Monday, November 12, 2012

"An Open Letter to My Republican-Voting Family" by Antony Merkel

Antony Merkel
NY-based Talent Manager

11/10/12  First, a little bit of background. My parents and brother vote Republican. Like so many, it's for economic reasons, and they would tell you that they're actually libertarians who believe the government should stay out of our social and personal lives, but because it can only ever be Republican or Democrat, they'll vote Republican. 
We're not a particularly political family, it's rarely discussed, and they've always been nothing but loving and supporting of me as a gay man, my mother especially, in the stereotypical Jewish-mother/gay-son fashion. It was for that reason that I made my peace with them voting Republican, or thought I had, until a recent conversation with my mother turned very heated very quickly, prompting me to write the following letter to her, my father and my brother.  
To my Republican family:
The more I think about it, the more I realize that I'm equally, if not mostly, to blame for where we find ourselves right now. In the five or so years that I've officially been "out," the conversation we had yesterday was probably the first full, open conversation we've had where we put everything on the table. And in those five years, never have I truly embraced my gay identity around you. 
Sure, we've talked about it -- I've never felt uncomfortable or scared and always knew you'd love and support me unconditionally -- but I'm learning that as a gay person, especially in these times, the burden is on me to elicit real support and understanding.
The truth is that it took me (and is still taking me) a long time to embrace this identity. I think part of the reason is that my experience was and has been relatively easy. While I may have been hiding a big part of my life for so long, I never hid who I was. My personality, interests, character traits, etc., have always been the same, which is why, for the most part, there was little to no surprise and zero negative reaction when I finally came out.
While this does make me one of the lucky ones, it also means I've never really had to defend that part of myself, or even really come to terms with it. Sometimes, through others' lack of acceptance of us, we work through our own inability to accept ourselves, but I was never faced with that challenge. Sure, I've read all kinds of disgusting hate speech and articles, but it has never felt personal. My friends and family all stayed the same. 
My coming out was a big, anticlimactic event that resulted in hardly any change, tangible or intangible. I didn't feel any different, and I didn't feel like I had to do things differently. In fact, the closest I ever really came to discrimination was when I was no longer able to give blood, but even that just seemed annoying and dumb as opposed to being truly angering and offensive. 
I felt like I was a part of the new, progressive generation where coming out isn't a huge deal and doesn't have to change who you are. It certainly didn't make me any more political; if anything, it made me even less political, as I resented the fact that I had to take being gay into account when thinking politically, as it should truly have nothing to do with it.
When I first started making gay friends here, I harshly judged how "gay" so many of them were, how being gay defined who they were and influenced everything they did, how they spoke, whom they hung out with, where they hung out, what they talked about, how in-your-face they were about it. For them it was a lifestyle, and "lifestyle" is a word that's always angered me when associated with being gay, because it suggests a choice. 
But I also realized that so many of these people didn't have a choice; maybe they were less fortunate than I was and encountered much harsher reactions from family, friends and loved ones, forcing them to seek out a more accepting group, to seek out others like them. Is it any wonder, then, that they would fully embrace that part of themselves after being so harshly rejected and finally finding a group of people just like them? 
I've always prided myself on being able to fit in anywhere, talk to anyone, relate to anyone and make anyone laugh, from fraternity brothers to drama kids, the popular crowd to the nerds and everyone in between. Since being out I've made a point, perhaps too much so, of being the "cool" gay guy who's just like everyone else, not like those stereotypical homos we see on TV or walking down the streets in Chelsea -- someone who seems like a real person, who talks "normally" and dresses "normally" and just happens to be gay. 
For a while I was self-deluded into thinking that that was my contribution to the evolution of gay people and of mainstream gay acceptance, that by meeting more people like me, people would continue to learn that gay people are no different from anyone else. And perhaps in a way it was, and still is, but I would be lying if I said that that was the sole motivation.
It didn't take a shrink to point out that that was me hiding behind my ability to "pass," to seem normal, so that I wouldn't have to deal with it every single day, with every person I met; so that it wouldn't be the first thing people knew about me, causing them to make all sorts of prejudgments based on their existing opinions or beliefs regarding gay people; so that, because it was and is such a politicized and polarizing issue, it wouldn't immediately become some giant elephant in the room. 
Can you really blame me for wanting to take the easy road, to avoid drama and conflict if and when at all possible, if I had the ability to do so? I resented the fact that being gay carried with it any sort of obligation, political or otherwise. I struggled with the burden of having to educate straight people about the "gay part of me," and I've always rejected that burden with a "fuck you" attitude. That always felt like a cop-out to me, but I felt, for the longest time, that it was a better alternative to playing Professor Gay.
But the truth is that whether I like it or not, it is a part of who I am -- a huge part. And it took me, and is still taking me, a long time to reconcile my conflicting feelings. On the one hand, I don't think it should define who I am, be the first thing people know about me or be the basis on which I make any big decision, political or otherwise. On the other hand, conversations like the one we had yesterday remind me that while gay rights and gay acceptance have come a long way in my lifetime, it's far from over. In fact, I would argue that in many ways it's even harder for people like me, and I'll tell you why. 
Up until recently, homophobia has been tangible and violent, but nowadays, as we move closer to acceptance, it manifests itself in smaller, seemingly less offensive and harder-to-identify ways. Consider people who say, "I love my gay friends; they're so cute," or people like a close friend of mine who wants all her gay friends to be the ushers in her wedding (or "gushers," as she calls them), or people who say that they believe gays should have equal rights but that it just shouldn't be called "marriage."
It used to baffle me that people could say this, or think like this, until I realized that they don't know any better. How could they? Sure, it's easy for me; I'm the gay one. I'm the one who still feels like a human being and just happens to be gay. But for people who aren't gay, or who have never really seen it in their face (and I'm not talking about just having a gay friend, or even a gay son; I'm talking about seeing and experiencing firsthand how so many people view us as second-class citizens or physical abominations), how could it ever feel real for them? 
It's not enough to know someone who's gay or even to love a gay person; you have to see with your own eyes and comprehend how we are treated and viewed as less than human. This is not an exaggeration. This is not being melodramatic. That is how people, lots of people -- including political leaders -- truly, truly feel about me. 
Yes, there is so much more to politics than views on homosexuality. Like I said before, I hate that it's even an issue at all. And yes, there are plenty of gay people who vote based on other issues, and I don't blame them for it. And if I don't blame them for it, how could I possibly blame people who aren't gay for it? I can't, and I don't, which is why I'm being honest when I say it doesn't really bother me that you vote Republican. Sure, it bothers me a little: These people you are voting for have said, on national television, that they don't believe people like me deserve basic and fundamental human and civil rights. That is just something that I personally cannot move past or look beyond. But that is a personal choice, as all political beliefs and ideals are personal , and it is not my place to tell anyone where the buck should stop.
And as I said, gay issues are not something you encounter on a daily, weekly or even monthly basis. In fact, you don't even really encounter it with me. I've never brought a boyfriend home. I never really talk about dating, or about guys I've dated. Whenever we're together, it will maybe come up once or twice in the form of a joke, or in a matter-of-fact way when I'm telling a story. But it's never been that big a part of who I am to you, so I completely understand how it's a non-starter for you, a non-issue. 
In the course of your life, you encounter so many more issues that directly affect you and influence how you vote that it makes perfect sense. And I never have, and still don't, think it's my duty as a gay person to convince everyone in my life who votes Republican that they are voting to keep people in office who would strip me of my rights and prevent me from marrying the person I love and enabling them to be on my insurance, visit me in the hospital, have parental rights to my kids; who honestly think that I am an abomination, sinful and deserve to die and go to hell. 
Like you said yesterday, there isn't a whole lot they can directly and physically do, and society is changing, and soon it won't even be an issue, so why get all up in arms about it? Well, I'll tell you: Because that is how they feel. That is what they truly believe about me, about who I am, and that will never be something I can just accept or get over. It's no different for black people, for women, for Jews, for any oppressed minority, really. And that is not a cop-out thing to say. 
That is not some lame defense to hide behind. I am a person, a human being who thinks, feels and loves just like everyone else but who is constantly reminded that because of a part of who I am, a part that I have zero control over, a part that I was born with, a part that occurs as naturally to me as hunger and thirst, a part that should matter to absolutely no one but me, I am less of a person in the eyes of so many, and, worse, in the eyes of so many of those in positions of power. 
And while I would love to just be able to say "fuck 'em" -- and for the most part I do -- there comes a time when I have to decide what I stand for. You have no idea what it's like to see people casually dismiss you and who you are at the drop of a hat, write you off and not even realize how hurtful, offensive and dangerous it is to adopt this new form of pseudo-acceptance. Even if you know a gay person or even love one and want that person to be happy and personally don't care if they're gay or whom they love, you might not realize how unaccepting you're being by treating us as a different "breed," a different "species." 
I'm not saying I'm not different (of course I am: I'm attracted to people of the same sex, something a tiny percentage of the entire human species experiences), but the fact that this difference has such a spotlight shone on it, the fact that it's under a microscope and is such a huge part of people's categorical and fundamental beliefs regarding who I am as a person, is something you will never be able to fully comprehend. 
And as I said at the beginning of this letter, I am equally to blame for that, because, knowing how much you love me, I have never asked you to really consider it, to think about it, to consider how your son -- the apple of your eye, for whom you think the sun rises and sets, who you think can do absolutely anything in the world if he puts his mind to it -- is reviled and hated by so many, or how, despite the fact that he's lucky enough to have never been physically injured, denied employment or even directly encountered homophobia or hate, still has to watch every day while people big and small, powerful and not, speak of him as if he's less of a person. That hurts. I feel it. 
No, I don't feel it every single day. (I live in New York, a bubble where most days it's a non-issue. It's not like I wallow in it or walk around feeling down and depressed all day, nor do I rise to action. I don't volunteer for gay-rights organizations. I don't even post on Facebook. I make the conscious decision to live my life by surrounding myself as best as I can with people who love and accept me, and not by worrying about those who might think differently.) But during election years, or during any time when these people are asked directly how they feel about people like me, and the hate and discrimination comes out, I simply cannot accept it. And I hope and pray and wish that some day you will be able to understand that.
I'm not asking for anything. I'm not asking for you to change your political affiliation, or become card-carrying members of PFLAG. I'm not asking you to change the way you act around me, or what you say, or how you feel. All I want, all I ever wanted, is for you to know how I feel. And that burden is as much on me to tell you as it is on you to ask. And I promise to be more forthcoming, more sharing, more honest, to not let something go just to avoid an argument or confrontation. 
I know you love your gay son, your gay brother, but maybe you don't know exactly what that means, and maybe it's my job to help you. What I do know is that I am one of the lucky ones. I know that and appreciate that and am thankful for that every single day. But this is so much bigger than just us, and it's up to us to decide how big a part of it we're going to be.
l love you very much and hope that if you have any response to anything I've said here, you'll say it, because the most important thing we can have is honest and open dialogue. There may not always be agreement, but there will always be love, and at the end of the day, that's all that matters to me and all I could ever hope for.

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