As we arrived at SFO two Sundays ago to join thousands of people protesting the Trump administration’s detention of Muslim immigrants at the nation’s airports, our eyes welled up with tears. For weeks, we had tried to maintain a sense of equilibrium, attempting not to follow every Internet post about what the new administration might do, or indulge our worst fears. As Mark Twain is thought to have said: “Some of the worst things in my life never happened.” But now, something was happening. The U.S. government was detaining or refusing entry to hundreds of lawful immigrants and refugees travelling to the U.S. that weekend and denying future entry to thousands of others, based on their religion or national origin.
We wore our old “Immigration Equality” t-shirts that read on the back, “United by Love, Divided by Law.” We had worn those shirts for years to support LGBT bi-national couples, many of whom until 2013 were denied legal status in America. Suddenly the shirts had a new and different relevance. We imagined innocent Muslim people being detained in windowless rooms elsewhere in the airport. We took heed of the famous words of Martin Niemöller, the Protestant minister the Nazis imprisoned, that were written on homemade signs at the protest:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Thousands of people were speaking out that day even though they were not necessarily Muslim. They hoped those in detention at the airport could hear their chants of support; they were present at the airport to welcome any detainees who made it through immigration.
The next day, Monday, we were scrolling through our email when we were stunned to read an ominous alert from a highly credible source: Later that day Trump might issue another new executive order, this one stripping LGBT federal employees and contractors from protections against discrimination in place for decades and permitting federal discrimination against married same-sex couples and other LGBT people in a wide variety of contexts. Although LGBT immigrants and refugees would suffer under the administration’s immigration orders, those orders did not target LGBT people in particular. Now they were coming for us. We felt sickened, vulnerable, and furious.
But as news of the proposed order started to leak, the White House quickly retreated, issuing a statement that very evening that protections for LGBT employees of government contractors would not be revoked and stating that Trump was “determined to protect the rights of all Americans, including the LGBTQ community” and that he “continue[d] to be respectful and supportive of LGBTQ rights … .” The resistance was having an effect—a small victory.
But we hold no illusion as to the harm that some of Trump’s actions could have on LGBT people and to the anti-LGBT agenda that Mike Pence and others in powerful positions seek to enact. A different version of the proposed order is being circulated at this very moment. And the next day, Trump nominated Neil Gorsuch as his pick for the US Supreme Court. Lambda Legal characterized Gorsuch’s opinions as a federal appellate judge as “open[ing] the door to all manner of assaults on the civil rights of ordinary citizens—including lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgender people and everybody living with HIV.”
We attend demonstrations to speak out, to be counted, and to remind ourselves of hope. We gain inspiration and seek to inspire others, especially young people, to further action. We find comfort and community and often see friends and have some fun as well. At the SFO demonstration, we took particular joy hearing thousands of people from all walks of life chanting: “Immigrant rights under attack. What do we do? Act up! Fight back!” derived from the ACT UP chants that queer HIV/AIDS activists created in the 1980s.
We do our best to mind Martin Niemöller’s words. Indeed, everyone, including and perhaps especially Trump supporters, should take heed of Niemöller’s cautionary tale. After all, Niemöller was not merely a passive bystander to the rise of Hitler; he was a Nazi and anti-Semite himself until the Nazis came after him and his views about the independence of his church. Only then did he gain the wisdom for which he is remembered today.
We cannot ultimately control what happens in life, but we have enormous power over our intentions and actions. Showing up and speaking out has always been fundamental to the success of the LGBT rights movement. And as a minority, we’ve never been able to win without the help of others. Thirty years ago, queer ACT UP activists summed up Niemöller’s admonition in two simple words: Silence = Death. Those words could not be more meaningful for all people today. We have pulled our old ACT UP t-shirts out of storage, and we know we will be wearing them again very soon.
John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, together for over three decades, were plaintiffs in the California case for equal marriage rights decided by the California Supreme Court in 2008. Their leadership in the nationwide grassroots organization Marriage Equality USA contributed in 2015 to making same-sex marriage legal nationwide.