I wasn’t sure how I was going to get myself to work on Wednesday, but I managed, somehow. Made it through the day, even. Smiled at kids, hugged coworkers, went about the work of work, all while wandering through a strange new world I almost didn’t recognize. I took a personal day on Thursday to try to gather my thoughts. I needed time to process, to wrestle with what had just happened and, as I said to a friend who checked on me that day, to figure out where I go from here. I didn’t answer that question on Thursday, though, and still haven’t. It’s far too complex. There is just no easy answer.
I began thinking about this post then, but I almost didn’t write it. There are many writers more talented than me and they’ve been producing some amazing responses that almost made me feel this contribution isn’t necessary or adequate. This, for example, by John Pavlovitz. And this by Garrison Keillor. Or this by Bill Moyers. This by the incredible Jenny Lawson – she’ll make you laugh and cry here, so be warned. And this, especially this, by my friend Matt Smith. And many, many more expressions of raw fear, simmering anger, deep grief, and gracious glimmers of hope. They’ve been written, and written well. I have almost nothing to add. Almost nothing.
What surprises me the most about this election is that people don’t understand how different it was from past elections we’ve witnessed. Yes, it was ugly and divisive, nothing really new, although one could argue we reached new levels this time around. Yes, it was long and noisy, fatiguing even for the biggest political nerds among us. Absurd and, frankly, undemocratic amounts of money were spent bludgeoning us with messages most of us already knew. It was all of the things we’ve come to know from elections in this country, from both sides, and it was exhausting, again. Predictable. Ugly. Normal. Except.
Except this time was different. This time, one candidate based a large part of his campaign on promises that I find inhumane and abhorrent. Mass deportations. Banning an entire religion from our country. Gutting measures designed to (maybe, if we were lucky,) slow down the damage from climate change. And appoint Supreme Court justices who will, among other things, reverse marriage equality and other basic civil rights for LGBTs.
I have disagreed about policy with every Republican candidate who has run in my lifetime . This is nothing new to me. And I’ve experienced political losses that have left me angry and doubtful, but I’ve moved on without fear. This feels different, and it feels different because it is different. This time, I feel fearful, and more than a little.
I am a middle-aged white male, probably the most privileged group of people on the planet. I’ve seen many people attack the word privileged in this context, so perhaps I should clarify it here. As a white male, I’ve faced far fewer barriers. Privilege in this context does not mean one is given things or doesn’t earn them; it means it is easier for us to accomplish the things we desire, with less opposition, fewer obstacles, institutional, societal, or personal. Some see this argument as saying that white males’ success, however one defines it, doesn’t require work, but that’s not it. It simply suggests that, effort being equal, it is easier for some than others simply because of their race, gender, or other circumstances. Like sexual orientation.
As a gay man, my journey has been different from the straight white male’s journey. For a long time, I enjoyed the privileges of being a white male as long as I remained closeted. To be clear, there were numerous reasons that I remained in the closet, many of them due to my own personal fears. While I agree that people can – and do – try, unless you’ve experienced it, I don’t think you can truly understand, no more than I can truly understand the experiences of immigrants or women. I try to understand those experiences, I listen and do my best to imagine walking in their shoes, and I empathize, but it is not, cannot be, the same.
Before I say the following, let me emphasize that this is my story, and I don’t presume it to be anyone else’s. This is how I was shaped and molded in my journey, intentionally and, in some cases, unintentionally.
Did you grow up fearing that somebody would discover that you were gay? Hearing the words “fag” and “homo” tossed around with sneers and derision? Taking extraordinary pains to hide who you were? I did.
Were you ever punched in the face and called a faggot when you were simply walking down the street? I was.
Have you ever been afraid to simply hold the hand of the person you loved? I have.
Have you ever been told that it’s not a good idea to adopt a child because the child’s life would be too difficult with gay parents – told this by your partner’s parents, people who love you? I have. (NOTE: Not by Jeremy’s parents, Ed and Sherry.)
Have you ever been told by your sister and her husband that it may be best not to see them because they fear your niece and nephew will be made fun of in school because their uncles are gay? I have.
Have you ever been afraid to put a picture of the person you love on your desk at work? I have.
See, here is the thing. I’ve been gay long enough to have experienced the broad sword of fear that used to follow us around all day, every day, and the million little razor cuts that spring up on us from unexpected places. The feeling of guardedness that comes over you when a coworker casually calls somebody queer. The feeling of hurt when your partner pushes your hand away in public out of fear. The feeling of helplessness when your state dehumanizes an entire group by banning marriage equality. The feeling of absolute horror when a young man is beaten and left tied to a fencepost to die in the Wyoming prairie simply because he was gay. The feeling of fury when a teenager kills himself because he’s been bullied and taunted for being gay. And more. So many more. So fucking many more. Millions of razor cuts, tiny and large, bleeding your trust away, drop by drop.
I can claim no part of the progress we’ve made in the area of gay rights in the last decade or so except one small one. I made the decision, over time, in small steps, to live my truth. I stopped living in the closet and started to live authentically. I stopped living in fear and I refused to adapt my life to make others comfortable. Many others have done far more than I have, and to those brave men and women, those Americans, I am forever grateful. Their work and sacrifice have allowed me to live freely just as our veterans’ sacrifices have, although obviously in different ways. They, too, are heroes to me.
So, if you want to know why I was passionate about this election, that is a good start. Take away all of the policy differences. Forget about the lies and the pussy grabbing and the vile behavior of a candidate uniquely unqualified for the office, all valid and important issues that would have never allowed me to support this candidate. But let’s ignore those reasons. If we consider just the stated promise to appoint justices to the Supreme Court who will overturn, among other important rulings, the basic civil right of marriage equality and the few other protections that the LGBT community has gained during the last administration – then, maybe, you can begin to understand why this election mattered so much.
The problem is I don’t understand why I have to explain that. Since the election, I’ve been dumbfounded that people I thought were friends, who I thought knew me, have been astounded, offended even, that I’m angry and questioning relationships. It’s just politics, they say. I just couldn’t vote for Clinton, they say. But abortion…but Obamacare…but guns…but emails…but I’m a Republican. Reason after reason after reason. So many reasons.
To which I can only respond, thanks for clearly defining the limits of your friendship.
“I will feel bad if you lose rights, but..”
“I can’t believe you are judging me for my opinion.” Seriously? We are ALL judged for opinions. I didn’t say you couldn’t HAVE a different opinion. But this is not an opinion on wall color or which sports team is best. This opinion has a direct cost on my life.
And the best – “but I empathize.”
Here’s the thing. We didn’t need just your empathy. We needed your vote.
We both had the same two choices. Regardless of who I chose, your civil rights were never in danger. But your choice had direct consequences on mine.
In conversations I’ve had since the election, I generally end with a proposition. If you’d like to prove to me your empathy, declare to me now that when – not if – the new President nominates a hardline far-right conservative to the Supreme Court, you will join me in protesting that nomination. Promise that you’ll march with me in the streets, proclaiming that the nominee is unfit, declaring unequivocally and publicly that you WILL NOT STAND for the rolling back of basic civil rights that were so hard-fought in the first place.
Marching not your thing? There are other things you can promise to do. Write letters – to the President, to every congress person, to the editor of the newspaper, to anyone who will listen. Declare yourself a Trump voter and demand that the nominee be withdrawn. Demand that all people should be treated with respect and have the same human rights.
Promise to vote for the democrat in congressional races in 2018. Help to provide the checks and balances that will be missing for the next two years, that will allow the President unchecked power to make good on all of the promises he has made, including the stripping of my basic civil rights.
Guarantee that you will do more than empathize, that you will take action.
And that’s when the conversation usually ends. I have yet to have one person, not a single one, make that pledge to me.
Empathy, while an important and valuable human quality, does not win elections, and it does not stop politicians intent on stripping people of their rights, on destroying families, on demonizing entire groups of people who are not like them. Votes do. Actions do.
We entered this election cycle a divided country and we’ve come out the other side even more divided. I believe that to be true nationally and I know it to be true personally. Relationships have been destroyed. There is no common ground. I’ve seen calls for unity and understanding, but the election seems to have destroyed any remaining foundation from which unity and understanding might have risen. We are broken. There is no “us” anymore.
So back to my original question – what’s next for me? As I said, I haven’t answered that yet. But I have learned a few things.
I’ve learned that I am not obligated to maintain relationships with people who don’t value the person I am and the rights I deserve.
I’ve learned that there are incredibly loving and supportive people who truly understand what it means to be valued as a whole, flawed, human being, and that those people are surprisingly varied and include sorts of people who my biases might not have predicted, including some very religious people, which means that I am going to have to challenge my own assumptions, a very positive outcome.
I’ve learned that I am going to have to be more politically active and, since I can’t do that adequately in my current profession, I’m likely going to have to change that.
I’ve learned that the county where I live, where 65% of voters chose hate, is probably not the place for me, that home may not, in fact, be home. Too many tiny razor cuts waiting around each corner.
I’ve learned that it is not my responsibility to make others comfortable, to make them feel better if my response to their actions makes them uncomfortable.
I’ve learned that hypocrisy knows no bounds.
And I’ve learned that I have the right to my anger and my pain and my bitterness and my sense of betrayal. That these feelings are real and valid and at the moment are exactly what I need to be feeling. I know that they will morph over time, but I also know that they will never go away entirely, nor should they. I do not want to live in these feelings forever, but I do not want to forget them, either. If I want to change my life, I need to remember these lessons, remember these feelings, and let them guide me, not from anger, but from hope and the desire and belief that there are better possibilities ahead. I’ve learned what I cannot accept. It’s time to begin to find a way to create the life I deserve, not just for myself but for all people who have been left behind in this election.
A million tiny razor cuts will heal, but they will leave scars.