Changes of heart and our better selves

Trigger warning: homophobia, cissexism, transphobia, transmisogyny/bathroom panic memes.

I’ve been thinking today about changes of heart. About the tensions between what should be the basis of collective morality and policy – justice, equality, human decency – and the messy, complicated, imperfect realities of politics and social interaction.

Rob Portman, a Republican U.S. Senator, just announced that he’s changed his position on marriage equality since his son came out to their family as gay. From Portman’s Columbus Dispatch op-ed:

My [previous] position on marriage for same-sex couples was rooted in my faith tradition that marriage is a sacred bond between a man and a woman. Knowing that my son is gay prompted me to consider the issue from another perspective: that of a dad who wants all three of his kids to lead happy, meaningful lives with the people they love, a blessing Jane and I have shared for 26 years.

What to make of this? Is it a heartwarming example of the power of empathy to change hearts, the triumph of love over abstract dogma? Is Portman’s conscious, public acknowledgment of his shift in thinking a political milestone – one that could have a real impact politically and nudge others to rethink their opposition to marriage equality (without having to have gay children do it)?

Or is it disturbing hypocrisy, even dereliction of his duty as a public servant, that it took having a policy directly affect him and his family for him to be able to advocate for all of his constituents, not just the ones in straight relationships?

Portman’s news hit the media cycle as a note from another straight dad with a queer son has been making the rounds online:

Nate,  I overheard your phone conversation with Mike last night about your plans to come out to me. The only thing I need you to plan is to bring home OJ and bread after class. We are out, like you now [sic]. I’ve known you were gay since you were six. I’ve loved you since you were born.    - DAD  P.S. - Your mom and I think you and Mike make a cute couple

Nate,

I overheard your phone conversation with Mike last night about your plans to come out to me. The only thing I need you to plan is to bring home OJ and bread after class. We are out, like you now [sic]. I’ve known you were gay since you were six. I’ve loved you since you were born. 

– DAD

P.S. – Your mom and I think you and Mike make a cute couple

Like a lot of people, I was moved by the love this dad and his partner showed their son – especially thinking about how many queer people will never hear similar words of acceptance from their parents, how many are shunned and abused by family on coming out, rather than embraced.

But I also found myself coming back to this sentence: “I’ve known you were gay since you were six.” I couldn’t help but wonder if some of Nate’s anxiety over coming out to his family could have been avoided, if his parents had let him know much earlier that they knew he might be gay and loved him unconditionally. This is something my husband and I have tried to lay the groundwork for in our parenting, having age appropriate conversations about love and gender with our four year old.

These are the tensions between celebrating progress and recognizing that there’s still work to be done. The ambiguous spaces between what should be and what is. I think about my own growth; how easy it is to say Portman or this anonymous dad should have done better and forget that I wasn’t so different, not so long ago.

The honest truth: it was getting to know and love queer people that, more than anything else, led me away from the bigotry I’d been taught as faith. It was what ultimately freed me to come out to myself – the knowledge that avoiding the question of my sexuality was denying myself the authenticity that I’d already stopped denying other queer folks in my life.

It’s important for me not to forget this, or that it took the thought that my not-yet-born child might be transgender for me to realize that I needed to educate myself about gender identity. It would be dangerous to indulge the fiction that I’ve always held the moral “high ground” on this issue.

Also unquestionably true: none of our rights should depend on people who take those rights for granted. Our rights should not depend on other people’s feelings about whether we are as human as they are. They should be recognized and upheld whether we are loved, despised, or dismissed. But what should be is not what is.

Rob Portman’s previous position on marriage equality was also based in personal considerations: his assumption that this position would never affect him or anyone he loved. Portman isn’t an exception in having, and indulging, the luxury of ignoring the consequences of politics that don’t affect him personally.

This is a feature, not a bug, of our culture and political system. Power is concentrated in the hands of people who routinely make policy on matters they have little experience or real stakes in. You don’t need any conscious malice in this setup to produce policy that has devastating effects on the communities these issues touch most directly (though there’s plenty of malice, too). All you need is a system run by people who can afford not to care that much about policies that mostly impact other people’s lives.

Which, I suppose, is why civil rights activism often depends on cultivating these very moments of identification with the “other,” on spontaneous and planned appeals to emotion and basic decency. Systemic lack of incentive to care has to be confronted with stories that get politicians or the public to care.

Emmitt Till’s open casket. Rosa Parks’ carefully planned protest of bus segregation – as a more “respectable” face of black resistance than Claudette Colvin. Hydeia Broadbent and Ryan White as the faces of children with HIV. DREAMers taking over public spaces, stories about families torn apart by racist, classist, unjust immigration policies.

Empathy is a powerful force for motivating change around these issues. It’s also dangerously shaky ground when it comes to securing justice. As many have pointed out, Portman also has a daughter, but this has yet to make him sympathetic to women’s or reproductive rights (NB: not all people with uteruses are women and not all women have uteruses).

This past Tuesday I attended a local city council meeting, along with my friend Cameron Partridge. We were there to support new guidelines from the Massachusetts Department of Education on how schools can provide a safe and supportive environment for transgender students. We were there because powerful, well-funded organizations in our state – along with a determined, bigoted city councillor – are bent on keeping these guidelines from ever being put into practice in our local schools.

There were a lot of stories told that night. All were in one way or another aimed at getting some emotional response or connection from city councillors and the audience. The majority, thankfully, were from transgender people and cisgender supporters.

A trans man came forward to say he hadn’t planned to speak. After hearing the hateful, anti-trans comments of some at this meeting, he had to let them put a real face on the people they were talking about. The face of human being and a member of their community.

A cis dad talked about how he trusts his son to know his own gender; the only thing that makes him afraid is the fear others have towards his child, just for existing as a trans person.

Our local representative explained that under current state law, trans* people are protected against housing and employment discrimination, but have zero legal protections in public spaces and accommodations – including the city building that we were meeting in that night.

These were powerful stories that brought the room to a complete hush.

But the stories of opponents also had power. They tried to take advantage of the ignorance of most cis people on gender identity issues, and to gin up fear with dangerous myths and made-up scenarios about the supposed threats posed by trans girls and women (or nonexistent cis boys and men “pretending” to be trans).

There was no way to know how these stories, pro or con, would be received. The power to act on them was entirely in the hands of people who could afford to know little about transgender people and their lives.

I’ve been thinking about what it means to repeatedly have to explain your humanity to others, about the unbelievable emotional labor some have to undertake just to get others to see them as “deserving” of things others take as a complete given. About what it means that a trans person has to come before a city council to say, “I am a human being,” to persuade those people that they have the right to use the bathroom safely and in peace.

Rob Portman is not an exception. He’s the rule. I don’t say this to suggest that we cut him slack for finally arriving at a basic (and still incomplete) recognition of the humanity of queer people. Nor am I arguing that we shouldn’t critique the circumstances around his change of heart.

What I hope is that we don’t forget ourselves in these calls to do better. That we don’t fall into the deceptive confidence that because we know or do better, we’ve arrived…or forget how many of us had to change and grow to get to where we are now. We’re all capable of fooling ourselves into thinking our standpoints are clearly “rational” or “moral” when it comes to issues that don’t affect us.

If we call Rob Portmans of the world to do better – and we should – we should ask the same of ourselves. I’ve been thinking about this and my comments about white feminists needing to speaking out more on racism – and realizing that I needed to apply the same things I called for from white anti-racists to my own work. To writing about physical disability (I have mental illnesses), writing about trans* issues, and so on.

Resisting the siren song of privilege and internalized bigotry is a constant battle. And it’s a necessary part of the work of dismantling and building alternatives to a system that’s fundamentally about investing outsized power and influence in people who can afford not to care about the consequences of their actions.

Maybe that awkward space between welcoming and critiquing Portman’s change of heart is a good place to linger. Maybe it can be a reminder, both of how much has changed, and of how much work we all still have to do to become our better selves.

8 Comments

  1. Beautiful piece, Grace, and so true. This in particular – “none of our rights should depend on people who take those rights for granted” – stood out to me, and I would add “…and don’t recognize that they do.” It is so frustrating that so many people in positions of power as far as law and policy are able to enact things or deny things that have no direct impact on them, and who apparently lack that empathy you mention. One of the key requirements for public office should be the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and the willingness to see the world, to see our country and its laws, from points of view partially or wholly different from your own.

    And yes, we all definitely need to do better at resisting and challenging our own privileges and relative powers. As a white woman who identifies as a feminist, I feel it is absolutely my *duty* to make feminism better, to challenge the whiteness of mainstream feminism and the comfort so many white feminists find in NOT challenging or examining themselves. Feminism is important to me and thus it’s also important to make it inclusive, to make it respectful of the dignity and humanity of all people. Flavia Dzodan so totally hit the nail on the head with her quote about feminism needing to be intersectional or else it’s bullshit.

    • Thanks, Allison. Hear you on this: “One of the key requirements for public office should be the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and the willingness to see the world, to see our country and its laws, from points of view partially or wholly different from your own.” But if anything, it seems the opposite is true.

  2. Shane Thomas says:

    This is a brilliant piece. I think part of the problem is that when it comes to speaking about marginalised sections of society, it’s far too reactive. E.g. Portman only confronts the issue of (male) homosexuality because his son has come out.

    To use another example, the 2012 Paralympic Games in London became something of a cause celebre. It brought the issue of disability close to the forefront of British society than it had ever been before. But it shouldn’t take a sporting event to look at how disability is perceived in society. We should be doing it as a matter of course.

    • Thanks, Shane. And yes, that’s exactly what I’m trying to get at – we should be proactive about these things, rather than simply reactive. I know I tend to only talk about certain issues when someone says or does something awful pertaining to them…that’s not enough.

      • Shane Thomas says:

        I agree. I’m often guilty of the same thing. I heard someone once refer to the late stand-up, Bill Hicks as a guy who always, “had his antennae highly tuned to the world around him”. Thoughts on Hicks aside, I think we all have to try and do the same.

  3. Excellent piece, Grace – you’ve given me much to think about.

    May your voice, and the voices of all the other folks who are speaking out, be truly heard.

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