By Kevin Hogan
Founder, Healing Stigma
To be clear, I was born and will die a proud American. But lately, the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave is feeling more like the Divided States of America. From the moment the 45th President of the United States of America was sworn in, the word “united” has increasingly become an inaccurate description of our country. Muscling reality-TV-style into headlines, the President has issued a spate of stigmatizing executive orders targeting and isolating specific groups in our society and around the world.
In the name of protecting Americans from “terrorists” and “illegals” who would either kill our citizens, take our jobs, or both, countless families have been torn apart. People who put their own lives and those of their loved ones at risk to support our troops overseas have been through the emotional, legal, and financial wringer. And undocumented immigrants who came to America as children, paid taxes, and contributed to the economy even throughout the recession are being detained as their own children look on helplessly.
During the nationwide outrage and protests fueled in part by these xenophobic policies, the Jewish community was rocked by a wave of vandalism and hate crime. Hundreds of gravestones in Jewish cemeteries were toppled, while a rash of bomb threats targeted Jewish community centers and schools.
After significant achievements under the Obama administration, including marriage equality, workplace protections, and the right to serve openly in the armed forces, the LGBTQ community has witnessed several of their hard-fought rights challenged at the federal, state, and local levels. Recently, White House officials confirmed that a far-reaching “religious freedom” executive order is still in the works. Once signed, it would provide exemptions for religion-motivated denial of service to LGBTQ individuals in the broadest possible sense, including when providing education or seeking a job.
In the Texas Supreme Court, conservatives challenged the city of Houston’s decision to extend spousal benefits to married same-sex couples. The state of Wisconsin withdrew insurance coverage for gender reassignment surgery for transgender state employees. And after two years of being allowed to march in Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, OutVets found itself temporarily stonewalled by the South Boston Allied Veterans Council, which claimed that OutVets’ rainbow flag violates its rules because it’s an “outward symbol of sexuality.”
Transgender students, arguably some of the most vulnerable individuals in our society, witnessed the federal government roll back its guidance for the protection of their public restroom rights. Just days later, the Supreme Court balked at hearing Gavin Grimm’s case concerning his gender identity and rights as a student.
Sadly, the President’s ongoing attempts to undermine the credibility of the press are choking most meaningful avenues to respectfully debate these issues. Without respectful debate, we’re inundated with ever-louder opposing voices that battle for our attention and seek to polarize us. The danger is that many of us, regardless of our political beliefs, are increasingly succumbing to the use of stigma to label those who aren’t “with us.”
By its very nature, stigma fosters oppression, divisiveness, and fear. When a government or elected official promotes stigmatization, it becomes a weapon that can cause mass suffering, destroying lives and decimating communities.
Most importantly, stigma is the sworn enemy of the empathy it takes to build bridges between diverse groups of people. At its worst, it leads to hatred and violence. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the Southern Poverty Law Center recorded nearly 900 post-election hate incidents with anti-immigrant, anti-Black, anti-Semitic, anti-LGBTQ, and anti-Muslim cases topping the nationwide list in that order.
This is the current state of our union. We are, to put it plainly, a nation divided by stigma. And if we don’t take action against our own stigmatizing beliefs, more hatred and violence will follow. Soon, we could be fighting an internal war, instead of fighting for tolerance, freedom, and diversity—the core values that I believe should shape our nation’s identity for generations to come.
Fortunately, every time we witness stigma walling off an individual or group, we’re given an opportunity to challenge it by building a bridge. By looking beyond stigmatizing stereotypes and labels and getting to know our fellow Americans, we can recognize our similarities, reduce our fear, and learn to celebrate our diversity. And when we do that, we can make America more than great: We can unite it.