The Women’s March: Why I participated in a protest for the first time in my life

NOTE: This is the first from a monthly column about life in Trump’s America for the Japanese publication Courrier Japon. I wrote it in English for a Japanese audience, and editors translated it into Japanese. It was published on Feb. 3, 2017 here.

The day after the inauguration of President Trump, I stood elbow-to-elbow in San Francisco with more people than I had ever seen in one place. It was raining, but there was no room to hold an umbrella, and many people already had their hands full with signs that said “Not my president,” “Love trumps hate,” and “We are the resistance.”

Cable car bells signaled the beginning of the march. Closely behind them came a number of women holding up a parade banner that said “Women’s March San Francisco.” I stepped into the crowd that was following and began walking among tens of thousands of women, men and children across generations and ethnicities — The young and old, Black, White, Asian, Muslim and Hispanic. Some were using wheelchairs. Next to me, my friends Carrie and Andrea held hands. Andrea gave her wife a soft kiss on the cheek, and Carrie reciprocated with a firm kiss on the mouth.

San Francisco is often referred to as a living bastion, and the running joke in town is that it doesn’t take much for San Franciscans to protest about something. But even though I’ve lived here for eight years, I had never felt compelled to join until now. In fact, I’d never protested about anything my entire life.

Part of the reason was professional. I was a journalist, and journalists were supposed to stay neutral. Another part was cultural. Even though I’d spent well over half of my life in the U.S., as a child, I had moved back and forth between Japan three times. I had been brought up with Japanese values by Japanese parents who raised me to be polite, modest and non-confrontational. In schools in Japan, I was taught to conform and not stick out. Protests were none of those things.

The last reason was one that I have been reluctant to admit: I had always been part of a privileged class. I was Asian, which was a relatively accepted race. My family moved to the U.S. because my father was posted here by a globally-recognized Japanese electronics company. I lived in nice neighborhoods in nice towns with some of the best schools in the country. Before I married an American and became a citizen a few years ago, I thought of myself as an expat, not an immigrant. Japan was and is as much home for me as was this country. That also meant that unlike most everyone else, I had a kirifuda. I had somewhere else to go.

In the last few months, however, my world has felt like it has been turned upside down. Until now, I had always felt accepted in this country. I enjoyed working in a meritocratic culture where the quality of my work mattered more than the fact that I was a woman. I wasn’t naïve about the racism that existed, but I still believed that this country was fundamentally inclusive, at least more so than many others around the world.

Now, however, we have a president who seems bent on destroying much of the progress we have made as a society. He has targeted Muslims, Mexicans, women, journalists, the environment, and even the idea of fact and truth. His hit list was growing every day. His threats to make abortion illegal, repeal Obamacare, build a wall along the Mexican border and create a Muslim registry was going to directly impact many of my friends. It wasn’t just democracy that he threatened, it was basic human decency. How could I not participate? For the first time in my life, I felt a civic duty to stand up for what I believed.

I decided to join my friends Carrie and Andrea. It felt apropos somehow. They represented so much of the good in the past year as well as what we could potentially lose.

Carrie and Andrea at their wedding reception

Carrie and Andrea had just been married last September. My husband and I had known Carrie for nearly 20 years, but she had only come out as gay a few years ago, shortly before she met Andrea. She was 40 years old at the time. Andrea had been married once before to another woman and had a young son named Colin that Carrie adored.

About six months after the U.S. Supreme Court declared same sex marriages to be legal, Carrie proposed to Andrea on Christmas Eve in 2015 at the same wine bar where they had met the previous year.

At their wedding at San Francisco’s City Hall, I held back my tears as they read their vows to each other and exchanged rings. We smiled as ten-year old Collin got down on one foot to present the wedding rings. We had never seen Carrie so happy. I hadn’t grown up in an accepting society but watching them made it clear how ludicrous it was to think of marriage exclusively as a union between a man and a woman. They belonged to each other.

Their wedding reception was on a boat that cruised around the bay. Part of their wedding party was Carrie’s gay 66-year old father Randy. When it came time for the speeches, his partner Geoff spoke about how overwhelmed he was to see so many friends so clearly joyous over the occasion. Randy and Geoff had been together for 25 years, but times had been different, less accepting. Randy had married and had two children before he had found the courage to come out.

Collin also made an impromptu speech welcoming Carrie to the family and expressing his delight at having another mom.

Behind me at the Women’s March

During the Women’s March, we said very little to each other. Mostly, we pointed out signs. We laughed at one that spoke to the First Lady: “Melania, blink twice if you want us to save you.” An Asian woman, wearing a pink pussy hat in support of the cause, held a sign that said, “We will not go back to the 1950s.” As we walked, people stood on the sidewalks, cheering and holding up their own signs. Far in the back, you could see City Hall bathed in pink lights in solidarity. I choked up at the scene. This was the America I believed in. We learned later that as many as 100,000 people had attended the march in San Francisco, according to crowd scientists. The tally for marches around the world was somewhere between 2 million and 3 million.

The signs I saw on my way home.

This was Carrie’s first protest and only Andrea’s second. The last time she protested was in 1993 when she participated in a small gay rights march. Carrie told me that they had wanted to feel empowered and feel a sense of solidarity with others even if it was only for a couple hours. It wasn’t just about gay rights. It was about everyone and everything that Trump was threatening. “It feels like everything in our values system is potentially under attack all the way to understanding of what is a democracy,” she said. “There’s so much uncertainty you just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

In a progressive state like California, Carrie and Andrea were unlikely to lose their rights as a married couple, but they were worried about their federal rights. Would they lose their right to file joint taxes? Would they be able to get social security survivor benefits? They said they talked about moving to Canada or the Netherlands if it gets really bad.

For now, they were focused on how to keep protesting. Andrea is particularly determined for Collin’s sake. “All that hateful crap coming out of (Trump’s) mouth. Good God, what a horrible role model,” said Andrea. “I’m cognizant of being politically active to show him that he’s not helpless.

So far Carrie and Andrea have donated to the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Center for Lesbian Rights. They are also planning to attend an ACLU workshop in April to learn about how to effectively engage with the government. Carrie plans to volunteer as a mentor for disadvantaged high school kids, many of them minorities or undocumented immigrants.

“I’m looking for opportunities to make a difference on an individual level,” said Andrea. “We need to figure out how to fight for the things we believe on a local level.”

I nodded as she spoke. I wasn’t comfortable yet with the idea of becoming a vocal activist, but I liked what she said about how we all have to try and make a difference on an individual level. One way I could do that was to pen an essay to an outside audience. There were plenty of news stories about the daily developments of the Trump Administration, but few that conveyed how it felt on the ground. An idea for a monthly column was born.

As I headed home after the march, I passed by billboard ads that someone had modified with calls to resistance. “More agitating. More voting. More calling. Running for office. Talking to people you may hate or fear,” it said. “#RESISTANCEMATTERS.”