Jason Arment interviews Elliot Smith, a politically-engaged, transgender activist at the University of Iowa, who has been experiencing firsthand the fallout of President-elect Donald Trump and the hate and fear that Trump’s rhetoric has fueled.
Tell me exactly what happened.
After Donald Trump became the President-elect, I think there was a huge atmosphere shift in general, a huge attitude shift—at least in Iowa City, where I’m at. Things just felt different. I have a lot of friends who are really scared of that. And that was confirmed yesterday morning when I had a bunch of messages on my Instagram calling me a faggot, talking very transphobic. It was strangers, people I don’t know. I don’t know exactly how they found my Instagram.
So it’s not people that you know, it’s not the student body.
Have you felt any of that from your peers?
I’m pretty sure a random peer called me a faggot yesterday. I’ve never been called anything like that before three days ago, so it’s kind of shocking. I was wearing a rainbow shirt and a guy came up to me said, “Hey, FAGGOT.”
I replied with, “Hey?”
I didn’t know what to say, because it was the first time that had ever happened to me.
So, it appears to be my peers as well. And here at the University of Iowa, where I’m a student, there’s been a huge issue with people spreading hateful posters, white supremacist messages on fliers posted in safe spaces like an LGBT resource center. And on the board of an RA [resident advisor] who is gay.
So, I’ve felt that in the peer group as well. We had a protest the other day in solidarity against Trump and a couple times guys in “Make America Great Again” hats would rush in the circle and yell, “Trump! Trump! Trump! Trump!” And we had to outcheer them out.
Before Donald Trump became the President-elect had you ever felt any type of fear?
Honestly? No. This is the craziest thing.
I’m trans, but I’ve always felt extremely privileged because I’m white, I grew up in my mom’s house, which is very accepting. So, I always felt like I was not really—people would say that I was brave, but I never really felt brave. But the other day, when I was wearing my LGBT pride shirt, I felt brave just for wearing the shirt because I was getting weird looks and putting up with homophobic comments for the first time.
I’ve never really felt that in such an up-front way before.
Have you reached out at all to the school? And, if you have, what was their reaction to this?
No, I didn’t, because I don’t think they were students at the school.
But they’ve been trying to deal with the increase of hate comments in general, like I mentioned the fliers that got posted around the safe spaces. I think they’re trying to pursue and find those people, because it’s a hate crime.
As for the people on my Instagram, one of them was twelve. One of them was some random older guy. I don’t know who they are, and I’m not going to take any action against them. It’s just—no.
I saw on your Facebook you shook hands with Hillary Clinton. Did you think it was possible for Trump to win?
I did not. No. I was volunteering and working hard on her campaign for a year and a half. I don’t think anyone who I know thought it was possible that Trump could win. I don’t know if Trump thought it was possible that Trump could win.
The night that she lost and Trump became the President-elect, we were so energized and fired up and excited to watch her become the President-elect, and then it didn’t happen! I’m still trying to figure out what happened. But no, I definitely did not see that coming.
How has your outlook on life changed because of Trump’s victory?
My life in general? I don’t know. I was hit harder by it than I thought that I would be. I think it’s because it’s the first time in my life I felt like I was experiencing some form of discrimination with comments on my Instagram, and in my real life. I’ve missed a few classes, and I’m not sleeping very well. Last night, I got a good night’s sleep finally, but for the previous forty-eight hours, I slept three of them.
My attitude is, it’s just hard. A lot of my friends are taking this harder than I am. It’s really hard to see them struggle. I had a friend who was crying on election night. I had a friend who had a necklace with a Star of David on it, and he took it off and he hid it because he was scared to wear it. I think the attitude changed because suddenly we’re on the defensive.
What do you think of America now, knowing that so many people voted contrary to your existence?
On the one hand, I feel like we should have seen it coming. We knew that there were a lot of really hateful people out there, and not all Trump supporters are hateful people. But we know there are a lot of people who buy into that fear and hatred. I do—I’m not going to have a commentary of what I think of Trump supporters. But, I guess I was still surprised and shocked, and just saddened by the fact that they won. I don’t know what to think of America now. I definitely became less patriotic. I don’t want to call him President Trump, I just want to call him Donald.
I’m a Public Health major, and someone who has always put a lot of faith in the system. And I was for Hillary in the primary, so that says something about me too, I guess. But all my faith in the goodness of the American voter, and the system in general, is shattered. I don’t know what to expect going forward.
Do you feel that these protests against his Presidency are enough? What would you see us do?
The protests aren’t really doing anything. They’re showing solidarity, and it’s been nice for me to go to the protests and see that there are people who feel the same as me, who are struggling the same way I am. But I think all the people who went to the protests need to continue to not accept Donald Trump as President throughout his four years. In those four years, there needs to be just as much action opposing him as there is right now.
I don’t know very much about revolutions. To be honest, this is my first time to be involved in politics, because this is the first election where I could vote. I was about two years old when Bush became President. So I don’t know what you can do. But we need to continue to not accept him.
I really didn’t like when Obama and Hillary both said that they were going to work toward unity. I think that all the people who have been at the protests, and all the people who didn’t vote for Trump, need to continue—I don’t think we can accept unity with a fascist white supremacist.
Academia, at least in my mind, has some answering to do. Because many of the bigger institutions are against trigger warnings, they’re against the idea of safe spaces. And now we’re seeing that these spaces weren’t so safe to begin with. And people like you are really feeling this, this crunch. How do you feel about academics who don’t believe in safe spaces, who feel black face or homophobia have a place on campus?
Opposing trigger warnings in general is so silly. The University of Chicago recently came out against them, and that’s very irritating, because it’s one of my favorite schools. The concept of trigger warnings exist in so many forms already. We rate movies, and that is in itself a kind of trigger warning. People don’t realize their prevalence in our lives, and the seriousness of a trigger, and what that means. It’s been turned into a joke. And I think Donald Trump and his campaign helped turn terms like safe spaces, political correctness, and triggers into something to be mocked. It’s very harmful for students of marginalized groups who have had experiences that might lead them to have some trauma, whether institutionalized trauma or personal trauma, to feel like they’re not welcome on campus.
Do you feel free? And do you feel safe?
I think that I’m lucky, in a lot of ways. Being white, being from upper middle class family, so, yes and no. For example, I’m on testosterone, but if Donald Trump repeals the Affordable Care Act I could lose access to my testosterone. That’s something that’s really been worrying me, because that’s not just my voice going back, but I would actually have withdrawal symptoms. That would be horrible, to be just taken off of my hormones. That’s something that I’m worried about. And I really have no control over.
I feel less safe than I used to, for sure. I live in a small college town, and I used to feel pretty safe walking around after dark, alone. But now, ever since Trump, we’ve been walking in pairs. There are a lot of people that I know would do me harm; it’s the knowledge of that which makes me feel less safe. But I have, as of yet, not experienced direct violation of my freedom or safety. But now there is, for the first time, that possibility.
I have a friend who is from another country, and his mother is terrified. How is your mother handling this?
I think she’s handling it fairly well. Right after Trump won Ohio, and we were both sort of feeling like that was it, he had won. She gave me a call, and I was like, “Why are you calling me?” and she just wanted to hear my voice and say, “I love you.” So, obviously, she was hit pretty hard, and worried about me in particular. But I also have a little sister who doesn’t deserve to have a President who has allegations of sexual assault against him. And I have a little brother who has had experiences of mental illness, and to have a President who mocks disability—I think almost everyone should be outraged at a Trump Presidency. But my mom being a parent of three kids who are really affected by it, is really sad and angering.
Do you think that Trump supporters really understand what is going on as far as the impact of their vote? Many people will say, “I voted for an outsider,” or, “He doesn’t really mean all of those terrible things.” This has kept you up at night, this has affected your life, you’re fearing for your safety. Do you think they had any conception of this, of the impact on you?
I really don’t think so, and I think a lot of them still don’t. I have friends who are going back in the closet. People don’t realize what that means, or they don’t realize that it’s happening, or they think that it’s an overreaction, or that it’s liberal crybabies making a big deal out of nothing. But no one would do that if they didn’t feel unsafe. I don’t think Trump supporters understand the impact of what they’ve done.
I have an ex-boyfriend who didn’t vote, and I don’t think he can understand. That part is on those people too, who could have taken action, but didn’t.
I’m trying not to throw too much blame around because I think the ultimate blame is on white supremacists, and Donald Trump, and people who are complacent. It’s really hard not to be angry with people who didn’t vote, but could have.
As far as this nation and where it’s headed, for the future, are you hopeful? Do you think that this nation can turn it around?
No. Not really. I think that we’re already at a point where it’s, in a lot of different ways, we are not number one. Economically, we’re still up there, but I think Trump’s going to crash that too. At the very least we’re going to lose our status as the stronghold of democracy and a symbol of freedom, which is something that we have been for a very long time. I don’t know. Once again, this is my first election being involved, but this seems like an unprecedentedly bigoted President, and I think that will mean something to the world. Whether we can undo the damage that’s done, in many aspects I’m worried that we can’t. Global warming has a threshold that I think we’ve crossed, and Trump isn’t going to do much to turn that around, if that’s possible. Public health is something that’s going to really, really suffer with the loss of Obamacare. If he does carry through with taking that away there is going to be so many people who lose their coverage, and it’s really hard for nations to come back from a blow to their public health. And also the judges he appoints are going to be seated for a long time. I don’t know if can go back to the image of America we’ve all been hanging on to, as the greatest nation on earth and the stronghold of democracy and a melting pot. I think that has been lost.
Is there anything else you want to touch on that you think is important?
I think every single queer person, and person of a minority group that I know, is going through the exact same thing that I am. Like I said, my Jewish gay friend who took off his Star of David that he used to wear every single day and is no longer wearing it, and he’s back in the closet. I have a friend whose parents are immigrants from Mexico, and he was despondent, just non-responsive on election night. I have a friend who is an immigrant from Jamaica and she was actually packing bags as if she was going to leave, sort of half-joking, but also half-not. I could go on and list so many people who are experiencing anger and confusion, and who are not sleeping well at night. The impact on individuals is something that is going to be lost in the coverage of this. Because you can’t necessarily do the interviews like this, CNN can’t. We’re all like, “We can hopefully survive the policies he puts in place,” but the culture he’s causing is something people won’t survive. And I know some people won’t survive the policies too, but I feel the culture is having a very, very scary affect on people’s lives.
I agree. I disagree though, about CNN. I think they can, and should, do these interviews. Do you think the media makes an effort at all to understand these issues? Or do you think that, as far as the media is concerned, it’s just another opportunity for ratings. Like a sports game almost. Like they aren’t understanding. What are your thoughts?
I think the media is trying to keep it unbiased, but I think their attempts to keep it unbiased are part of what led to Trump being legitimized. If they did this sort of interview, they wouldn’t touch on the hurt that’s done by Donald Trump, they’d touch on, “He says he’s going to deport Muslims!” Then they’d have their panel of people with half saying it’s ridiculous, and the other half saying either that Trump didn’t really mean it or that’s what we need. All real emotion is taken away, and it sounds like a legitimate thing to say when you hear people debating it. There are some things that shouldn’t even be debated, and that’s about half of what Donald Trump says. But the media gives it a legitimate opportunity, with half Trump supporters and half Hillary supporters, and it turns into this legitimizing of what he’s said.
And when they’re covering shootings—in a sense, they profit off of sensationalized coverage of national tragedies. It does feel like a sporting event, like an event for spectators. I like to be informed, so I watch it, but I wish that it didn’t feel insulting.