Last night, I had dinner with friends at the Silver Dollar in Louisville, Kentucky. It was the first time I really had a conversation, or was willing to, about the election and President-elect Trump.
Both of my friends are successful professional men. Rob is in his 50s, and Jonathan just turned 60. Both men, like me, happen to be gay. And like me they have families and friends and colleagues who love them. Our conversation, however, explored these same relatives and friends who profess their love for us, and in some cases their own devout Christianity, but who for mysterious reasons, or perhaps in veiled hypocrisy, voted for Trump.
"I think there's a disconnect," I said. "What's that called? Cognitive dissonance? I don't think they realize their vote has serious ramifications for people they claim to love."
"They're voting against us!" Jonathan replied. "They don't realize the impact their actions now have on our daily life. On our safety! I've always been an optimist but for the first time in my 60 years I am frightened."
"Thanksgiving dinner is sure going to be interesting at my parents' house," Rob said.
Our discussion turned to the upcoming holiday dinners with family. Rob continued, "I know friends who for the first time in their life are not joining their families for the holidays because of the election. They don't feel welcome in their own family home."
"There'll probably be 40 or 50 family members at my cousins' house for Thanksgiving," Jonathan said. "If the dinner table conversation turns to politics, if any of them start singing the praises of Trump, I'm getting up from the table and leaving. I'm not engaging them."
"Think about that," I said. "Look at where we are as a society. Family members pitted against one another. The rhetoric, the misinformation, the concerted effort to fool with fake news, it's infiltrated the American family holiday dining table. How do we come back from that?" My friends shook their heads in resigned disillusionment.
The ongoing conversation delved into our experiences of growing up gay and struggling with our sexual orientation. We three shared stories from our teenage years and young adulthood, even as out middle aged gay men common tales of being rebuked by certain relatives, ostracized at school and in church, admonished by a particular pastor or congregant member, leaving a beloved house of worship because after coming out "queer" we were no longer welcome. We shared instances when the illogical and condescending condemnation "love the sinner--hate the sin" was used to placate us, or those moments when good God-fearing folks damned us to "an eternity burning in Hell." One particular heart-wrenching story was one in which my friend Rob's father said to him, "The news of your coming out is going to kill your mother. You just need to lie to her. Tell her it's not true. You need to think about your kids. Her grandchildren."
When those relatives, friends, and colleagues who have in the past invited us to be their house-guests, best men in their weddings, godfathers to their newborns, and into their family fold, did they consider on November 8th what it must be like to grow up and struggle with these messages, these indictments against one's inherent orientation? Did these people who profess to love us think about our safety as American citizens when they pulled the lever for Trump? How his emboldened followers could take the win as permission to berate, beat, and even murder us?
I don't think they understand. I don't think they get it. How could they? Or do they even want to know? At least from my perspective I have no clue about the very real struggle of women, immigrants, or black men. I only have empathy. Empathy it seems, in a post-election world, is not enough.
Rob, Jonathan, and I share similar versions of the same story. The same story we've heard from others over and over and over again in our now beleaguered and brokenhearted post-election LGBT community. These stories, our stories, need to be told.
"We carried these experiences, theses negative voices, these heartaches and pain, our repressed anger, a parent's condemnation, the 1980s preacher who said on Sunday that "AIDS was God's punishment against homosexuality", all of this we carried with us into the voting booth on Tuesday, November 8th. I don't think our relatives and friends know this," I said.
"What did they carry with them?" Jonathan asked.
"I have no idea. But I do know that we must tell our stories."
Women, immigrants, the black community, Hispanics and yes, even the non-college educated heterosexual white American male, all of us must tell our stories. How else can we begin conversations, open-minded dialogue, and to understand one another?
Currently, I am the walking embodiment of the southern Indiana gay guy who lost his boyfriend. And by lost I mean we broke up. Well, he broke up with me. It wasn't a long relationship but it was passionate--both fire and ice. For months prior I could sense its demise. So could he. I hold no anger or animosity. I wish no ill will. Ours was a fish vs. bird world.
Our break-up came after a whirlwind summer book tour of my novel Some Go Hungry published by Kaylie Jones Books, an imprint of Akashic Books, and right before the November 2016 Miami Book Fair--the largest in the nation. It also occurred in tandem with our presidential election. To be honest, my disposition over the last several weeks wasn't panel discussion book fair worthy and a trip to Miami from my rural southern Indiana home seemed... well, lets just say the timing was off.
After the breakup--and given the outcome of our presidential election--I felt akin to someone standing on the precipice of despair. I found no solace in the fact that our country broke up too. That Uncle Sam was now having an affair with a fascist xenophobe. It's not like I could meet Lady Liberty out for drinks so we could bash our ex-boyfriends over Mojitos. (Do they even know how to make Mojitos in Middle America?)
No. It was just me standing there that Wednesday morning peering into the abyss of despair. "I don't know this world in which I'm living. Maybe I should just jump." That afternoon I sought out a moment of solitude. I sat myself down on a park bench under some pine trees, the palms of my hands open and placed upon my lap, my head tilted toward the sky, my eyes focused. I summoned the Universe, God, my ancestors, spirit guides, guardian angels, and anyone else willing to listen. We took a meeting. I call them 'my people.' "I don't know what to do," I said aloud. "I need assistance. Guidance. Do I belong here?"
The very next day I got my answer.
I imagine my people meeting in a sky-high boardroom with 360-degree vistas sitting at a large round white table with white chairs. There is a dry erase board, lots of yellow legal pads, manila folders with my name on them--first name last--and one rather goofy but incredibly determined intern with his Trapper Keeper. He also keeps the minutes. Surprisingly there are no laptops. No cell phones. No digital anything. When information is requested it just appears. "It's Redmond, again," I imagine the intern saying. I wonder sometimes, if in the eyes of my people, I am like the relentless deli or dry cleaner customer that insists on repeatedly ringing the service bell. Like the intern, I too am determined. He likes that about me. He's got my back.
Arriving in Miami, I took the afternoon to walk around my old haunts. I felt like I'd come home. The parable of the prodigal son came to mind -- the lesson about suffering physical, emotional, and/or spiritual hunger (Luke 15:17). It is also about the resulting recognition of one's blessings and being grateful for what one is given. In it is the phrase, "And he came unto himself." I started to feel myself coming back into my very being.
The next day, in the authors' hospitality suite at the Miami Book Fair I was introduced to and schmoozing in the company of literary icons such as Terry McMillan and Jay MacInerney, just to name a few. Even Senator Bob Graham was there. Dave Barry, whose Miami Herald columns I've followed for years but whom I never had the pleasure of meeting, was in attendance with his daughter. She attended the Miami Dade Public School where I taught English/Language Arts/Composition for 12 of the 16 years I lived in south Florida. Upon our introduction Dave Barry said, "You're a legend at my daughter's school."
Dave Barry just called ME a legend? How in the hell did I end up here?
Oh, right. My people. I came to myself. And I realized I was with all races, creeds, colors, genders, and orientations. There we were, all of us, in one room, authors from all over the world enjoying each other's company, laughing, talking, eating, drinking, meeting one another, shaking hands, hugging old friends and new acquaintances. The excitement was palpable and positive. Everyone was there to share his or her story with one another and the world.
I realized that this Some Go Hungry journey of mine is in part about appreciation, gratitude, and counting my blessings. I am grateful for the time I spent with my southern Indiana boyfriend and the detour that relationship took me on; I am grateful that 49% of the country voted for progress and civil liberties for all; I am grateful for Kaylie Jones, Barbara J. Taylor, and Akashic Books. And, I am grateful for Mitch Kaplan and the Miami Book Fair. All of these people, these organizations, have reminded me that writing is my passion. So is teaching. I am most comfortable in my own skin when I am reading, learning, teaching, and writing. It is what I am meant to do. It is the path I am meant to pursue.
As for Uncle Sam and his new relationship? I give it a year. He'll come to himself.
Aside from my snarky comment about Uncle Sam--which I find some humor in given that Uncle Sam is having a homosexual affair with the President-elect--my story is about rejection, asking a higher power for help, an epiphany, and ultimately recognizing one's blessings and calling. It's a story about being grateful. What woman, immigrant, black man, or even non-college educated white male hasn't had the same feelings as I? Been in a similar situation? We each have more in common than we sometimes care to admit. Why then the divisiveness? Why the outright refusal to consider another's struggle? To think about others in terms of our own struggles? To listen to someone else's story?
The title of my novel Some Go Hungry comes from Paul's letter to the Corinthians. He speaks about the divisiveness within the church, how members are only looking out for their individual selves and allowing others to go hungry. It is prophetic not only in terms of today's church but in terms of our contemporary society. I believe with all of my heart that telling our stories helps each of us find common ground, that in storytelling there has always been healing.
Like my friend Jonathan will I walk away from my family's holiday table in the event a discussion about the election, or Trump, infiltrates the festivities?
I don't know.
Like my friend Rob will I avoid certain relatives, friends, and colleagues because they voted for Trump?
I don't know.
Am I willing to listen to someone I love with an open-mind, to hear of their own struggles, pain, humiliation, hurt, anger, and try to imagine what their daily life must be like? To consider if my actions in some way exacerbate their pain, or put their life in jeopardy? Will I ask myself if they feel safe in their family holiday home? At work? In their neighborhood?
I will listen. And I will try to find common ground with them. I will try to ensure that those whom I love do not go hungry, both figuratively and literally. All I am asking as well as my friends Rob and Jonathan, and by proxy those within the LGBT community, is that those same relatives, friends, and colleagues who voted for Trump take the time to listen to us, to consider our struggle and to hear our stories with an open mind. It is, I believe, the only thing that will save us.