Editor’s Note: This is the first in an occasional series of commentaries written by Zach Litwiller.
Be Grateful during the Holidays
“You know,” my father said to me as we wrapped up Christmas Eve dinner this past holiday, “you really should be grateful for Trump.” I scoffed, audibly. I couldn’t help myself. It was like a bad holiday comedy movie starring Jim Carey, Will Ferrel, Reese Witherspoon, Jane Fonda, and Robert DeNiro (ok, so maybe I want to see this movie now). Seriously though, I’m a grown-up, real-life gay man. What about this administration at all should I be grateful for?
So I scoffed right in my father’s face. Don’t get me wrong, my dad is a smart guy and knows his stuff. I love to have conversations with him about any number of topics, and the most interesting of these are the ones we disagree on… like Trump.
As much as I’ve enjoyed these conversations, something has changed lately. We are both more irritable during these conversations. We both take offense more easily, and half the time we’re not even talking about the issue but rather how the other person is offending us. After that begins we just end up making unanswerable accusations about the other person’s intent and claims of our own expertise and we don’t actually touch on anything substantial
And I gotta say, this makes me sad.
I am sad because my conservative, Christian father and I don’t have much that we can talk about to begin with. As a gay man who doesn’t know what he believes right now, there’s little else that we share besides our interest in politics, policy and current events, and our mutual love for debate.
It’s how we connect. Our relationship has been rocky for many years, and especially after I came out of the closet. He didn’t want to hear about my gay life, and I wasn’t interested in hearing sermons or moralizing lectures. So politics became our common ground, our equalizer, our level playing field.
As the years rolled by beneath our tension I realized that we both felt betrayed, that trust had been broken on both sides of this coin. My dad felt like he didn’t know who I was anymore. After all, I’d actively kept a huge part of my life and identity a secret. I felt like I was rejected by my dad, that he didn’t see me as his son anymore. Instead, I was his latest mission field or project.
I didn’t, and I guess I still don’t in many ways, trust the advice he gave me. I had to question if it came from his not-so-underlying desire that I wasn’t gay and not from love.
Even as recently as this past September when I went through a heartbreaking split with an ex-boyfriend I questioned his advice. He commented that this was a great opportunity to work on returning to the things that make me happy, to focus on myself.
Was this what he honestly and plainly felt, or was this born out of some corner in his mind where he believed that I was getting the just rewards for a sinful life? I just didn’t know.
The one way that we’re able to get past these questions and doubts with each other, was our political debates. We could talk openly about policy and theory and economics and presidents and administrations and legislation and enjoy disagreeing with each other. We were able to even talk about equal rights for LGBT community with the distance of policy debate.
So what changed? When did we forget that this was a friendly debate and begin to behave like it was a personal attack? Well, from what I can tell, it was Trump.
We lost our equal footing when talking about politics: For many years there was an administration in the White House who supported equality. I may have been in the minority, but I still had the support of the President and the US Government.
When Trump took over for Obama, that changed. Now there was a President who ran a campaign on thinly veiled prejudice. Now we have a president who no long supports the LGBT community.
To my dad, we were talking about the economy and the merits of the recent tax bill. To me we were talking about an administration that openly pursues prejudiced policies, some against me as a member of the gay community. So yea, it felt personal, and I scoffed right in my dad’s face.
In retrospect, this was counterproductive: I did exactly what we both complain about. I dismissed him, behaved condescendingly, and looked like an actual eye-roll emoji without even bothering to respond in a way that invites conversation. I just shut it down and tried to make my dad feel ridiculous at the same time.
I disagreed with what he said. I have a large context in which my disagreement exists. But he doesn’t know that, he hasn’t experienced that, and if I won’t communicate it to him how will he understand where I’m coming from. I don’t need him to agree with him, but I want him to understand why that statement means more to me than just the economy.
It wasn’t even three days later that I had the opportunity to practice what I’m preaching (which is really actually rare for me so give me some credit here). “These regulations stagnate business growth, and keep people like you (Millennials, not gays) from being able to make money and get jobs. You’ll see, you’re about to make a ton of money.” My dad said while I poured a beer into my favorite pint glass at his house. It was a broad statement that covered the many examples of what he considers government over-reach into small businesses, such as Obamacare.
“Well,” I took a breath and considered my words. I silenced my immediate impulse to quip back in my first language: sarcasm. “I can see why you believe that. In your experience you find that regulation limits business and only costs the business owner money.” I sipped my beer as he nodded, waiting for me to disagree. “I think that is a limited viewpoint of the entire issue though. I work with many people who can ONLY afford healthcare because of the Affordable Care Act, and who rely on the regulations that help them to make enough to ensure rent is paid and the employment protections to keep them from arbitrarily losing their jobs. Without the employees being able to reasonably expect a decent living, they can’t spend any money at the small businesses, or big businesses for that matter. If you only protect the business owner there will eventually be few to no customers.”
Ok, not my best argument or debate technique here, but you gotta admit: it sure as hell beats evading with sarcasm or attacking with “righteous” anger. The conversation moved forward respectfully and pleasantly. We didn’t agree, and my words didn’t win him over and probably never will; but I learned that we don’t have to agree to understand each other.
I can help him understand. I can take a moment, count to ten, find my pressure points, pet a kitten, play a line of Lady Gaga in my head; whatever to calm down and to not just react. I can speak. I can communicate. I can try to understand where he is coming from, and go from there.
I can do a great many things beside scoff…
But, I mean, I still feel that my point was made though.
Zach grew up as a conservative and recently converted to liberal ideologies. This insight across the line fuels his passion for policy and trying to create productive dialogue. He’s also tall. You can reach Zach via email HERE.
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