Nicole Kutufaris came from Wallingford to a meeting room in West Philadelphia on Saturday to see whether a discussion group run by the Council for Relationships could help her make sense of the presidential election. She was feeling so much pain and anger from others. What should she do with it?
"I've been just sort of all over the place emotionally," she said. "I'm trying to figure out how I can approach all of this without feeding my fear."
As a result of the nightclub shootings in Orlando in June, the nonprofit counseling organization wanted to help Philadelphians come to terms with disturbing national events. It settled on a free, monthly meeting called Reflections that would serve as a respectful place for people to discuss their reactions. It would definitely not be a support group.
Then the election happened and, at Saturday's meeting, that was all anybody, including Kutufaris, could talk about. And, yes, it felt a lot like a support group as six people from Philadelphia and the suburbs talked about their new fearfulness, alienation from family as Thanksgiving approaches, rekindled memories of past sexual assaults, and conflicted feelings about whether to let the nation's divide make them more — or less — insular.
One woman from the suburbs, who described herself as "brown," said she was reeling from a disturbing rant by a longtime health provider after she voiced concerns about Donald Trump's election. She went to another provider and found herself in an office surrounded by "wall-to-wall whites," experiencing "a fear of white people that I never had before." The woman, who did not want her name used, wondered whether she should choose providers of color from now on.
The other participants, who were white, urged her to keep an open mind.
"I think you are in a roomful of white people right now who support you," said Kutufaris, 30. "There are a lot of good white people who want you in their lives."
"I know that it's really scary and I'm scared, too," said Matt Purinton, a licensed clinical social worker who helped lead the discussion at what was the third Reflections meeting. "There are still a lot of good people in this country."
He said he believes that there is still more connecting Americans than separating them. "I think that the percentage of people who voted for Trump who are racist and homophobic and xenophobic ... I think that's the minority."
Megan Bazin, 25, a Temple University student who lives in Kensington, worried that demonizing people would only deepen divisions. She gave considerable thought to how she would approach a close relative, whom she considers racist, at the holidays. She said she loves this woman and respects her as her elder. "I'm not going to let this disgusting man put a divide between me and someone I love," she decided.
Katie Stahl, 29, of South Jersey, came out in the last year. She, too, felt fearful for the first time after the election. She planned to go home for Thanksgiving, with trepidation. She wants to talk about her views, but realizes she may need to hang with more liberal cousins. "I feel like I might need to leave at some point," she admitted. "I'm just going to make sure I have money for an Uber."
Zephyr Sylvester, a 19-year-old transgender person from Delaware County who uses the pronoun "they," planned to skip Thanksgiving with the family this year. Trump voters have told Sylvester their vote was about the free market, not bigotry, but Sylvester found it very hurtful. It seemed as if they were putting Sylvester's safety and rights below their other priorities, a point that many members of the group also made. Sylvester also thought that the campaign "magnified" hate.
Stahl agreed. She believed that, when her family voted for Trump, "you said to me, to other people like me, you said that this is acceptable, perfectly fine behavior."
Bazin wondered whether her family's lack of exposure to diverse people had made it easier for them to vote for Trump because they liked his approach to some specific issue. She awoke after the election feeling "unsafe in a really physical way" and is now unsure about whether she can move back to her hometown in New Jersey after she graduates.
"Every white person that I see, even though I am white, I feel like, 'Are you one of them?' I don't trust anyone now. I feel alienated," she said. "I am judging people all the time now and it doesn't feel good." She wonders whether others are judging her, too.
Kutufaris said she's working hard to see the good in people, to resist the urge to separate into political tribes. Still, feelings about the election run so high that they've been inescapable, even in an important support group she attends. "I do feel like this has just infiltrated every area of my life," she said. "This isn't what normally happens. This is new, right?"