My parents are Republicans. Like, actual Republicans. They live in Carmel, Indiana, an upper-middle-class suburb of Indianapolis. They have a riding lawnmower and a “Romney 2012” sticker on their SUV. My mother has done extensive volunteer work for the Republican Party and does not believe in global warming. Fox News is constantly blaring on an enormous television in the center of their house. In the rooms where the booming subwoofers don’t quite reach, my mother has radios dialed in to Rush Limbaugh.
Friends are shocked when I tell them this. I’m a publicly queer, tattooed socialist. I make my living writing and creating political performance art. People assume my parents and I must not be able to talk to one another, but that’s not true. I love my mom, and we talk all the time. We generally avoid outright politics, but I tell her about my performances and publications, and we talk about things like cooking and yoga.
My father is more challenging. When I was a kid, he went on a business trip to San Francisco. When we asked how he liked it, he shuddered and said it was full of “weirdos.” Later, my brother told me that when he said “weirdos,” he really meant “gays.”
In Carmel, where I spent my adolescence, the consensus was that people like me were freaks, that I must be evil and/or stupid. When I grew up, I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Here, I am not a freak. Here, people regularly ask what pronouns you prefer.
Last week, my parents came to visit me. The first night they were in town, we went out to dinner. After they’d each had a martini, I asked my mom how we’d managed to keep our relationship so strong when we had such divergent beliefs and lifestyles. She effusively (she tends to get effusive when tipsy) thanked me for not cutting her out of my life completely. “Most people as liberal as you think we’re all evil and stupid.”
“That’s true,” I said. “And most people as conservative as you would think I was evil and stupid. So, how do we do it?”
She thought, and after a while, said, “Well, we love each other, so you know I’m not evil and I know you’re not stupid.”
We hugged, warm from wine, martinis, and the feeling that parent-child love transcends politics. But it wasn’t that easy.
After two nights in Cambridge, we took an overnight trip to Kennebunkport (my parents somehow managed to find the only hardcore Republican beach village in New England). We sat in a restaurant with multiple framed pictures of both Bush presidents on the walls, including a parody of the Obama “HOPE” poster that featured a Shepard Fairey–esque rendition of Dubya’s face above the words “MISS ME YET?” We all ordered different configurations of lobster, and I decided to explicitly ask my parents, for the first time ever, about their stance on marriage equality.
My mother said she wasn’t sure, that she had to think about it more. My father, an accomplished ex-litigator, said, “Marriage equality? So, are polygamists in Utah equal too?”
Though I probably shouldn’t have been, I was shocked that these words were coming out of his mouth.
The debate became heated and dragged on. When my father finally went to the bathroom, I turned to my mother. “What if I want to marry a woman?” I asked. She flinched, but it seemed like it was more out of a desire to avoid confrontation than disgust over the matrimonial prospects of her queer child. After a while, she took a performative breath, looked at me in the eye and said, flatly, “I’ll support you no matter what. You know that.”
The rest of the visit was strained. Blueberry pie was eaten in awkward silence. I sat in the back of their rental car on the return drive to Cambridge, detached and absorbed in my laptop. My father and mother pointed out the sights. “That’s definitely a ‘cove,’ there.” “Do you think there’re moose?” “This is very New England.” I offered only the most laconic oral responses. “Hmm.” “Dunno.” “Yeah.” I felt like a teenager.
My family has always tried to soften the discomfort of unsettled arguments by pretending they never happened. That night, before my parents went back to their hotel, my dad was in the type of overly high spirits he saves for occasions like these. He suggested we go out and have one more drink. I knew he wanted us all to get drunk so we could laugh together about something safe. I told him I had to go home because I was trying to cut back on drinking. He smiled and nodded, but his eyes looked absolutely crushed.
I used to cry when my dad would leave on business trips. He read me “Paradise Lost” and Shakespeare’s sonnets before I was old enough to walk. He’s one of the reasons I became a writer. I know that he loves me and wants me to be happy. He’s just lived for 60 years inundated with certain messages about queer people and cannot imagine a way I could be happy living as one.
If I cut my parents out of my life, they would only know me as an abstract entity filtered through Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. As a writer, you learn you can only tell someone something so much. To truly be effective at communicating, you must show them. It is not always easy.
I do not think my father is evil and/or stupid. I think his opinion is wrong. I love him anyway. I will not stop.