Empire of Precarity: Queerness, South Korea, and Donald Trump

And so the empire changes. As with every U.S. presidential election, it feels as though the fate of the world hangs in the balance, feeding deeper into the psychosis of U.S. exceptionalism that perpetuates the empire further. While the policies of the newly-elected president are the cornerstone of the future of the empire, we certainly cannot neglect the interplay between those policies and the words and actions of his supporters. Both have profound effects on minorities and women in the United States, but the combination also has enormous ripples throughout the world precisely because U.S. exceptionalism is still at the center of this ever-expanding empire. Again, this may be true with any recent U.S. presidential election, but this has been no ordinary election or soon-to-be-president. It is not so much that we are surprised to find this level of bigotry, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, and all-around hatred in the United States or with politicians—it is even a prerequisite to be president—but the normalization of a politician and now president to spew the things he has said and do the things he has done (and has been accused of doing) is what marks this election and president as significantly and terrifyingly different. We need only look to the streets of the Unites States at the way people are reacting through protest and the way Trump supporters resort to verbal and physical intimidation and violence against women and minorities to witness just how horrendous and unsettling this “new” empire has become in the wake of Donald Trump’s election and presidency.

In many ways, Trump is no different than many Republicans, including past Republican presidents. While they may not have been as openly vulgar as he has been, it would be ignorant to believe that giant crevasses separate Trump and the rest of the Republican party. Trump, like most Republicans (and Democrats), peddles the same free-market capitalist rhetoric that intensified under Reagan, a rhetoric and practice that disenfranchises huge swathes of communities, including lower-class gay folks and queers of color. As with all good empires, this free-market capitalist logic and disenfranchisement is tied to the ever-expanding military industrial complex and global securitization. Trump, however, wraps this in what has become all too familiar in Europe with Brexit, namely anti-immigrant, isolationist language of “economic hardship.” Everyone else is to blame except me. The “me”, of course, is a cisgender heterosexual white man (and, to an extent, woman). Policies aligned with this stance encompass his proposed Muslim-ban, deportation of undocumented immigrants, building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, reintroducing Stop and Frisk for police, voter ID laws, repealing the Affordable Care Act, appointing Supreme Court justices that that could threaten a woman’s right to choose, marriage equality, and healthcare. While none of this is necessarily new to conservative politics, the language used by Trump and his supporters—in addition to the people he is appointing to run his White House—is atrocious.

Fascists with guns have never been a reassuring and uplifting combination or reality.

I made the mistake the day after the election, still raw and in mourning, to open up a page on Facebook entitled “Day One in Trump’s America.” The page was filled with experiences of people of color, immigrants, women, and queer folks who were verbally and physically harassed by strangers and even neighbors while simply walking, driving, and existing. The perpetrators feel empowered and vindicated to outwardly be racist, homophobic, misogynist, xenophobic, and violent because Donald Trump won the U.S. election. Several news agencies have reported on this violence, but these are the experiences that were foretold before the election and are now being lived by so many. Troves of Democrats and political pundits claim that Trump has no mandate to govern because he did not win the popular vote; Hillary Clinton did, in fact, win more votes than Donald Trump. And while he may not have a mandate to govern, his supporters and the tens of millions of Americans (if not more) have the mandate they need to outwardly incite violence, fear, and insecurity against anyone they please.

Queer Entanglements

Being a sexual minority, trans, or queer has never been a safe existence, but under President Obama there was a possibility for some semblance of safety. This was predominately true for white cisgender individuals (like myself), and so that feeling of safety I felt was a form of privilege not always felt by queers of color, trans folks, and differently abled queers. Now, all those semblances of safety will be stripped from us and our communities. Even though Trump said that he will keep LGBT Americans safe, the new Vice President, Mike Pence, firmly believes in conversion therapy and locking up gays and lesbians who seek to get married in Indiana. Also, Trump lies. There have been cases following the election where Trump supporters have harassed queers and their families. And so while I fully recognize my privilege as a cisgender white man, my sexuality makes me a target as well, and for that, I am scared.

The empire feels those ripples too. As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton actually did quite a bit in terms of LGBTI human rights both in the State Department and abroad. She famously declared in 2011 at the United Nations that “gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.” While “gay” is hardly inclusive and indexes a particular (white) identity, it is still profound given the venue. I saw, first hand, the effects Secretary Clinton had abroad among LGBTI communities and activists. Queer activists in South Korea have experienced the way the U.S. Embassy has positively engaged with the queer communities and enclaves, a fixture now at the Korean Queer Culture Festival every June and an active proponent and participant for bringing U.S. scholars and activists to South Korea and sending South Korean queer activists to the United States. The partnership that the U.S. Embassy in South Korea has built over the last four to eight years has grown with each passing year, building a bridge between a burgeoning activist community and the United States.

Does that bridge collapse under Trump? During his visit to Seoul in February 2016, Randy Berry, the U.S. Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons, explained to a group of representatives from LGBTI university groups that he would have never accepted his post in 2015 if he suspected that a Republican would do away with that position. He was hopeful, but Trump has filled his State Department with businessmen, war hawks, and ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, a friend to Russia in more ways than one. Furthermore, The Family Research Council, a conservative organization, has called on Donald Trump to purge the State Department of employees that have worked to promote LGBT rights abroad. These employees, The Family Research Council advises, should be replaced with conservatives who would focus on “true” human rights issues, namely religious liberty. So I am not as hopeful as Berry was in February.

I am wary because politicians too easily fold in the face of pressure from religious groups (mostly evangelical Christians) and lobbies (in the U.S.: The National Rifle Association, oil companies, and the pharmaceutical industry). When Ronald Reagan was elected president, he had a number of gay friends given that he was coming from Hollywood. But the pressure from evangelicals like Jerry Falwell, Sr. meant disavowing any connection to homosexuality and allowing AIDS to unfairly and viciously ravage the gay community in the 1980s, leading to tens of thousands of deaths before Reagan ever uttered the word “AIDS.” Trump is no better. While hypocrisy is certainly not new to Trump, I find it incredibly difficult to believe that he and his administration would curtail the rights and civil liberties of queers and trans folks in the United States while staying vigilant and supportive of LGBT rights abroad.

Empire of Precarity 

I cannot help but find the protests in South Korea that led to President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment for corruption and authoritarian style of governing reassuring and empowering when placed alongside the current protests all across the United States targeted at the election of Donald Trump. While no one really thinks that the protests in the United States will lead to a change in who will become the president, the goal is to affect the way Trump and others govern. South Korea is no stranger to mass demonstration and political change, for democracy in South Korea came as a result of citizen mobilization and demonstration in the 1980s and is still the cornerstone of South Korean civil society and citizenry. The United States also has a history of mass demonstrations, particularly with the Civil Rights Movement, Occupy Wall Street, and Black Lives Matter. And so when I look at the current situation in South Korea, I cannot help but wonder if we are heading for a breaking point.

Some say that the breaking point was the election of Donald Trump, but I think his election was a tipping point for many. The difference is that where the tipping point pushes us over the edge, the breaking point is when we shatter the status quo that lies beneath. We have been pushed over the edge and we are now falling towards that moment of impact, a fall that has no subscribed time period but will only gain momentum until we slam through the status quo like a battering ram through the gates of the castle on high. At that moment we shall storm the castle en masse.

We are gaining momentum. The election of Donald Trump was not a collapse of human decency and civil rights; it was the push we needed to fall hard into a future we make for ourselves.

These hopeful words do very little for us right now. We can imagine the moment when we break through, but when so many people are now faced with the very real and terrifying reality of mass deportation, possible interment, loss of healthcare, and violent harassment, a hopeful future can only do so much. The conversations that people of color, immigrants, queers, women, and differently abled people are having is one of day-to-day survival. For many, it is not so much that Trump supporters are ignorant, bigots, homophobic, or misogynistic, it’s that they have guns and aren’t afraid to use them. And while many supporters and liberals may argue that not all Trump supporters are racists and misogynistic, the fact still remains: they voted for Trump and, by extension, racial, gendered, sexual, differently abled-oppression. That truth is un-spinable.

So our mode of operation is survival, both in the U.S. and throughout the world, but for queers in South Korea and racial and gendered minorities in the U.S., survival is not a new concept. For some of us, though, survival and profound physical insecurity are new. For those who have always had to warn their children of such insecurity, it has only gotten more intense and immediate. I am no expert on survival, and so I have no techniques to discuss. But we can still create safe spaces, particularly for the undocumented, and stand up for those either not present or unable to speak up. This could be as everyday as the awkward and confrontational conversations we have with friends and family, or it could be through protest. We can no longer operate under the assumption that conflict and confrontation need to be avoided, for while we must attempt to stay safe, we are at the point when all that is thrown out the window.

What then can Koreans do to change the empire? In part, they are already doing it: loudly, openly, and without constraint oppose authoritarian rule in all forms. I firmly believe that these protests in South Korea are world-changing and are contributing to the reshaping of democracy, capitalism, and citizenship. But to change the empire it ought to embrace a level of anti-bigotry, anti-misogyny, anti-homophobia, and anti-xenophobia for which Korean queer activists, human rights activists, and feminists fight. To be anti-authoritarian and pro-democracy while disapproving of civil rights for all (including LGBTI folks) is hypocritical and worthless. This would follow in the same vein as people who vote for Trump because of his policies while disagreeing with his outlandish words against women and minorities. At this moment, it must be all or nothing. Some may criticize me for being ignorant of Korean culture and society, but I have sat with Korean queer activists and feminists, worked with them, marched with them, cried with them, and mourned with them, and for them it must be all or nothing, now more than ever.

This does not happen overnight, because we still fight for our survival. We must form alliances in the most unlikely of places and with the most unlikely of people as our present has never been more precarious as it is in this moment. In South Korea, working with Korean and Asian-American and immigrant communities and organizations in the United States is a possible avenue. The key is to be unconventional while still productive in action. For various activist communities this also means an expansion outward beyond the insular community of the same faces and moving into communities that might be uncomfortable. Read and translate more books and articles by women of color, books not for you, and look to those activists who do work in the Global South. Love is not enough and not particularly useful in this moment. To survive, overcome, and then dismantle this empire of precarity we must work on all fronts to keep others safe while never backing down. The threat and insecurity is real and visceral, and will only intensify with each passing day, so inaction is no longer an option.

Above all, we must fight against U.S. exceptionalism on all fronts, from all corners of the empire to do away with the empire completely. We do that here in the U.S. and there in South Korea by recognizing that the U.S. is not a utopia to be longed after but a nation to be worked on. Americans should stop claiming that the U.S. is the greatest country in the world; it is not. Other countries should not look to the U.S. for standards and answers; we only have questions. This will take time, but it starts now at home and abroad.

The time to mourn is over. It’s time to get to work.


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