When I was in tenth grade, I heard a rumor that a group of football players had beaten another student to death because he was gay.
Fights were common in my high school. Gangs fought rival gangs. Boys fought over girls. Girls fought over boys. Gay students were targeted constantly.
This particular rumor was about a boy I knew by sight, but not by name. We shared no classes, had no friends in common. I noticed him in the sea of 3000 students, because he had the most astonishing blond hair I’d ever seen. As he stood in the quad, his yellow mane tumbled down his back in a stop-in-your-tracks river of gold. He was six feet tall, string-bean thin, dressed in white laced up pants, platform shoes, gauzy shirts.
One day he was gone.
My high school had a transient population, a significant number living on the streets, so this boy’s disappearance was unremarkable. Still, I felt haunted by the rumor itself, and equally by the casual way the rumor circulated. I began to ask about him, but nobody knew anything. Most chilling of all — nobody knew his name.
Decades later, I told a journalist friend that I was writing a novel about that rumor. She suggested that I visit the archives, do some research, find out if the murder actually took place. I hesitated and to my surprise, I heard myself telling her that I wasn’t writing about the real person. As the words came out of my mouth, I realized I had carried this boy deep within me since I was 15 years old, and he had taken on mythical proportions. I was writing about a fantasy figure – a homeless, undocumented, street kid — a parentless boy, who died of homophobia. During that conversation, my novel’s silent hero was born.
As I wrote the book, I considered what to call him. I knew he’d be a curious combination of an extremely minor character, and simultaneously the most powerful presence in the novel. Should I give him a catchy nickname like Dash? A stately name like Hamilton? A likable name like Timmy? A powerful name like Rex? As I rejected one name after another, I realized that his character was grounded in his namelessness. So I kept him nameless, and built the entire plot around his namelessness.
The novel was published in 2013, years before Donald Trump was on my radar screen as a serious political figure. But now, as I watch the post election culture unfold, the divisive values that my novel fights against — a mentality of hatred and rage, of Us vs. Them — those values have become our day-to-day reality. Living in hiding from the ICE raids. Dreamers. Families torn apart. Refugees blocked. Latinos, Muslims, women, Jews, Blacks, LGBTQ+. My country’s Commander-In-Chief actively legitimizes a process of divisiveness, which is also a process of dehumanization.
And it gets worse. Now our president has pardoned Joe Arpaio, a racist who used his position as sheriff to target the Latino population, to spit on immigrants. Almost in the same breath, our president has banned transgender troops, relegating the trans population to a lesser than full-human status. He gave a tepid (at best) response to the white supremacist fiasco in Charlottesville, betraying everyone who rejects the idea of a master race. It’s been quite a week.
And it gets even worse, because each of these acts goes beyond the act itself. Our president is endorsing and perpetuating ideas which diametrically oppose the foundation of our country. In the newly Divided States Of America, all people are not created equal.
It’s another form of taking away their names.
I wish the election results had been different. I wish our administration didn’t define empathy and decency as a self-interested power surge. I wish so many people in my homeland weren’t hurt by their statements, their policies, their actions. I wish the people in charge understood that gaining power by stepping on others never works for long. Eventually, they’ll fall and as they fall, they’ll drag several innocent people with them. They’ll all land hard, and some will survive while others won’t. Donald Trump’s name will be remembered, but most of the names of the innocent casualties will be forgotten, caught in a crossfire of dehumanization.
I wish for a day when nobody has to live without a name.