Somewhere, in Indiana, my childhood pastor is sitting at his desktop computer posting fake news, memes and a slew of unchecked facts on his Facebook to a congregation of folks who righteously voted against my rights. They call themselves the “no longer silent” majority.
I grew up in a conservative Christian household in Fort Wayne. I was raised in a church where prophecies were declared over the unborn, members spoke “in tongues” and it was normal for children, wandering in from Sunday school, to find their parents convulsing face down on the floor at the altar.
Fear is a feeling I experienced often in church. I remember the grip it had over me every time I walked through the doors. The knots in my stomach, the shame from my secrets: Does everyone know that I’m gay? Can they all see how much I’m struggling?
Fear shaped my youth. It was the foundation for my complicated relationship with God. And had I never chosen to question my fear, I can see how much it would have still held me captive.
When I was 13, I attended an ex-gay conference called “Love Won Out.” I saw the pamphlet sitting on the kitchen counter and took it as a sign from God, reassuring me that I had not been forgotten. This was a chance for my “healing” to occur. A moment that could provide me with refuge from an adolescence filled with the shame and unworthiness I’d been too afraid to openly discuss. No longer would I let this “sexual slavery” bar me from experiencing the love my pastor preached about week after week. I would soon be included in these sermons, too. I would repent. I would learn from these professionals, and I would escape my struggle for good.
My mother and I drove three hours, to Ohio, to watch Nancy Heche sell a book about how God gave her the strength to abandon her lesbian daughter. I nodded along amid the thunderous applause and took a mental note: Healing takes work.
Sixteen years later, I am sitting in my Los Angeles apartment reading the news. A lot has changed since I was a kid, and yet not much has changed at all.
President Donald Trump is not the problem we face as Americans. Donald Trump is merely a bullhorn of all our fears we’ve chosen not to face. He is a symptom of what happens when countless fears go unquestioned and undiscussed for generations.
Fear of difference, in ourselves and in others. Fear of love and how it can radically change everything you once believed. Fear of ‘God’ and/or what God never claimed to be.
President-elect Joe Biden is not our answer. He cannot be what unites this country. He can only be a bullhorn for our unity. But ultimately we must choose it. We are the only ones who can do the work that desperately needs to be done.
Every American knows that our political system continues to fail us. And if you don’t, wake up! We live in a country where the rich are invited to get richer at the expense of the poor getting poorer. Regardless of political party lines, our nation has had a long and sordid history of appointing leaders who exploit and abuse their power for selfish monetary gain. It just used to happen with a smile and a more eloquent speech.
America was built from the perverse exploitation of Black people and an attempt to exterminate Native Americans. But as these groups demand justice and equality, they are still being met with gaslighting and violence.
Whites, liberal and conservative, have always had the luxury of looking away from the suffering of people of color (or checking in whenever we feel like it). Heterosexuals have this luxury, too, by turning their heads away from the suffering that my LGBTQ community still faces. Our fight, too, goes much farther and much deeper than the right to get married.
Most members in my family’s church, as much as they thought they were saving me, never knew how deep my pain ran or how entwined my identity had become with the feelings of shame and unworthiness. I wonder what would happen if we all started asking each other about our different realities instead of assuming them from behind our computer screens.
These problems must be discussed. Privilege and oppression run deep in all our households because they are human issues. If we don’t start discussing these things with each other, coming imperfectly from a place of love, we will never move forward. We will just keep electing more bullhorns or become the bullhorns ourselves, again and again, every four years.
If we don’t start getting uncomfortable by the ways in which our own privilege has benefited us, then our fight for systemic change will simply be dropped in the hands of other minority groups who have been struggling unjustly alone for centuries. In other words, if I don’t fight for racial justice, or if I give up halfway through, then I am saying, with my acts of apathy and fear, that I have chosen to leave this work to be done solely by people of color, communities I claim to love.
We are all in this together, and if we don’t start uniting on a micro level with those around us, we will not be able to deal with the issues of political corruption, institutional racism, corporate greed, misogyny in the workplace, internalized homophobia and transphobia, and so much more, at large. The work will not move forward.
So how do we begin?
Facilitate dialogue. Become quick to listen and slow to react. Get vulnerable about our own shortcomings and ask questions about the fears that live inside of us. These are the ways I know to start moving forward again. How else can we expect to truly seize this political revolution of love?
In June, I went back to Indiana for a visit. Having been furloughed by the pandemic and in the rut of an emotional breakup, I sought out the ones who knew me best. As I flew into Fort Wayne International Airport, where Vice President Mike Pence had recently made a campaign speech, I remembered how far my family had come over the last 10 years but how much farther we still have to go.
Some families might never see change. My childhood pastor still lives around the corner from my parents. Every time I pass his house, I am reminded of those same old fears I wrestled with in my youth. I understand that you cannot force people to do anything they don’t want to do. For him, I don’t plan on reaching out.
But there are others I know who are more open to discussion than to standing on a pulpit. They have shown me an ”imperfect promise” of wanting to let love replace their unquestioned fears. And yes, they voted for Donald Trump. However, I couldn’t begin to fully see their desire until I got off of my own pulpit. To be perfectly honest, that was a very hard thing for me to do. All I wanted to do was shout my own pain back at them through a bullhorn to make them hear me.
Now, in the aftermath of this election, I will be doing my best to hold space for these Trump voters. I will be walking beside them as this country begins its gruesome work of digging out and examining its many hidden prejudices and fears. We must heal together. It will be difficult and the road will be long ― a lifetime, perhaps, of doing and undoing.
On my last night in my hometown, I spent the evening on the couch with my mom watching the latest season of ‘Dating Around’ on Netflix. When we came to the gay episode, I felt the knots in my stomach tighten. Holding my breath, I wondered, Will she groan? Will she close her eyes in disgust? Will she pray it away?
To my surprise, she didn’t do any of those things. When the episode was over, she began to cry. She said, “Oh, Daniel, I want that for you!”
People are complicated. Healing isn’t always linear. And that is why I will be “reaching out” to Trump voters now, and again in four years. Because at the end of the day, what will bring unity to our country is each of us choosing for ourselves to crawl out from under these unquestioned fears, one by one, to face what we must. Change is always possible.
My family is changing all the time. I am, too.