The Fine Print
The reality of interpersonal vs. systemic queer politics and socially liberal republicans
As we process the results of this election cycle and engage in civil (but often contentious) debates with loved ones, friends, and colleagues around what supporting queer folks actually looks like in meaningful, consequential ways, I’ve come to a realization about a fundamental cognitive disconnect and educative piece that is missing for some people who love queer people, but still vote republican — aka “socially liberal republicans”…and there are plenty of incredibly important people in my life whom I love and love me and fall into this category.
A Little Bit of Bitching
The painful irony is, I’ve been lectured to more times than I can count in the last couple weeks by these people who have tried to explain to me that everyone has their own motivations/reasons/rationales for voting the way they do because of issues that are more salient and important to them (as if I don’t understand this already). What usually happens next is a reminder that maybe the “gay agenda” isn’t their top priority. Sidebar: there is no “gay agenda.” The “gay agenda” is my life. My right to exist and be granted equality as previously enshrined in my constitution is not some leftist political “agenda” item or “cause” and I’d sincerely appreciate it if people I know and love stop characterizing it that way. Your right to exist as an equal citizen in this country is not some politicized “straight agenda,” so please stop referring to mine as a gay one.
These conversations with socially liberal republicans have been incredibly emotionally and intellectually taxing for two main reasons: First, I simply don’t want or need to hear from someone who doesn’t stand to suffer and possibly lose everything from a Trump presidency rationalize and explain to me why someone would vote republican despite supporting queer folks. And secondly, I don’t want to hear someone who clearly doesn’t understand the nuances and complexities of queer politics try to explain to me the nuances and complexities of queer politics.
This is when it hit me: There’s a disconnect; a fundamental misunderstanding of how this all works. And it boils down to one simple idea: the difference between interpersonal and systemic oppression. That has been the unconsciously recurring theme in every discussion I’ve had with someone who loves and supports queer people, but either voted republican, or tries to explain to me why another pro-LGBTQ+ person would vote republican.
So, I thought I would do my best to break this down once and for all as succinctly as possible (warning: it’s not that succinct — it’s like, another 8 minutes of reading from this point on #sorrynotsorry). But writing helps me cope and process and I’d imagine a ton of other queer and allied folks are struggling to have these same discussions with their friends and families as we speak. But, rest assured: once this is said and done, I will never address this issue again — because I’ve spent too many hours trying to explain this to people that should get it and I’m done.
The Political Contract
Voting is essentially signing a contract with a candidate, political party, and party platform. I’ve attached both official party platforms (Rep. here, Dem. here) so you can read them all the way through if you’re so inclined. Essentially, all of the party leaders come together to decide what their party platform will be; what issues matter to them; what issues they will foreground and fight for; what laws and policies they want to pass, repeal, or impose. In short, what they “stand for.” Our parties decide what stances they will take on everything from human rights to fiscal responsibility to foreign policy to the environment.
As we all know too well, every contract has fine print. We’re warned our whole lives to read the fine print to make sure we know all the terms of the deal we’re about to sign off on. More often than not, any given voter doesn’t necessarily agree with every single aspect of their party’s platform (usually the content of the fine print). Folks understandably differ on a lot of issues within a platform and often don’t condone or “sign onto” different aspects of that political contract. I understand that.
BEING CLEAR BECAUSE I’M SICK OF BEING MISUNDERSTOOD
I feel the need to be unequivocal about some things now before I go on any further: No part of me has ever thought that all republicans are bigots. No part of me has ever believed that all republicans hate Queer, Black or Brown people, or immigrants. No part of me thinks all republicans are bad, backwards, stupid, ignorant, uneducated, or intolerant. No part of me has ever NOT understood that republicans vote the way they do for reasons that are important to them — very real reasons that are valid and necessary and consequential in their lives.
The problem, specifically for self-identifying “socially liberal” republicans is the fine print (which isn’t so much “fine” as it is “deliberately overlooked”). Republicans who self identify as “socially liberal” are absolutely folks who don’t condone or support the hateful LGBTQ+, racist, and xenophobic stances in the party’s platform. They have queer and other minoritized people in their lives who they genuinely know and love and support. They ignore these aspects of the party platform because they don’t believe in them. They don’t vote republican because of these hateful positions. They look past the anti-queer commitments to undo marriage equality, curtail queer adoption and family rights, and ban trans folks from using the right bathrooms or get health coverage because those aren’t the issues which are salient to them — and they have the privilege of being able to vote for other issues because any negative outcomes for queer folks won’t affect them at all. Frankly, they can ignore the fine print on the Republican contract because it doesn’t apply to them.
Here’s the problem with that — and it’s best explained with a brief breakdown of interpersonal vs. systemic oppression, and a not-so-heartwarming personal anecdote.
Interpersonal oppression is what most people think of when they think of what oppression or hate looks like. Examples of queer interpersonal oppression would be any of the following:
· Calling someone a fag/dyke to their face
· Attacking/assaulting/murdering someone for being queer/anti-queer hate crimes
· Any number of myriad queerphobic microaggressions
· Rape/Corrective rape for queer folks
· Kicking a queer family member out of your house because of their identity
· Teasing/bullying/taunting/making fun of queer people
The list goes on and on. Because this kind of hate and oppression and discrimination is so visceral and easily perceivable, most people believe and understand it to be the only kind of significant or impactful oppression. And socially liberal republicans who love and support queer people are quick to assert proudly and often that they love queer people. They would never do any of these things to any queer person. They have gay friends. They have a lesbian sister. They have a trans cousin. They’re NOT homophobic. And I believe them. They’re not homophobic. I know it in my heart.
I can’t tell you how many people whom I love dearly who fall into this category — like literally half of my family. They genuinely love and support me 100%. They’re not remotely queerphobic. They would defend me in a second. They would fight off a homophobic attacker. They would march and have marched in pride parades with me. They’ve embraced my relationships and welcomed my boyfriends into their lives and homes. I have ZERO doubt in my mind that this love and support is real and deep.
They also vote republican…
On the other hand, we have systemic oppression. Oppression, hate, and discrimination are not confined to any one person or interpersonal interaction. Systemic oppression — obviously apart from assault/rape/murder — is often far more damaging, pernicious, and dangerous than interpersonal oppression. Why? Because systemic oppression is discrimination codified into structural and societal systems that control the life chances and opportunities of people based on who they are and how their identity is viewed (accepted/controlled) by the dominant culture. Put another way, systemic oppression actually dictates the lived realities of queer people and controls how much access we have to rights, privileges, protections, opportunities, goods, services, etc.
Noteworthy examples of systemic oppression that are no longer in place (just to name a few):
· The federal ban on same-sex marriage
· DOMA (The Defense of Marriage Act)
· Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
· The federal ban on same-sex adoption
· Federal anti-queer sodomy laws
Examples of systemic oppression currently in place (just to name a few):
· The right to fire a queer person JUST FOR BEING QUEER in 28 states
· No federal law banning workplace discrimination for gender or sexual identity or gender expression (the stalled Employment Non-Discrimination Act, aka ENDA)
· No federal laws protecting the rights of trans folks — at all.
· Legal and institutional barriers for trans and genderqueer/gendernonbinary folks to get government issued IDs or health insurance coverage, or coverage for gender-affirming surgeries or hormone treatments
· Health care and hospital policies that prohibit same-sex partners from literally accessing their hospitalized partners
· Federal and institutional forms only having two boxes to identify your sex and/or gender (and those are two discretely different aspects of someone’s identity)
· State curricula in schools being completely devoid of LGBTQ+ identities and content
· School policies that erase queer identities and/or don’t explicitly protect them
· Conversion therapy (electrocuting “the gay” out of kids ) not being federally outlawed
THE LIST LITERALLY IS ENDLESS. I MUST STOP WRITING BECAUSE I WON’T BE ABLE TO STOP IF I KEEP GOING. And it hurts too much to keep writing…
The Not-So-Heartwarming Personal Anecdote That Will Eventually Bring This All Together
This past September 11th, I was talking to my best friend from college and checking in with him as I do every year on that day about how things were going. We were having one of our amazing hour(s)-long phone conversations about the state of both of our lives as single gay men trying to make our way through this crazy world a la Will Truman and Jack McFarland. It was around 10pm and I was walking around a beautiful local reservoir in my extremely liberal and “gay-friendly” neighborhood that abuts Boston College. On this particularly gorgeous evening, I was wearing unusually stereotypically “masculine” clothes for me — black gym shorts, flip flops, and an I ❤ NY t-shirt, because, duh.
As I approached Beacon Street presumably “flamboyantly” talking “loudly” on my phone as I walked down the sidewalk, out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of a man seated on a bench across the street from me. As I yapped away, minding my surroundings as I always do (any queer person will tell you we have to always keep one eye open to make sure we’re safe), I tracked him while I walked along, making sure he wasn’t a threat. That’s when I heard indistinguishable shouting and mumbling. I was talking so enthusiastically to my friend that I didn’t even catch it at first. I didn’t even realize the noise was directed at me. Then, when I deliberately let my friend talk for a second so I could low-key listen to what this man was saying, I heard it.
Hey you, FAGGOT!
Fuck you faggot!
I lost count after he used the word about a dozen times. I never said a word to my friend — to this day, he doesn’t even know it happened. In fact, very few people in my life even know that ever happened. I never said a word to the man. I never got rattled. I kept my composure. I kept walking. I kept talking to my friend like nothing was wrong and refused to engage; partly because I never truly felt threatened (he stayed on his bench, just angrily attacking me from across the street); partly because I could tell this was a sad, possibly inebriated, possibly homeless man who has had a very tough life and is dealing with a lot of issues; partly because I knew it could be dangerous to engage with a man like that; partly because I was alone and it was later in the evening and I didn’t see anyone else around; and partly because I’m secure and confident enough in my identity to not be fazed by someone like this anymore — because after this kind of thing happens enough to you over the course of your life, you learn how to deal, when to engage, and how to take care of yourself.
Yes, I was rattled. Yes, I was disheartened. Yes I took some time to process what had just happened to me when I got home and practiced some self-care. Yes, it hadn’t happened to me in a while so it was a painful reminder of the realities of the world I still live in — even in this stunningly beautiful liberal bastion. But I didn’t feel hate or anger for him — I felt sadness and pity. Because I clearly live a much happier, healthier, and more privileged life than he does. And because I don’t have hate in my heart. Unless you cut me in line. Or walk too slowly in front of me. Or spoil the ending of a movie. Or throw out my leftover movie-theater popcorn.
This man engaged in the quintessential example of interpersonal gay oppression.
So, What’s My Damn Point?
It’s incredibly wonderful to know and hear the republicans (and even few Trump supporters) in my life tell me they love me and support me. It’s nice to know they don’t call me a “faggot” and that they would NEVER use a slur against ANY queer person. It’s comforting to know they don’t hate gay people and would march in a parade with me or fend off an attacker for me. It’s also even somewhat comforting to know that they don’t vote republican because they hate gays; it’s for other very valid and legitimate reasons like the economy, foreign policy, etc.
The Fine Print though. If you’re queer, because of the fine print on the republican party platform, it literally doesn’t matter what someone’s motivations or intentions are for voting the way they did — the outcomes and repercussions for our actual lives are exactly the same. Until the party platform changes, the second you pull that lever for the republican party, you’re signing a contract that’s committed to repealing and curtailing all of my rights, and persecuting and oppressing me for being born. Do I think you’re directly “voting against me?” Of course not. But it doesn’t change the fact that it’s a de facto vote against me, and my life will change because of it. (Impact vs. intent)
In theory, you absolutely can separate interpersonal and systemic oppression. You can tell me (and it’ll be true) that you love and support gay people but you’re voting republican because XYZ. But in voting practice (where it actually will affect the reality of my life), that distinction ceases to exist. It doesn’t matter that hatred for gays wasn’t your motivation for voting republican: because the results for my life are the same either way.
Put another way: That vote of the man who called me a faggot more than a dozen times from across the street who likely voted republican because of his hatred for gays has the exact same impact on my life as the vote of someone in my family who loves and supports me, but voted republican for whatever reasons were important to them. The votes are indistinguishable in the system of politics and government. The process of voting and signing a party platform contract allows no distinction between interpersonal and systemic oppression (at least as the party platforms and political system currently exist). If you could vote on individual stances within a platform, then you could distinguish between the two. But as the system works now, votes monolithically endorse the entire platform (fine print and all).
Votes are systemic. Results of political elections are systemic. Power and oppression are systemic. And the most consequential aspects of homophobia and transphobia are NOT interpersonal — they’re systemic. Calling me a fag sucks ass. Taking away my rights actually changes my life.
One More Way To Make Sense of it and Then I Promise I’ll Wrap This Up
When/if marriage equality is repealed, and I lose my right to marry the person I love, will it suddenly make marriage any more possible for me when you tell me “You know I love gay people, but I voted republican because of their stance on the economy.”?
When/if a student I work with had to endure conversion therapy (and I’ve worked with several who have), will it make any difference in their life — or make them any safer or undo their conversion therapy — once you clarify for them that you support them 100%, but you voted republican because of differences of opinion on foreign policy?
When I get fired for being gay from a future job, will it bring my job back when you tell me that you didn’t vote republican because of your hatred for gays — it’s because you agree with their position on the environment.
When I can’t adopt my child and start my family, will it help me, my husband, or the child waiting to be adopted to know that you voted republican because of the national debt, and not because you hate queer folks?
When a business uses religious freedom laws to throw me out and refuse me service because of the way I was born, will I suddenly be able to acquire those goods and services once you distinguish for me that your vote wasn’t anti-gay, it was pro-small government.
And in the most ironic and twisted fashion, it’ll likely be you consoling me interpersonally when these things happen; someone who indirectly and “unintentionally” made this my systemic reality.
The Truth Hurts
That’s the painful gap that needs to be bridged for a lot of republicans who are in utter denial about what the reality of their vote means. It doesn’t matter if you’re the most hateful republican bigot in the world, or the most vehemently pro-queer republican ally alive — your votes mean/do the exact same thing to me.
Complicity in oppression is tough to accept — which is why everyone I’ve spoken to over the last few days about this has gotten defensive and angry and told me I was being unreasonable, unfair, cruel, intolerant and/or disrespectful. No one wants to acknowledge the ugly reality of signing onto the fine print. But we’re all complicit in various forms of oppression — including me.
Instead of being angry and defensive at us for pointing out the truth to you, you need to accept the reality of what your vote does and acknowledge that you’re aware that you’re choosing your own privilege over mine (Literally ask any. other. queer. person in your life). We appreciate your interpersonal love and support VERY MUCH. And even though it helps you sleep at night to deny or avoid this painful truth about what a republican vote means for me and the other queer people in your life (because you have the privilege of doing so), denying it’s true doesn’t make it any less true — and professing your love for queer folks despite voting republican doesn’t exonerate you from the oppression you cause them once you vote.
So by all means: vote how you want. I know it sounds like I’m telling you how to vote right now, but I’m not — I’m just highlighting the reality of the situation as it stands. Voting is your right and privilege and I would never tell someone how to vote. But the truth is the truth. Until the platform changes and the contract and fine print are amended, a republican vote is a vote that will change my life for the worse — it’ll strip my rights and opportunities, curtail my existence and life chances, and possibly even endanger my life.
Remember that we’re not granted rights and opportunities interpersonally. We’re granted our rights and freedoms by systems and policies and institutions. You telling me “I love and support you, but here’s why I/others voted republican” will unfortunately do nothing to protect me, preserve my rights, and grant me opportunities and equality.
Recapping & Regrouping
So remember, socially liberal republicans: NO ONE is calling you a bigot or a homophobe. No one is saying that voting republican is proof that you hate gay people or don’t care about us or support us. No one is saying that you didn’t have valid reasons to vote the way you did. But none of that changes the reality for queer people and the oppression and discrimination we will now face over the next four years because you voted republican.
So what do we do? We all must constantly work harder to educate ourselves about our politics, candidates, and political system. We must change the republican platform so that both parties finally are in agreement about their stances on human rights (rights for LGBTQ+ folks, women, racially, ethnically, and religiously minoritized people, etc.) so that we can one day have a political debate and election about actual governmental issues like foreign policy, the economy, and trade, instead of debates about peoples’ lives and identities and their rights to exist; because we’re doing democracy ALL wrong if our elections are about deciding who gets privilege and dignity and who doesn’t. My right to exist as a free citizen should never be up for a vote.
We must also elevate and elect pro-queer republicans so that we don’t still have lawmakers in congress who are committed to denying our rights to exist freely in this country. We must amend the democratic (and republican) platform to be substantially more inclusive than it actually is; it must explicitly include trans protections, and thoroughly support all queer people (not just white, cisgender middle-class gays and lesbians) — not to mention all other minoritized identities in every sector and layer of society. And both parties and platforms must work to dismantle all existing power structures and systems that oppress all minoritized people.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we must each excavate and unpack our own social locations of privilege and power and make sure we’re not oppressing others on our way to liberating and empowering ourselves. We must work together to dismantle the systems and structures that oppress any American. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Today it’s us. Tomorrow it could be you. And if it is, know we’ll have your backs — because we know what it feels like for folks to not have ours.
Martin Luther King famously said, “Our lives begin to end the day we go silent about things that matter.” Your interpersonal pro-LGBTQ+ outspokenness, love, and support is powerful, meaningful, and deeply appreciated. But your silence around the fine print in the republican party platform is the beginning of the end of my life as I currently know it. Trust me: I need your love and support every day. But I also need equal rights and opportunities — and no amount of love and support will help protect my legal status in this country.
A vote does that.