the time, Zaidi says, for the marginalized and their allies to work even harder. And there is much to mobilize against, including Trump’s promised rollbacks on the Affordable Care Act, Environmental Protection Agency regulations, women’s reproductive rights, and immigrants’ rights. That’s saying nothing of his cabinet appointments, that range from what Zaidi calls “eye-roll worthy” at best to “my worst fears confirmed.”
“I have some flickers of hope that Donald Trump’s administration and the Republican-led Congress will listen to the will of the majority of Americans, who support progressive policies,” says Zaidi, a law student at New York University. “But, generally, I still feel angry and unsettled at the reality of how unprincipled the GOP has become, how consciously untethered its leaders are from their own constituents’ suffering.”
While Zaidi continues to stay involved in her home state in the ways she can, she does not expect to ever move back. Yet, other marginalized people wonder if perhaps the best way to take part in the mobilization is to return to the scene of the battle, especially if they hail from a true battleground state — like Ohio-born Mason Pesek.
Pesek, a 27-year-old Latino, is a New York City transplant who continues to vote absentee in Ohio. Growing up in Athens and attending a school district very much characterized by rural Appalachia, he couldn’t wait to leave for college. But Trump’s win has prompted him to seriously consider moving back to the Buckeye State to help the Latino community there, some of whom feel scared their access to employment and education is in jeopardy. Combined, Latinos and Hispanics make up 3.6 percent of Ohio’s population.
“[P]rogressive people are leaving the state, and if we keep leaving it won’t get any better,” says Pesek, also a New York University School of Law student. “As someone privileged enough to be in the position I’m in, I have to leverage that privilege to help people in my community who are going to be targeted.”
If Pesek does return to Ohio after graduating in 2018, he says he wants to use his skills in public-interest law to push local government to be more responsive to community needs. “By not getting involved, you create a system where other people are making your decisions for you” — and the other Latinos, low-income, and otherwise marginalized who aren’t always able to get a seat at the table, he says.
Pesek represents a growing cohort of young liberals, marginalized or not, who say that if they’ve learned anything from Trump’s win, it’s that self-segregation is not the answer. In seeking out their own kind, they’ve realized, they’ve brought their political values, votes, and organizing to precisely the spaces that don’t need them, while depriving them from the spaces that do, at least in their minds.
For other marginalized people though, their fight-or-flight reaction to Trump’s impending presidency has been to take flight — literally.
(Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr)
Daniel Willis is a 50-year-old gay white man who left Alabama for Colorado in his early twenties. Now, after more than two decades there, he plans to escape Colorado and move to Belize. Despite living his entire lifein the U.S., Willis, a writer, says he no longer wants to identify with a country whose president is Trump.
Since the election, Willis says that, even in his current home of Denver, he’s noticed a notable uptick in the number of hate crimes perpetrated, some of them against the LGBT community. “We’ve had vandalized cars. We’ve had [couples] being harassed as they’re walking down the street together,” he says. “[Trump] has unleashed a much deeper level of hatred than even I thought existed.”
Willis has served as a poll worker since 1993, and he reliably casts his ballot in Colorado. But he says he’s lost all hope for the U.S. Eyeing the upcoming presidential inauguration like an approaching doomsday, Willis worries the Trump administration will embolden extremists to try to reverse marriage equality.
“It’s a place I don’t want to live in anymore,” Willis says. “It’s a type of people I don’t want to live with anymore.”
Willis has been scouting out neighborhoods and apartments in Belize, and hopes to relocate by this summer. In recent trips there, however, he’s experienced a different, if less friendly, response from locals. “They see the American passport and cop an attitude right away,” he says. “I think they assume an actual majority of all Americans voted for Trump. I get this in Belize, until they learn I am moving there to escape him.”
Still, for other members of marginalized groups, their fight-or-flight response has been to freeze, as they’ve been seized by overwhelming hopelessness and helplessness.
Today, Pelletier, who says her outlook is “grim yet energized,” is active in movements like Pantsuit Nation and the Los Angeles walk in solidarity with the January 21st Women’s March on Washington. But the first few days following Trump’s victory, she says she was grieving. “[It] was like a funeral,” Pelletier says. “I was totally immobilized.”
Pelletier’s reaction is not unusual. Research published by the Journal of Experimental Political Science shows citizens who vote for the losing candidate often experience post-election feelings of depression. Others, though, are having a much tougher time moving past their despair.
Since Trump’s win, counselors from the LGBT suicide-prevention hotline The Trevor Project, based in West Hollywood, say they’ve been fielding unprecedented numbers of calls from LGBT youths, who tell them they’re terrified of what lies ahead. The day after the election, The Trevor Project received twice as many calls as the day after the Orlando nightclub shooting. And the week after the election, it recorded more calls than in any other week of its 18-year history.
“My family was still my family. My neighbors … were still my neighbors. I think even some people who voted for Trump are scared now.”
It’s easy to understand why the marginalized would choose to give up on a system they feel systematically fails them. The burden of always fighting a losing battle is demoralizing, they say, and they’re fed up with begging others for equality. As Elliott Ashby, a video producer in New York, puts it: “The lion’s share of the responsibility has fallen on minorities to have to try to educate people, and a lot of us are just tired of doing it.”
Ashby, 31, is African American. He says he struggles to stay connected with his Arizona roots, especially when it means interacting with right-wing extremists who use this fact to insist on viewing him as a criminal and making his life more dangerous. “I do have to try to reach out to those people but I also don’t want to. I also would rather just give them the finger,” Ashby says. “Because if you’ve been paying attention to things like slavery, to things like civil rights, to things like police brutality, then how do you not see this picture?”
After spending his first 22 years in Arizona, where less than 5 percent of the population is black, Ashby left the state to travel the world. Nine years have passed, and he says that, though he still feels in some ways intimately familiar with America’s heartland, he acknowledges a big disconnect between where he lives now and where he came from, and recognizes the need for more open dialogue to bridge the divide.
Pelletier, too, has been making efforts to engage. “I have had so many frank conversations with people about politics and why we’re feeling apprehension for the incoming administration that I feel like I would not have had if Hillary [Clinton] had won,” she says. “People here really do seem to be trying to ground activism in empathy, both in physical spaces and online.”
And this empathy, Pelletier notes, is not as hard to come by as she’d imagined.
“I went home to Georgia in between Christmas and New Year’s, and I wasn’t greeted by the vitriol of an emboldened Trump’s America that I was expecting,” she says. “My family was still my family. My neighbors … were still my neighbors. I think even some people who voted for Trump are scared now. As he attacks [those] who dare stand against him, the work to talk about the dissension that is growing in this country becomes more and more important.”