A queer person found their self surrounded by people wearing safety pins the other day, and breathed easier. “I knew I was among friends, and people had my back.”
Why would this be? Because now, with the election of Donald Trump, we are living in the United States of Fear and the safety pin has emerged as one symbol to demonstrate that the person wearing it is committed to providing safety for those targeted with the hate.
And there is a lot of hate. The Southern Poverty Law Center stays busy daily, tracking incidences of hateful harassment and intimidation since the election.
Incidences of bullying in schools have significantly increased throughout this election cycle, and in the first two days after Trump was elected, calls to The Trevor Project’s suicide hotline for LGBTQ youth more than doubled.
The outcry from loving Americans has been loud. It has also been complicated. Even when we agree on a principle, we disagree on tactics. There have been protests, marches, peaceful demonstrations of unity and peace, social media activists, blogs, sermons, and safety pins.
And the greatest of these is the safety pin.
How did that happen?
Early in World War II, Norwegians adopted the paperclip as a non-violent symbol of being bound together as a people resistant to Hitler and his Nazi ideology. After Brexit, this idea resurfaced when folks in the UK started wearing a safety pin as a symbol of safety and solidarity for immigrants. In the face of national trauma for the USA, Americans are looking for their sewing kits and digging through junk drawers to pin on their hopes and intentions for a nation of safety, liberty, and justice for all.
Alas, this simple symbol of safety and solidarity became quickly contentious. Is wearing a safety pin simply assuaging white guilt? Is it empty symbolism? Is it a first step toward meaningful solidarity? Some have critiqued that even Trump supporters are likely to wear them, thus eliminating the gesture’s trustworthiness.
As a Christian seminary student, I turn to Jesus when I’m not sure what to do. I thought, “if only there were a symbol for people to remember their core values,” and of course I remembered the cross. Long ago I stopped wearing crosses because I realized they conveyed the wrong message to many people. I’ve contemplated avoiding the safety pin for the same reason.
So who is the symbol for?
Is it a beacon for the LGBTQ person, the undocumented immigrant, the refugee, the Muslim? Is it for the individual with black or brown skin, wondering whose lives will matter under the new administration?
Is it a burden for the wearer? I had one person tell me what a responsibility it was to put a pin on their coat. “I feel like a target in a way I never have before,” they said. “I know that I have a responsibility to insert myself if I see someone being treated hatefully. It scares me, but I take it seriously.”
Jesus was in the business of changing hearts and minds, one individual human at a time. Symbolism has the potential to be empty, it’s true. But if a single person’s heart opens with compassion in a new way by wearing a heavy safety pin, that strikes me as Jesus-like. And if one person finds hope and freedom in seeing another’s sign of solidarity, that sounds like liberation to me.