It isn’t up to us to win

I first became politically active when the Oregon Citizens’ Alliance put a citizen’s initiative on the ballot to declare in law that “homosexuality” was “abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and perverse”. Measure 9 was itself an abomination, one that treated anti-discrimination laws as if they were discrimination against bigots, which was somehow supposed to be an unconscionable thing, what with how unfair that would be to the bigots.

Measure 9 lost. The OCA (which then featured Scott Lively as its highly visible 2nd in command) lost. But that doesn’t mean that queers “won”. We spent money and energy and made ourselves visible, made ourselves targets, so we could be attacked intensely for an election season in the hopes that sacrifice would make us safer after the election season. That isn’t victory. Honestly, it was a lot like being in abusive relationship, something I knew a lot about, and provoking abuse as the “walking on eggshells” phase of the relationship grated horribly on one’s nerves. Sometimes one’s fears of what abuse comes next are worse than the actual abuse when it occurs. I had to reasonably fear being killed by my abusive partner, but as it turns out, I was never murdered.

The anxiety of the situation, knowing abuse was coming but not being able to tell for sure what kind or how severe, was part of how I was being controlled. Provoking abuse in a way that I thought might mirror other violent explosions was a strategy to take some power back. Sure, I would be injured, but I had survived previous injuries, and some of them weren’t even that bad, maybe didn’t even leave visible marks, didn’t hurt after a few hours or a day. If I could provoke that type of smaller explosion, then I knew I would be safe for a little while. Sometimes that meant the difference between sleeping before a workday or lying awake the entire night and then being unable to do the job I loved.

When I took back control of when violence happened, when I tried to steer my “violations” of my partner’s rules into territory where a particular type of violent response was normal, I would “win” the encounter if the violence I suffered was the type of violence I expected. Predictability created its own form of security: what I was really worried about was being killed, and I knew I hadn’t been killed in the past. So if I couldn’t create a better future, at least – I thought – I could keep the present consistent with the past.

But that isn’t actually winning. I was still in a violent relationship. I was still hit every day, even if most days it was one to three controlled punches or slaps, even if I was surviving. Being slapped so hard it aggravated the neck injury my partner had given me wasn’t pleasant. It wasn’t the hallmark of a better tomorrow on its way. It was the evil result of evil choices. It was torture that I suffered because I literally did not know how to separate myself from the source of this violence, because this daily torture, this daily, knowing aggravation of the wounds my partner had already inflicted was better than the extreme, murderous violence explicitly promised in detailed threats and implicitly promised in an affect of naked rage.

I survived each day. I did. But I did not win those days. I cannot fully explain it, but I won when my abuser’s anxiety over the inability to control me became more distressing than the satisfaction of assaulting me could overcome.

Many people have pointed out that even should Joe Biden win the presidential election, the USA still has a horrible problem. This is true, and I know it better than most. Winning the presidency isn’t what we want or need. What we want and need is a new politics: a politics of candid persuasion, of considered policy, of committed peace, of loving, thoughtful care.

Even a Biden presidency, even a Harris presidency, is no “win”. President-elect Biden is what we need to sleep tonight so that we can function tomorrow, but we’re still living with people who threaten harm in explicit words and in the observable expression of naked rage.

And yes, they threaten even themselves. This is not a reason to pity them. Even when they threaten themselves, they do so in service to an agenda of abusive control. For many of us, win or lose, we will feel as exhausted if Biden is announced the president-elect as Oregon’s queers after the defeat of Measure 9, as exhausted as I felt after ending an evening only choked for a minute, only beaten for a few. Get your sleep. Do what you must to be functional tomorrow. But do not allow yourself to be confused, as I once was, into thinking this election was ever about victory. That way lies despair, for this election cannot bring real victory.

This election has always been about survival. Victory comes later. It doesn’t come easily. It won’t come soon. It can’t be granted to us after we dial 911. The courts can hand down a protective order of one kind or another, but that will not be victory either.

Victory comes when the forces who revel in power and control so much that they are willing to harm others become frustrated over time, so frustrated that we deny them the satisfaction of their lust for power over others, that their own anxiety over not controlling others becomes intolerable and the only option available to them is retreat, is flight from the battlefield.

Make no mistake, they aren’t much scared that we will kill them. That is partly their certainty that they know how much they have provoked us without ever seeing a violent response. (They play up vandalism against property in the same way that an abuser justifies their hatred, their anger, their violence by citing a burnt pot roast.) But it is also partly because they believe in violence. For a good proportion, if they die violently, then they believe that they deserved to die. They say this openly when defending an unfettered right to own and use guns, when they say that someone who doesn’t use a gun to attack others on their property is a wimp who deserves to die. They say this openly when they defend a rapist’s right to walk free, when they say that a woman who wants a career as an actor or a waitress deserves to be raped. Violence, so many of them are certain, is something that people deserve.

But they are terrified of losing control. The country is too big for each of them to take a turn as president, but they can form identity groups – Christians, whites, the wealthy – and reassure themselves that their group is in control. Their anxiety ramps up not when their paycheck is outpaced by inflation, but when they picture themselves, picture their group losing control. A single Democratic president won’t give us victory against the anxiety which drives them.

But we can do as the queers of Oregon did, resisting ballot measure after ballot measure from the OCA for a decade. We can do as the queers of the nation did, fighting for AIDS treatment & research funds, for the right to keep one’s job regardless of sexual orientation, for the right to marry as one pleases regardless of gender. After a generation, many bigots have given up on fighting the queers not because they have suddenly become good people who respect the right of anyone and everyone to seek what love they can (much less celebrate the successes of anyone and everyone who do), but because trying to control people in that way isn’t rewarding for them. Trying but failing to control us makes them experience their intolerable anxiety in a way that ignoring queer love does not. They cannot remain unconsciously oblivious to their inability to control us while consciously attempting to control us.

And so we can do as I once did, choosing to change my behavior as little as possible when choked or beaten, covering the bandaged knife-wounds on my arms with long sleeves, and continuing to do as I wanted as often as my survival allowed it. Eventually the repeated failures to consistently control me, or at least to control me as thoroughly as my abuser intended, made my abuser’s experience of our relationship one of constant anxiety but too-rare reassurance. Yet when my abuser moved out, they still stalked me. They hadn’t become a better person, they just reached a point where their urgent need for violent control hurt them more than enacting the violence soothed them.

We know that the bigots of the OCA didn’t become better people. Scott Lively was frustrated in his attempts to control queers in the USA, so he tried it in Uganda. Others failed to stop queer marriage, so they decided to ignore it, to pretend to themselves that they’d never wanted to control whom we marry. But they didn’t become better people, they simply moved on to banning trans people from metabolizing food and drink while in public since they had more success in their attempts to control trans bathroom use than they did controlling queer weddings. Their failed efforts at control reinforce their anxiety over losing power over other people, but their successful efforts soothe it, and in the current moment they still find themselves more soothed than frustrated when they attack trans people.

Although I wasn’t old enough to witness it, I imagine the same was true at the end of the civil rights movement. The bigots didn’t become better people, they simply could no longer control where Black kids went to school. Their focus on segregation eventually heightened their anxiety more than an unsuccessful attack on integration could soothe it. But come the 80s and the chance to cut welfare to stick it to the Blacks welfare queens and they were happy to exercise what control they could. Any successful exercise of power over the other reassured the bigots that they were still in control, and whatever the New York Times might say about economic insecurity, their willingness to increase economic insecurity in the United States tells us plainly that their insecurity over loss of power over others is greater.

So to say that the hard right is anti-democratic is to understate the truth: power over others is the raison d’être of bigots’ politics, and government that considers the welfare or priorities or even the physical needs of all the people is in direct conflict with this. Pluralism is their nightmare. Mutual respect is impossible. While slavery is illegal, the bigot still craves the respect due the master, still grants society’s others only the respect due the slave.

All of this is to say that when we tell each other,

In the face of such a large number of votes for Trump we cannot consider this election a win. What this election reveals about the appeal of Trump’s politics is too startling, too distressing to speak of victory even should Biden take the oath of office next January 20th,

we are of course correct. But this election wasn’t about victory. This election was about doing what we need to survive, what we need to get some sleep tonight.

But as little as this election has to do with victory, it is not nothing. Surviving Bull Connor‘s hoses wasn’t a victory. Birmingham protests of the firebomb murders of Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair were no more victories than the Lesbian Avengers’ fire-eating protests after the firebomb murders of Hattie Mae Cohen and Brian Mock. It was not victory when my abuser strangled me to something short of murder.

But even when we fail to win something magnificent, even when there is nothing wonderful in surviving another tragedy as terrible as this election, our survival to resist another day is itself a necessary step fording the Jordan, a necessary step on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, a necessary step along the Pride March.

As exhausted as we might feel, the failure to control us is driving the bigots slowly but surely from more and more spaces. There is a reason that they equate banning discrimination with banning them from participation in public life: it is because they cannot stand the awareness of their own failure to control the others of society: the women, the indigenous, the queers, the Black folk, the Jews. Unable to tolerate their own anxiety over their lack of control over others, they will retreat to venues or issues where they can still exercise control. This is what they mean when they equate anti-discrimation with discrimination against whites or straights or Christians:

I am anxious when I fail to control others, and I am not brave enough to see myself through my anxiety. I retreat in the face of my fears, and I blame you for my cowardice.

There are plenty of people whose minds can and will change on issue like trans* children’s participation in school sports, trans* adults equal freedom to use public bathrooms, women’s right to have sex, use contraception, or choose abortion, Black folks’ rights to create an artistic culture that reclaims and asserts its own control over the use of the n-word, indigenous women’s rights to be equally protected by police, deaf rights to remain unbeaten when police give them verbal orders they cannot hear and thus cannot be expected to obey. We can and should continue to indentify those people whose minds can change and give them the information and support that they need to change them, even if that means we sometimes waste energy supporting people who cannot change their minds.

But those people whose minds cannot change can and will still change their behaviour. We can create a world where attempts to control others are increasingly poorly rewarded. Indeed, we are continuously creating such a world. The rewards of the whip denied them, the people desperate for power over others turned to the rewards of segregation and the military slaughter of indigenous non-combatants designated enemies of the state. Those rewards denied, they focussed on suppressing women, suppressing queers, starving the First Nations and the poor.

Now look at them! Putting a Black man on the Supreme Court was a victory for them in the 90s. They couldn’t stop the court from having Black justices, so the bigots now ignore that was ever their intent and gain their satisfaction instead from the fact that Thomas is as slaveringly conservative, as desperate for a society where power over the other is the norm as they are themselves. Putting Coney Barrett on the court is now celebrated by the same people who insist that women are not meant to work outside the home. We focus so much on how they have perverted the Civil Rights & feminist movements that we fail to appreciate how deeply they have perverted themselves. How riven with and driven by fear they truly are.

We survive. We resist. And the bigots literally find this intolerable. When we survive again and resist again, even when we are dismayed, even when we are exhausted, even when we are injured, even when we are forced to mourn the loss of beautiful souls to yet another firebomb of bigotry, the bigots retreat a step.

When we survive again and resist again, they will retreat again. In the face of protests in Portland this summer, the bigots and fascists, the people desperate for power over sent in their paramilitaries for a single mission: do violence until their enemies were controlled.

We did not injure their paramilitary agents. We did not cow them. They were not scared of the sparkling bottle rockets or the plywood sidewalk fires or the graffiti. They were armed. They were armored. They shot us and gassed us and beat us. Why should they fear spray paint already dried on the courthouse walls?

We survived. We resisted. No more than this.

They shot again. They launched gas again. They beat us. Again.

We survived. We resisted. No more than this.

And yet Trump and his followers, desperate for power over others, became increasingly distressed in their demeanor, increasingly incoherent in their rhetoric, increasingly over the top in their violence. Their anxiety wasn’t because they were being hurt by the protests or the protesters. Their anxiety derived solely from their failure to control us.

And when they retreated, it wasn’t because we beat them. It wasn’t because we gassed them or terrorized them. In the end, we survived. We resisted. And they stepped back, in terror not of us, but of their own failure to control. They found it less distressing to ignore us than to confront us and see for themselves that they do not control us.

It is their own anxiety that forces them to look away.

Bigots will be bigots. They will not be cured. They will not become better people. And an election in which more than 1% of people vote for a man who has made negligent homicide into federal policy can never be a victory.

But do not despair. This has been the way of the United States since its beginnings. There is something in the American psyche that has been intractably, inextricably entangled with bigotry and with the desire to oppress since the birth of the nation. It has not been eradicated in 200 years, and there is no reason to think it will be in my lifetime.

But we have survived. We have done what we needed to be able to sleep tonight. Tomorrow we will resist again.

And though it seems like we can never win, though the bigots will never change their natures, their own anxiety makes standoffs intolerable. To them a contest most be won, and never tied. There is no such thing as a good game. Live and let live is a philosophical horror. Taking the presidency in turns is a picture of hell. Their own cowardice will force them to retreat.

And, yes, they will again attack us in new ways on new issues (or even on old) when they think their violence – rhetorical, political, or physical – will win them the power that they must have to soothe themselves. But we will survive. We will resist. And in cowardice, they will retreat again.

We should not claim victory, but we do not need to claim victory.

Inevitably we will survive, we will resist, and they themselves will retreat, will look away from the parts of life, from the lives of people that they have learned they cannot control.

Survive the day. Survive the night. Resist tomorrow. The bigots will claim their own defeat.


  1. M Manu Rere says

    The OCA has won. There’s a comfortable majority on the Supreme Court who are of the publicly expressed opinion that bigots have a fundamental human right to destroy anyone they disapprove of. The Democratic party has an official policy of hand-wringing and doing nothing. Legal victory is not an option; we can survive and resist. As it has usually been.

  2. M Manu Rere says

    @ Jazzlet —

    Probably. I’m running on an excess of stress and very little sleep, and my reading comprehension is going to be pretty bad today. My comment was me tripping over the description of the problem better described in the post.

  3. kestrel says

    This post is oddly comforting, which might seem a strange thing to say. I am so sorry for the ordeal you went through, and I am really sick over what this country apparently is right now. However if the goal is to survive… well, I might be able to do that.

    Your point about some people desperately wanting to control others, and being terrified when they can not… that’s really interesting. I had known that studies show fear can cause people to become more conservative, but I had not thought of lack of control over others as a thing to be afraid of or to cause fear.

  4. Allison says

    If we only focus on whether we can in our lifetimes see us reaching the goals we’d like to reach, we will lose hope. Instead, we need to do what we have strength to do and not give up, even if we won’t see “the prize” in our lifetime or even our grandchildren’s.

    I can’t help thinking of what African-Americans have done over the 400 years of enslavement and oppression in the USA. From what I’ve seen, it has been to a large extent people just doing whatever was possible with whatever strength they had to help their people survive and if possible improve their lot, no matter how small the “possible” was.

    Sometimes, just staying alive is a victory.

  5. voyager says

    You’ve given me a bit of new thinking that’s going to occupy me for a while. Your essay is incisive, intimate and powerful. It makes sickening sense to me looking both to the past and the future.
    There is nothing else I can say more eloquently than you did in this piece.

  6. Numenaster, whose eyes are up here says

    Beautifully written. Resisting the OCA was also my first real foray into activism: I was in college in the 80’s. They actually got mentioned in an Ultronz song, “Throw My Guitar On The Fire”.

  7. says

    Everyone who commented, thank you.

    You know, I made a joke in response to Ridana’s kind words, because praise can make me uncomfortable and self-deprecating humor is how I deal with that.

    But I want folks to know that I’m flattered & appreciative that you found this valuable. Some of the things you’ve said are incredibly kind, and even if I can be uncomfortable with that sometimes, I’m taking them in, I’m going to sit with them, and I’m going to allow myself to feel them as they were intended.

    Again, thank you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *