Every Sunday for the last 12 years, I have called my conservative Republican mom and talked to her for upwards of an hour. I tell her about my work, and try to keep her entertained with cheery, funny anecdotes. I share good news and paper over bad. I keep the conversation flowing and effervescent. In each call, I work hard to come across as someone happy, with lots of friends and lots to do, and nothing to complain or cry about.
I have upheld this ritual through breakups, bereavements, depressive episodes, periods of trauma, and years of acute political turmoil. I’ve only wavered and broken kayfabe a few times — when my dad died, for example, or when Trump was elected. That time, I curled up on a bench and sobbed, begging my conservative mom to understand what her vote had done to me. I shook and sputtered borderline incomprehensible things about how much it hurt for her to vote the way she did, how betrayed I felt as a sexual assault survivor, a trans person, a scientist, or a person who needs birth control.
She believed we could agree to disagree, so long as we never discussed or even thought about our disagreements.
She reacted with the same equanimity she always projects when unwanted emotions rear their needy heads. She was worried I was stressing myself out by thinking about it too much. She believed we could agree to disagree, so long as we never discussed or even thought about our disagreements. It made me feel that by refusing to stop glaring at our differences, I was the one hurting myself.
That’s how it’s always been in my family. I feel like the renegade, the unstable queer one, with big emotions and strange desires that alienate me from my family’s politics. I feel responsible for minimizing the conflict that my existence creates. I’m not supposed to express emotion, start fights, or remind anyone of the chasm that separates my life from their traditional, “family-oriented” values.
I’m done carrying that responsibility. It’s been slowly poisoning me for years.
My Republican family is not oppressive in the ways you might think. As a teen, I was allowed to co-chair my school’s Gay Straight Alliance. I got involved in progressive political activism when I was 16, without much pushback. I wasn’t abused in any way that I can, in good conscience, point to. I was merely instructed to never, ever tell my grandparents that I was engaging in such things, for fear of starting fights about our differing viewpoints.
My mom wouldn’t say she’s socially conservative. Neither would most of my Republican relatives. They like to think of themselves as family-oriented, patriotic, no-nonsense lovers of fiscal restraint, and it doesn’t matter if the reality of the political choices lines up with those ideals. They don’t like to talk about the basis for their ideology, or evidence in support of their views — and they will not acknowledge the social consequences of their actions. They have always voted Republican, and it seems they always will, no matter the candidate they are given or the abhorrent policies that candidate advances. And for the most part, they don’t want to talk about their beliefs or the reasons for their choices — aside, perhaps, from a few idle rants about the evils of the Clintons. In such a vacuum of verbal reflection and vulnerability, it’s paralyzingly difficult for me to even start a conversation about the harm their political changes have wrought.
In my family, norms are enforced through a gentle blend of selective praise, light mockery, quiet dismissal, and mild admonition. If I take a step toward prescribed, traditional roles, I feel a bit more celebrated and recognized. If I take a different path, or express a competing desire, I feel ignored or ridiculed in a way I can’t quite point to. If I complain about that ridicule, I am dismissed as overly sensitive or told I’m making things up, misremembering them.
I have dozens of memories of family members chiding a teenage me for expressing disinterest in giving birth or having a family. Whenever I expressed a passion for the sciences or a desire to go to grad school, I was treated as though my interests were cute, but fleeting. When I began throwing my adolescent, closeted self into politics — mostly activism for LGBT rights — my mother would tell me, in hushed tones, that it was “okay” that I was doing so, but that we wouldn’t be letting my grandparents know about what I’d been up to.
I wasn’t beaten for being who I was. Usually, I wasn’t even directly berated. The problem wasn’t a specific act of mistreatment or abuse, but rather the emotional and political climate that surrounded me. My family consistently listened to conservative voices that branded me, and people like me, as perverse, immature, deluded, and mockable. My family voted, without relent, for politicians who wanted to curtail abortion rights, LGBT rights, educational access, and intellectual freedom. They unilaterally advanced and rewarded a life path that was traditional, deeply gendered, and rooted in devotion to the family unit, often to the detriment of connections with the outside world. They couldn’t see how these actions wore me down and slowly, quietly, left me feeling broken, incapable of appropriate adulthood, and totally alone.
The Sunday following the Kavanaugh hearings, I called my mom and told her, in a flat, hopeless voice, that I resented her. I knew his appointment wasn’t her choice, but it was a consequence of her vote, and I was pained and tormented by it.
The point of my call wasn’t to provoke her, or to change her mind. I’d long ago lost hope in that happening. What I really needed was for her to understand that her actions had done harm to me repeatedly, and that such harm couldn’t be undone. I wanted her to hear me crying and for once in my life, I didn’t want to be ashamed of it.
I knew his appointment wasn’t her choice, but it was a consequence of her vote.
She expressed sympathy that I was sad. She said she didn’t want me to feel that way. And that was really the problem, wasn’t it. That I felt that way. That I was telling her. That I wasn’t able to tamp it all down and allow our political differences to fade into an unacknowledged background. She didn’t say anything awful to me during that conversation; she was a pretty good listener, in fact. But I left that call resolved to detach from her and cease our weekly talks.
When I called my mom that day, a part of me hoped she would get defensive or angry. I long for a loud, contentious blow-up with my conservative relatives. I’ve wanted a knock-down, drag-out fight with them for years. It would give me an excuse to spit bile and sever ties.
But that’s never going to happen. They are too passive and resistant to conflict for that kind of emotional honesty to arise. When I try to confront my mom about her politics and receive only tepid empathy and no discussion of depth or consequence, I usually walk away feeling deeply disappointed and frustrated. At the same time, I know I never should have expected anything.
I can’t even expect my mom to tell me, in a thoughtful and candid way, why she behaves the way she does. I can ask about her beliefs, but her explanations always come up short. They’re typically unfocused regurgitations of whatever the latest Fox News talking point is, cliches that don’t necessarily connect to anything she has ever expressed concern about before. If I challenge anything that doesn’t make sense to me, she gets defensive and insists she has a right to her beliefs, just as I do. Never mind that her beliefs — or at least the electoral consequences of them — directly harm me and people like me.
My mom had a child who was gender-nonconforming and highly vocal about LGBT rights from a very young age, and she never took the opportunity to educate herself or challenge her own prejudices. She kept voting for politicians who demonized people like me throughout the Bush, Obama, and now Trump Administrations, and that’s had an irreparable impact on how safe and loved I feel, and uncomfortable I am opening up to my family or anyone else. She avoided every possible productive conversation about our differences for decades, and persisted in making choices that have made the world worse. I don’t need an apology for that. I don’t need her to frown and make sympathetic sounds. It won’t do any good. The pain is too deep.
From the instant I started bearing my pain to her, she had the chance to reckon with the impact of what she’d done. But she never did.
I am past the point of trying to make her change. When I called her after the Kavanaugh hearings and told her how I felt, it wasn’t with the hope of reconciliation. It wasn’t to ask her for change her ways or make things better. I only wanted her to have some reference point for why my calls were going to stop. It was a way to say goodbye.
I used to call every week. I don’t anymore.