Cleve Jones, a longtime warrior in the fight for equality for the LGBTQ community, came up to me with a question that was delivered as more of a plea. “Are we going to survive this? I’m in such despair,” he said, as we awaited the start of lunch earlier this month at the annual reunion of LGBTQ graduates of Carleton College. Jones, who did not attend my alma mater, had been invited to give the keynote speech.

Jones’s worried query is one asked of me wherever I go by people who represent the gorgeous mosaic of America. Fueling the despair is a sense that the country, which has been a beacon of hope and opportunity around the world, was being destroyed from within by a corrupt and lawless president, as well as congressional Republican enablers who have junked decades of conservative principles to support him.

From the moment the 2016 election was called for Donald Trump, I, too, was in despair. Because he ran one of the most racist, misogynistic, xenophobic and nativist presidential campaigns in recent memory, I had not one iota of expectation that Trump would be good at the job, grow into the job or be presidential. What I didn’t expect was how — and how quickly — Trump would prove me right. Abandoning allies. Condoning the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville. Jailing babies at the southern border. Shaking down foreign leaders for his personal and political gain. Attacking whistleblowers. I could go on.

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As the Trump administration sank to new lows of moral vacancy and unabashed gaslighting, my despair grew. My country — everything it stood for and everything it meant to me — was eroding before my eyes every day, and because my job is to give my opinion on the news, all of it pained me on a level that felt debilitating. What was and remains even more painful is the recognition that a considerable chunk of America stands with this president.

So, I retreated from the news and dove into books. I’ve read more books since January 2017 than I did in my four years at Carleton. And it was in the early pages of “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom,” David W. Blight’s mammoth biography about the runaway slave who became one of the greatest orators of the 19th century, that I gained the perspective I needed to find my footing to climb out of despair and into defiance:

The orator and writer lived to see and interpret black emancipation, to work actively for women’s rights long before they were achieved, to realize the civil rights triumphs and tragedies of Reconstruction, and to witness and contribute to America’s economic and international expansion in the Gilded Age. He lived to the age of lynching and Jim Crow laws, when America collapsed into retreat from the very victories and revolutions in race relations he had helped to win.

Think of the sweep of Douglass’s life. He was born a slave and escaped. He was a celebrated orator against the sin of slavery and saw the end of the evil institution. He played a part in the nation reaching toward its founding ideals during Reconstruction. And he then watched all the gains he fought for reversed by Congress, the courts and the president during the terror of the Jim Crow era. But Douglass’s fight was not lost. That I was reading about him as an African American, openly gay, married man who writes for The Washington Post was proof of that. That realization made me understand that as bad as things are, they won’t stay that way.

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Taking issue with the belief that the arc of the universe bends toward justice and that our history is “always on an escalator that somehow ends up going up,” Blight told me last year, “History is full of just as many examples of where it did not bend toward justice.” But history can bend, it can march forward as long as there are people willing to march with it.

Harriet Tubman, the diminutive slave who escaped bondage in 1849, made 19 trips to the South to walk more than 300 slaves to freedom in the North. She worked as a spy for the Union during the Civil War and even led the Combahee River Raid that freed more than 700 slaves. The drama of that moment is powerfully depicted in the new film “Harriet,” which I saw earlier this week. The entire two-hour film is a reminder that things in this country were much worse than today, but that they were not insurmountable. Overcoming them required grit, moral conviction and an abiding belief in justice. And this is where Cleve Jones comes in.

Jones is a warrior in the fight for equality for the LGBTQ community. For more than 60 edge-of-your-seat minutes, Jones walked us through gay history and his part in it. He was working as an intern with Harvey Milk when the gay San Francisco Board of Supervisors member was assassinated in 1978. Jones founded The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt in 1987. But it was in the final three minutes of his talk that Jones answered his own question to me: “Are we going to survive this?”

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The movement saved my life. It’s not hyperbole. It’s not rhetoric. I was a 15-year-old kid getting ready to kill myself and the movement saved my life. I moved to San Francisco. I realized my life wasn’t over. And then they killed Harvey [Milk] and I thought it was over, but we rose up and were even stronger. It wasn’t over.
And then AIDS came and my friends began to die and I thought, “It’s over now.” But it wasn’t over. We fought back. And then I got sick. And I thought, “Now, it’s really over! I’m going blind and I can’t walk and I’m not going to make it. It’s over now!” But ACT UP stormed the FDA and NIH and got the drugs released that saved my life. It wasn’t over.
And last, a couple of Novembers ago, sitting in my room like all of you were watching the news coming in and Pennsylvania went and Florida went. And I’m calling my boyfriend and he’s younger than me. We text a lot. And I said, “Honey, it’s over now!” And he said, “No, it’s not over. “ And then Florida goes and “It’s over now! We’re going to lose everything we fought for, everything we dreamed of. It’s all gone. It’s all gone. We’ve lost everything!”
And he said, “Honey! Are you alone in the apartment?“ And I said, “Yes.” And he said, “Well, get down to the streets!“ And I went down to Castro [Street] and . . . there were hundreds and then there were thousands and then there were tens of thousands. And we marched all night. We’ve been marching ever since and I want you to know, it’s not over. I am 65-years-old. I’m healthy. I’m happy. I’m in love and I’m not done fighting.

“There are no straight lines in . . . nature,”Antoni Gaudi once said. Nor are there any in history, as Jones’s closing remarks make plain. Efforts big and small are required to sustain the halting forward march toward fairness, equity and justice. That’s why I leaped to my feet before Jones could say “thank you” at the end of his remarks. How could I not when someone who has seen and lived through so much heartache and happiness rallied us with a relentlessly hopeful message?

Yet, there are days when my hope is tested, as happened on Tuesday when the president mewled on Twitter about the impeachment inquiry being a “lynching,” I wasn’t surprised that he would stoop so low, because I think of him more as a mob boss than a president. But I fumed because it was more evidence that this man would tear this nation apart for his own entertainment and personal survival. It hurt my heart and soul to see Trump throwing more lighter fluid on the wildfire of open racism and xenophobia that he unleashed on June 16, 2015.

Hours after Trump’s tweet, what lifted my spirits was the announcement from the U.S. Postal Service that it will be issuing a forever stamp featuring the late journalist Gwen Ifill, who passed away in 2016. In a column then, I bemoaned the loss of her clarifying voice at a time when our nation’s politics were scrambled and societal bonds were frayed. But I also reveled in being one of her mentees who felt stronger and walked taller after a session of reality checks, tough love and laughter with her.

Seeing Ifill’s face smiling at me from the image of the forthcoming stamp made me tear up. On that day of all days, I took it as a sign to stiffen my spine and to keep holding the powerful accountable. The way Ifill would. To keep fighting. The way Jones still is.

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