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Reflections from Housing Works CEO Charles King on the Election

Posted by Elizabeth Koke , November 09, 2016

Reflections from Housing Works CEO Charles King on the Election

by Charles King, President and CEO of Housing Works

Last night, like many people, I felt a knot growing in the pit of my stomach as the realization gradually sunk in that our nation had elected as president a man who wears his racism, xenophobia, and misogyny on his chest like badges of honor. As I anxiously flipped from posting to posting on Facebook, looking for any glimmer of hope, I started increasingly to see words like “panic,” angry,” and “afraid”—until some variation of those words was appearing in almost every post I read.

This flood of words carried me back to the very worst days of my own life and of many in this community, some 30 years ago. Caught up in the plague that at first didn’t even have a name, panic was a natural response. Even worse, as we were dying by the score, whether because we were “faggots” or “junkies,” the world around us didn’t seem to care at all. Fear, anger, despair were all emotions we experienced viscerally. And because so many of us were in the closet, we suffered the terrors of the night in dreadful isolation. But then something happened. A small group of people came together to hold up a light in the darkness. Others began to gather around that light.

First, there was GMHC. Then there was ACT UP. A second light began to shine, and even more people began to gather. Bailey House opened, then the Minority Taskforce and Stand Up Harlem, one after another, all over New York City, across this State, across the nation and around the world, people came together, united in fear, united in anger, but also increasingly united in love and community to stand in the light.

Those were days of unexpected heroism and astonishing sacrifice. People who knew they were dying committed to fight. Those not yet dying committed to carrying the struggle forward. We marched bearing real coffins with real bodies. We marched in anger, but we never gave in to hate, and as we grew our love and caring, so grew our hope.

When Housing Works organized, it was one of a few tiny lights against the overwhelming darkness and despair of 12,000 homeless people with HIV living on the streets of New York City, many of them further marginalized by addiction and mental illness. We had many days when we were tempted to despair by the challenges that we had taken on. But those challenges instead forged the loving and healing community we are today – a community that is stronger than it has ever been before.

So many people had gathered around our collective light all over this state that four years ago, we actually began to dream we could do something that once seemed impossible, and end AIDS as an epidemic in our City and in our State by 2020, and in the process we have made so much progress on so many other fronts. Gay marriage was forged out of the AIDS epidemic. Progress on transgender rights, while still not complete, has been amazing. Meanwhile, here in New York, we have used the Affordable Care Act as a platform not only for Ending the Epidemic, but also to transform our healthcare system to address disparities in health based on poverty, race sexual orientation, and other markers.

I will not minimize what we learned last night. We have always known that a large element of racism is rooted deeply in our land. Similarly, Donald Trump did not invent misogyny. Sexism and its offshoots of homophobia and transphobia have not gone away even if we can point to incremental progress. And when our country becomes afraid, we always reach to xenophobia directed toward our most recent immigrants. But too often we turn our heads and convince ourselves that this really doesn’t affect us. After last night, our denial has been stripped away. Nearly half of Americans who voted, for whatever reason, voted for the worst of who we are, the worst of our collective fears and prejudices, thereby legitimizing hate.

I am also not going to minimize the challenges we face. Trump and the Republican Party have pledged to overturn the Affordable Care Act, a critical platform we have leveraged here in New York and many other states. Rolling back gay marriage and reproductive rights are also on the agenda. We can fully expect increased federal assault on immigrants and cities and states that protect them. The National AIDS Strategy, weak as it is, is now in question. Trump’s international policy pledges threaten our nation’s global leadership on AIDS and in support of women’s rights and LGBT rights, and even human rights in general.

Even in the face of that reality and those challenges, we remain a strong community. We are a community forged by worse adversity than we face today. We remain radically inclusive, knowing that inclusion increases all of us. We choose love, not hate. We choose hope, not fear. And together we stand in the light and invite others to join us. Our journey for social justice and health equity just became a bit steeper, and we have much work ahead. But we have come too far to turn back now.

I know we come from different religious and humanist traditions. This morning, while out for my morning run, I found myself singing the chorus of an old spiritual that I often rely on when tempted by despair:

“I don’t feel no ways tired. I’ve come to far from where I started from. Nobody told me that the road would be easy. But I don’t believe he brought me this far to leave me.”

Whatever your tradition, I hope those words speak to you in this moment as well.

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