- The Magazine
A gay D.C. man received an anonymous piece of mail bearing no words but only the symbol of a swastika emblazoned on top of a rainbow Pride flag.
Michael Thorning, a 31-year-old who works for the Bipartisan Policy Center, says he received the mail at his D.C. residence on Monday. There was no return address on the envelope, although there was a postmark from Grand Rapids, Michigan.
“I was a little suspicious of it,” he told Metro Weekly in an interview. “It had a printed address, but it didn’t look like the type of font that you should get from corporate mail. And it felt pretty light, so it didn’t have the weight of an envelope you’d normally get with junk mail or anything like that. And when I opened it, on regular standard printer paper, was an LGBT flag with a swastika in the middle of it.”
Thorning says he can’t think of anything he’s done specifically to anger anyone. Although he used to work for U.S. Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), who only retired from the upper chamber a few weeks ago following two full terms, Thorning left that job four years ago. He also couldn’t think of anything that the Bipartisan Policy Center had done recently that would anger someone to send such a letter.
“I’ve worked on Capitol Hill long enough that I have read a lot of troubling and threatening mail over the years, never directed to me, always to the members of Congress that I worked for. And I would say, you know, those were much more troubling, much more direct threats,” says the nine-year resident of D.C. “This struck me as vague and thoughtless intimidation.”
Upon receiving the letter, Thorning posted a photo of the mailing to Twitter, and captioned it: “Country is going great.”
Thorning says it’s hard to rationalize about why someone would send him a rainbow swastika, although he knows of past colleagues or federal, state and local election officials that he’s worked with over the years who have received threatening letters. But none of them have received a rainbow flag and swastika design.
“This is the first time I’ve ever personally received something like this, what I would describe as hate mail,” he adds. “It’s using imagery clearly meant to intimidate, although it takes more than this to shake me. But it’s hard to say what might have motivated it.”
Thorning notes that he recently engaged in a back-and-forth with some followers of blogger Andrew Sullivan over a change in the rules from the House of Representatives, in which all rules of the chamber will use gender-neutral language.
Thorning says there was a widespread assumption that the rule change explicitly barred all House members from uttering gender-specific words like “mother” or “father” on the House floor.
When he engaged on Twitter, trying to fact-check this erroneous information, some of Sullivan’s followers mocked or expressed discomfort over the fact that Thorning has pronouns in his Twitter handle.
“I’m a white gay man. I’ve certainly been described as ‘straight-passing’ in my lifetime. … But I think it’s important to support people who don’t have the privilege I have,” Thorning explains. “I have my pronouns in my Twitter handle not because I think someone is going to misgender me, but because for people who that is something important to them, I want them to feel comfortable. But I’ve caught flak for that from people who seem to think that is an affront to them or is meant to be offensive, or is meant to rock their worldview in some way or another.”
But beyond those Twitter engagements — none of which rose to the level of threatening — Thorning can’t think of anyone he’s angered that would send him a letter with a swastika.
“We certainly can’t ignore the fact that, in their time, the Nazis persecuted and murdered gay people, targeted them, and neo-Nazis and white supremacists today do the same thing,” he says.
“As someone who studies our political system and our political institutions, we’re in a delicate moment in our history,” he adds. “I was just reading a report raising the fact that the Department of Homeland Security has, for years now, been saying that the greatest threat to homeland security is domestic terrorism carried out by white supremacists. And I think it’s fair to question whether that has been taken seriously over the last four years, or whether the Trump administration has really been willing to target those kinds of people.
“This threat is very small to me, but it is the symptom of some bigger problems in our society,” he says. “And as we continue to evolve into a multiracial democracy, we have a choice as Americans, whether we are going to confront the problems we have long ignored with white supremacists. And with white supremacy comes homophobia and transphobia and all of the other things that motivate hateful actions like this one.”
Despite being discomforted by the rainbow flag swastika, Thorning says he’s not intimidated, adding that there are “plenty of other people who are even more on the front lines of this than I am, people who are out protesting and really putting their their bodies and their lives on the line for our democracy, putting themselves in harm’s way,” as well as police officers who have been forced to respond to white supremacist-inspired violence.
Thorning has also received messages of support from other Twitter users, as well as friends and colleagues. On Tuesday, he tweeted, “I feel undeterred, thanks to you, and plan to report the incident. In the meantime, keep up the fight for the democracy that has always been America’s great, yet unachieved, aspiration.”
Just a quick thank you to everyone who sent messages of support and love. I feel undeterred, thanks to you, and plan to report the incident.
In the meantime, keep up the fight for the democracy that has always been America's great, yet unachieved, aspiration. https://t.co/LRLCnCocsB
— Michael Thorning he/him (@ThorningMichael) January 19, 2021
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