There are events that imprint onto our psyche and stay with us for the rest of our lives. The chaos and concern for our safety we are facing now as a country is taking me back to an early September morning, in my tiny brownstone in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
I was sound asleep after working the night shift. My best friend Mark phoned and immediately started shouting: “We are being attacked! America is under attack!” “What?” I said. “We are under attack! Turn on your TV, Kim!” I leaped out of bed and turned on the TV to see the anchors attempting to make sense of the unfolding events. I ran to the window and held back the curtains with shaking hands, scanning the calm blue sky.
September 11, 2001 ignited a fear larger than any I had known before, feeding on the fires of everything bad and sad I’d lived through already. The physical abuse I suffered as a child; the fear I felt when witnessing my dad and later my mother’s boyfriend brutally beat her. Fear wrapped in fear — like the time I ran for my life on Pearl Street in downtown Fort Wayne as a man wielding a knife yelled homophobic slurs at me. And as a Black trans woman who had just recently undergone sex-confirming surgery, I felt what I refer to as a grand mal fear. A fear that transformed into anger, then action. I made up my mind I would risk my life for the hope and dream of preserving the American way of life that is our liberty.
I enlisted and served six years in the Army National Guard. I felt some worry as a trans woman serving openly, in the days of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” But mostly I felt safe, even in the war zones where I served. My safety was grounded in feeling like I belonged and was valued; I finally had some financial stability; and I could contribute 100 percent of myself to my colleagues and my country. As I transitioned to civilian life, I decided my next calling was to share those values of belonging and acceptance with LGBTQ young people in Indianapolis. As I advocate and show up for them, I hope to always be an example of what’s possible in their lives.
Yet 19 years after 9/11, I’m not feeling as safe any more. I’m feeling the same fear and anger and resolve to serve and protect my fellow Americans. This time the threat is not coming from some faraway land. Nor am I able to find solace in the fact that Americans are united as one against a known threat to our liberty.
Today the source of my fear is woven in the fabric of America and from within. It’s a threat to my people and the American way of life. It’s rooted in the same blind evil that allowed human beings to shackle other humans of a different race and deem them slaves. Hate and fear, compounded by our collective concern over a deadly virus and the economic crisis, that doesn’t take into account Black and Brown people struggling to be safe and equal. Fear that sees trans people as a threat to the majority, when all we’ve ever wanted was to be ourselves.
To be Black and trans too often means being limited by bias in getting an education, a good-paying job, a home. We are at greater risk of violence simply because we do not always have those basic securities. A debate over law and order can be dangerous when there’s not enough understanding of what it means for all of us to be safe.
Our American way of life is under attack, fueled by this confusion. That’s why I hope you transform as I did — moving from fear to action. The time is now, not later but right now; you must stand up. All Americans must stand together for the rights of Brown and Black people to have what white people demand for themselves — liberty and justice. America has promised all Americans that much, notwithstanding the color of one’s skin.
Silence kills democracy, and as a military veteran and a Black American, I am going to face down this dark time in our country with the same perseverance that Martin Luther King, Jr. and those who stood with him did.
I encourage you not to allow confusion and fear to win. Let your voice be loud and proud in the fight for everyone to have the right to vote; it is crucial that we get out and vote. The hatred and evil we are witnessing today can only be destroyed by us being united as Americans in the pursuit of equality and liberty.
Dr. King understood the power of peaceful protest and we must too — even in the face of pure and evil hatred. We must remain peaceful, for hatred and evil need us to mirror its violence for it to regenerate. Keep up the peaceful protests, and vote like our lives depend upon it. They do.
Kimberly Acoff is a Black trans woman and military veteran. She is the Programming Director at Indiana Youth Group in Indianapolis. She also served six years in the Army National Guard, and is a native of Selma, Ala.