America is an idea, they say. For me it’s one that started to form watching 1980s television. In Diff’rent Strokes and Cagney & Lacey I got the message that in the United States difference is tolerated, even celebrated. In the US no one would tell me who to be.
Sometimes we are disappointed when reality doesn’t live up to our ideal, but in this case the opposite was true. When I arrived in New York for the first time, at the age of 19, the sliding doors at JFK airport opened to reveal a new world. It was a world where the faces in the crowd were different from each other. Already I could see difference; already I knew it was where I was meant to be.
It was not surprising, to me anyway, that when I finally came out, 16 years after that first trip, New York was the place where I did it. It was not surprising that New York was the place I met Danielle, the woman who is now my wife. When I moved here to be with her, 11 years ago, I had the feeling not only that I was finally where I was always supposed to be but also that I was who I was supposed to be as well.
Barack Obama was in his first term as president. It was a time of hope and change for everyone, not only me. If someone had told me what the next decade would bring I wouldn’t have believed them. Now I know just how dangerous disbelief can be.
It is a few months since the US supreme court’s judgment in Roe v Wade — which in 1973 meant pregnant women were entitled to an abortion during the first three months of their pregnancy — was overturned. This has effectively made it possible for states to ban abortions before 12 weeks.
There is an option to stay and fight, just as we fought for years in Ireland to make it the country we knew it could be
This landmark reversal has mostly lost its place in the headlines to inflation, rising crime, the war in Ukraine. All the while, state after state outlaws abortion or severely limits access to it, creating a confusing patchwork of laws where the right to choose for a woman in the US is dependent on where she lives.
As the battleground moves to the right, some people have to cross state lines to access abortion services or even the morning-after pill. For some of us there are other battlegrounds, too — battlegrounds much closer to home.
A lot has been written about what a divided and fractured country the United States is, but unless you live here you likely don’t fully understand how that plays out in everyday life. A divided country is about more than watching different news channels. Those divisions mean more than avoiding certain topics over the Thanksgiving dinner table. They mean more than discreetly unfollowing certain people on Facebook.
A divided country means that, the morning after the 2022 NYC Pride March in June, when my new physical therapist asks what I did the day before to make my knee so inflamed, for the first time in a long time I find myself trying to read her eyes above her mask before I tell her I am dancing on the Irish Consulate’s float in the parade.
A divided country means that for the first time in years I weigh up whether to hide or reveal who I really am.
That might seem extreme; you might think it an overreaction, an unfounded fear — especially here in New York. But given Justice Clarence Thomas’s remarks that the legal basis for overturning Roe could be applied to same-sex marriage — in fact any same-sex encounters — we are worried. Given that the “Don’t Say Gay” law came into effect in Florida earlier this month, given that the things we thought would never happen keep on happening right here in the US, I’ll have to respectfully disagree.
So what do we do? Where do we go from here?
Back to Ireland, where the rights of women and of the LGBTQI+ community are more protected now than they are here in the US. As Ireland has become a country that holds the ideas of difference and tolerance I craved as a teenager in high esteem, returning to Ireland is certainly an option. But there’s another one too: stay and fight, just as we fought for years in Ireland to make it the country we knew it could be.
Today, as I write, thousands of people across the US are writing emails, making phone calls, sending out information on abortion clinics and morning-after pills, donating to charities, planning marches and sit-ins and conventions. And there are thousands more, like me in my physical therapist’s office, who are taking smaller but equally important actions every day.
By choosing not to hide, by choosing to speak out, to be who we are even when it’s scary — especially then — we don’t let fear win.
These actions matter, both the big ones and the small ones. Because if there are enough of us that take them, that’s how we get back. That’s how the idea of America becomes reality again.
Yvonne Cassidy is a Dubliner who moved to New York in 2011. She is working on her fifth novel; her previous four: The Other Boy, What Might Have Been Me, How Many Letters are in Goodbye? and I’m Right Here, are published by Hachette. Her essay Tuesdays was published in Grabbed, an anthology about sexual assault, empowerment and healing. She has taught creative writing extensively and currently teaches at the Irish Arts Center and the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan
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