The rednecks in the roadhouses were terrifying. They made me feel they would just as soon kill me as look at me. The good old boys at the country club weren’t as threatening to me personally, but they made me nervous too. In that society, at the very top of it, they had a combination of power and disdain for others that, even to a boy, seemed wrong. With power should come guardianship, not cruelty.I think it would surprise you, even shock you, to hear the way men who were the pillars of local business and society talked about people they considered inferior. Blacks of course. So imbedded in the culture was the color caste system that jokes at the expense of blacks were not even whispered. You could hear the punch lines ringing out in the men’s grill. Jews, too: “Jew” was a verb. And homosexuals: light in their loafers; don’t drop your soap in the shower.
I see now that their behavior was a kind of cultural circling of the wagons against attacks of otherness on their way of life. At the time, they just seemed like bullies. Like the KKK. Like those men who tied Mathew Shepard, a gay teenager, to a fence in Wyoming and beat him to death. Those roadhouse and country club rednecks of my youth were my introduction to social bullies.
Like all parents, I wanted my children to have friends. I wanted them to fit in and be accepted. I didn’t want them to be the butt of jokes. I didn’t want them to be bullied. Not for their sexual orientation, not for anything. I wanted them not to be gay for the same reason I wanted them not to have some other target on their backs that said “Mock me, ostracize me.”
As a society, our attitude toward gays is changing. A majority of Americans now support gay marriage. But there is entrenched opposition in parts of the culture. I don’t know how high the correlation is between opposition to gay marriage and opposition to abortion, but I suspect it is high. Perhaps religion unites them, but that would be painting with broad brush: there are fundamentalist religions of all stripes that are intolerant; there are tolerant people in all religions. In any event, religion does not belong in politics. This country was founded by pilgrims trying to avoid religious persecution.
Lately, however, there is a kind of banding together under one roof of those who disapprove of what I would call social progressivism, of those who believe that homosexuality is an abomination and abortion is murder. That roof does not have a cross on it. Instead, over the doorway is the banner of the Republican Party.
My father was a Republican. He was a doctor. He hated the idea of socialized medicine, even though he delivered many babies for apple pies and country hams. He hated paying taxes, even though he overpaid people he hired to help him with remodeling projects. But one thing he didn’t hate was people. Black, white, gay, straight, he took them all as they were. He might not like you, but it had nothing to do with the color of your skin or your sexual preferences. I don’t think he would recognize today’s Republican Party. I think he would wonder, as do I, how what we call social issues became their rallying cry.
If you think, as I do, that a lot of the objection to gay rights and reproductive rights stems from traditional ways of looking at our relationships with one another, and from feeling threatened when those traditions are challenged, then you might well ask yourself, as I think my father would ask today if he were alive, what are those issues doing in politics? Dad was a smart guy, and a bit of a con man himself. I don’t think it would take him long to come up with the answer: Callous manipulation.
The Republican Party does not, as a governing manifesto, care about social issues. What it cares about is preserving an economic status quo that has permitted men of business to shape the rules to benefit themselves; and which, incidentally, has kept gays, women and the poor in their place.
Many of the people who identify as Republicans because of perceived affinity on social issues could use the economic help their party doesn’t want the government to give them. They need social security and Medicare. They sometimes need unemployment benefits. They need job training. Their children need early childhood education and decent day care. Their party has sold them snake oil. It’s promises deal with things that don’t really impact their daily lives while it’s actions ignore their needs, or worse, make their problems worse by widening income inequality and reducing government spending on the social safety net.
That should be enough to cause anyone who is not rich to think twice about wanting to be a Republican. But if you’re not convinced, if the threat to your own economic self-interest is not sufficient to move you, think of your children. Ask yourself this question: What if my son or daughter turns out to be different from others? Maybe he’s gay. Maybe she’s fat or skinny, pale or dark, or just nerdy? Do I want her to be scorned and bullied? Do I want him to feel ashamed of who he is?