Listen to this story
Allies are not friends. The idea that two people who share political self-interests should have anything in common other than that self-interest is misguided.
My dad worked in government. He was the press secretary for a U.S. senator. Until his dying day, my dad marveled at how the son of a Southern Baptist preacher born in poverty could grow up to walk the marble hallways of the wealthiest country in the world.
He took his job seriously. The job was to talk to reporters on behalf of his boss. He wrote press releases and helped write speeches and gave advice to the senator, a generally honest LBJ Texas Democrat who was born an oil-money aristocrat. My old man had been a journalist, so he understood the breed. He was always proud that he never got his name in the papers. His name was “a spokesperson.” He didn’t want to distract from the senator. He told me he never lied to journalists, because “he lied” is their favorite story to tell.
Yes, my dad was the deep state. A Depression kid who made good.
He always made it a point to tell me that his job was not to influence policy. Just handle the free press as best he could. He also taught me that senators may look like sleepy bankers or fancy gnomes, but never forget that these are some of the most powerful people in all of recorded history. The senator, my dad would say, changes the lives — for good or ill — of thousands of people every single day before lunch.
It was not my dad’s job to wield power. He just worked for a powerful person.
I once asked my dad what he was most proud of during his years on Capitol Hill. I expected him to talk about helping to win elections, or working with famous politicians, or his one ride on Air Force One. He told me this story instead: My dad once found a request in a stack of papers piled on his messy desk. It was likely a mistake that this request found itself in his tiny, cigar-smoke-filled office. The writers of the request wanted the government to allow people with epilepsy to be able to join the military.
My dad put that request on the senator’s desk, and, eventually, people with epilepsy were allowed to serve their country.
I remember this story because it clearly moved my father. He was suffering from the fog of chemo when he told it to me, but he was gobsmacked that his small action had made a difference to strangers he would never meet. My dad was buried in Fort Sam Houston, outside San Antonio. He had served his country. The way he saw it, all citizens have a right to enlist. Even those he didn’t know. Even those whose life experiences were not his.
My dad was a member of an older generation. Every generation tells a story about wisdom and folly. I don’t know what he’d think of these noisy, silly, angry, modern times. I just try to remember the lessons he tried to teach me. I make them fit my life. I believe all citizens have a right to enlist — and vote and get married and pursue happiness — regardless of race, color, religion, creed, sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
It’s still not easy for someone with epilepsy to go into the military. There is a shocking amount of paperwork involved, and you have to have been seizure-free for a set period of time. But once upon a time, my dad decided his rights were the same as those of people with epilepsy. He didn’t have to struggle to understand that discrimination is discrimination.
Prejudice is fear with high self-esteem. It’s fear that whispers in your ear, “They’re different from us.” The president listens to these lesser angels of our nature. He recently tried, in a tweet, to ban transgender Americans from serving in the military. His own military had to remind him that he can’t lazily issue edicts. The prejudiced arguments against transgender individuals serving in the military are all similar to the arguments used against other marginalized people in the past.
Transgender individuals are not people with epilepsy, obviously. But, as I mentioned, discrimination is still discrimination.
My parents raised me trust an institution that was a path to a better life for many people. I do not share that sentimental faith in the military-industrial complex, but I get it. The Catholic Mexican-American and white Protestant sides of my family both found opportunity while defending their nation. The military can be a ladder up for many.
I did not join the military. I was the first male in my family not to. I had the choice — I could have defended the nation, like my brother and father. I chose to go to art school instead. A choice my father was initially reluctant to support.
The first time I met a transgender individual, I was an adult, and I thought, “The world is changing.” Then I realized, no, I had changed. Transgender individuals have always been part of the human story, and I was just catching up. Better late than never.
I am a straight, cisgender man. Though biracial, I look white, and, therefore, my privilege is immense. I am not a hero for stating that the self-interests of transgender individuals are my self-interests. Serving in the military is a right that any American who wishes to serve should have. If you are a transgender individual, you have this right as an American citizen. Your rights are my rights.
An ally isn’t someone who validates superficial opinions. It’s not even particularly important that allies like each other. What is important is self-interest. If one person is denied freedom, then all can be denied. Stand up for yourself by standing up for others.