Style | Perspective
May 22, 2017 at 9:00 AM
by Steven Petrow
A few weeks ago, my editor asked what I planned to write about for this, my last Civilities column. Without hesitation I replied: "Fear — and the large vein of it that runs through our country today."
Let me start with a personal story. Since January, I've suffered a troika of destabilizing losses: the deaths of both my parents and the end of my marriage. At times I've been overwhelmed by fear — of losing my family, of financial insecurity, and even of dating again. This all-encompassing anxiety has not made me my best self, and as much as I've tried to mitigate it, I know that I've often been too brittle, too angry and too self-absorbed.
I'm not the only one who feels short-circuited by fear and anxiety in these unpredictable political times. In fact, the American Psychological Association reported recently that its annual "Stress in America: Coping with Change" survey hit a record high this year because of concerns about the political climate and the country's future. "The fear of uncertainty is a constant, whether it's political or otherwise," Ron Samarian, chief of the department of psychiatry at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich., told USA Today.
In looking back at my columns and readers' comments, I'm struck by just how prevalent this state of insecurity has been, both among those who identify as LGBT and those who don't. In a word cloud of my columns, fear, anxiety, suspicion and distrust would probably dominate.
Within the LGBT community, there are many reasons to be nervous. In the 28 states where gay people can be fired simply because of their sexual orientation, there is the fear of coming out at work. LGBT tweens and teens live with the fear of being bullied at school. And many in my community fear being disowned or disavowed by family members simply because of whom they love.
Last June, the day after 49 people — most of them LGBT — were murdered at Orlando's Pulse nightclub, I wrote, "For gay men and lesbians of a certain age, both the fear of violence — not to mention the real thing — has long been part of our consciousness. . . . We've long known that violence can erupt on a sidewalk, in a park, a diner or a restroom, whether we're alone, with a partner, even with our families — anywhere we are identified as LGBT in front of the wrong person. . . . This shooting reinforces the deep-seated fear that, for us, nowhere is really safe."
My generation's collective memory is stained by the assassination of gay rights leader Harvey Milk in 1978, and I'm certain that the Pulse murders provide the same kind of awful touchstone for younger LGBT people. Jacob Tobia, 25, a genderqueer writer and advocate, told me last year: "I expect violence walking alone late at night. . . . I expect random acts of hate violence on the street." But Tobia, who uses gender-neutral pronouns, still thought they'd be in a safe space in a queer club.
More pervasive though, is the everyday anxiety that comes from being routinely insulted and diminished. After I wrote a column profiling Liz Hadfield, a 21-year-old transgender college student, I published some readers' responses. "You're mentally defective, that's all," posted one. "What's with the 'She' krap?" wrote another. "The proper pronoun is 'HE.' HE is a man dressed up to believe he's a she, but he's still a man. End of story." For Hadfield, this was painful at every level, and not at all the end of the story.
LGBT people, however, are not the only ones who wrote to me about their fears. In the months before and after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in June 2015, I heard from many readers who feared the breakdown of opposite-sex marriage and the imminent destruction of the family as they defined it. Some parents expressed fear about their daughters being assaulted in gender-neutral restrooms, or their sons being damaged by transgender male Boy Scouts. These fears have proved to be unfounded, according to government and law enforcement officials, but they are no less real to those held in their grip.
I believe our state of insecurity is the result of changes we don't understand, circumstances we can't control and concepts alien to our individual worldviews. Whichever side of today's great divide you occupy, the question is the same: How do we overcome these fears?
Katie Couric, the host and executive producer of National Geographic's powerful documentary "Gender Revolution," suggested one approach to me. When I interviewed Couric, she told me that she intentionally brought a "respectful curiosity" to this project and admitted that she didn't have all the answers, which I found enormously refreshing. And she offered wise advice for our current climate:
"I can't think of a better time for people to open their hearts and minds and learn about those who may be different than them," she said. "There seems to be a movement to 'other-ize' a variety of groups, and diversity seems to have become a dirty word for some." Couric spoke directly to those who identify as straight or cisgender (those whose gender identity matches their birth sex) but her words should have resonance for those of us who are LGBT as well. Respect, after all, is a two-way street. And when we have more respect for "others" — and they for us — we will all have less to fear.
At least that's my hope.