This is not an especially brave tale. It’s just the story of my political upbringing in the Deep South. Pretty simple, all in all – just maybe a bit unusual.
I think my first political memory is of the Willie Horton attack ad during the run-up to the 1988 presidential elections. I was born in 1985, and those ads would have been showing when I was about 3 years old. I know I have a few fuzzy memories extending that far back, and I know I saw the ad when I was very young. I know that because it provoked a very visceral reaction in me. It felt “wrong” to me, though I wasn’t sure why. I wasn’t afraid of the man in the photograph, but there was something about the ad that I knew I didn’t like. I got a cold feeling when I saw it that I couldn’t quite identify.
We have a very close family friend who I’ve known since I was only two years old – a time that seems long past, for it was when he was still youthful and affectionate and often bouncing me on his knee. A gay guy (let’s call him Sean), who – oddly enough – my whole family embraced without question, including all four grandparents. My family has never had much of a “problem” with the LGBT community, despite their political leanings. But I remember my parents sitting me down one day when I was about five years old to “explain” Sean to me, as if his nature needed some sort of explanation. They told me that Sean only liked women as friends and that he didn’t want a wife – they explained that he only liked men that way. I was confused at first, and it took a bit more explanation (the specifics of which I do not recall) before I “got it.” What I do clearly remember were the expectant looks on their faces and my reaction. “So what?” And that was that. By my nature, it just didn’t matter to me (or perhaps it was merely because that sort of bigotry was never taught to me).
My first very distinct political memory is of election night 1992. I had apparently seen enough of Bill Clinton on TV to know that I “liked” him. I have a feeling I sat through the debates with my parents because they always watch them, but I don’t recall specifically. Elections were always a big deal in my home – especially presidential elections – and my parents and I always watched them together. I remember before the results started rolling in, my parents told me what a big deal the night was and asked me who I wanted to win. My parents are pretty hardcore conservatives, particularly my father, so of course he was for Bush (though he never thought either Bush conservative enough). When I indicated that I wanted “the friendly one” to be our next president, 7-year-old sricki was treated to a political lecture. I didn’t understand most of it, but I got the larger point: I was supposed to be for Bush. So as the election results rolled in, I sat directly in front of the TV on the floor, and every time Bush lost a state, I gave the expected responses: the “oh no’s!” and “that isn’t fair’s!” and “he cheated’s!” But privately… facing away from my parents where they couldn’t see… there was an irrepressible grin on my face, while my parents emitted exasperated sighs from across the room. I remember being exhilarated when it became clear that “the friendly one” was going to win. I also remember feeling very guilty about the way I felt – my parents were so obviously distraught. But Clinton seemed nice – and he was young – and he seemed exciting (for a politician) at the time.
Then, after the election, the vilification of Bill Clinton began in earnest. My father said he was a murderer. My great aunt insisted that Chelsea was the product of Bill raping Hillary because she wouldn’t sleep with him because she was a lesbian. My mom said Hillary was a hateful bitch. My grandmother said she had women in and out of the White House to sleep with. They all said the Clintons were out to destroy the country. My dad listened to Rush Limbaugh religiously, and I listened with him. My dad thought he was funny. I thought he was mean. In 1996, Fox News appeared on the scene, and that’s all we watched. I forgot that other news existed. Something about Fox never seemed quite “right” to me. I went to a school where the kids weren’t particularly political, and of the parents whose political leanings I was aware of, all were Republican. Democrats were demonized, slandered, and deeply despised in my immediate surroundings, and for a long time I think I just had no real opinion on it, other than that my father expended way too much energy bashing people he didn’t even know. When I was very young, I tended to believe what I was told about Democrats. Far-fetched as some of the claims my parents made were, a lot of kids will believe anything. Why not believe Clinton was a murderer? I had not so long before believed in Santa Claus, after all.
As I got older, I got more skeptical. By the time I was 10 or so, many of my parents’ claims about the Clintons seemed too fantastical to be true. How could they have gotten away with it all, if they were truly as bad as some people suggested? Now, I would be lying if I told you that none of that Rightwing propaganda seeped into my head. For years I thought Hillary was a bitch and pretty much hated her. Ironic, isn’t it, that I ended up a vocal, ardent Hillary supporter during the 2008 primaries?
I was also starting to struggle with my religion around this time. My entire family was highly religious, but it just never “clicked” for me. I was raised Episcopalian, and I once asked a Sunday School teacher a question about the Bible and was promptly told, “We don’t ask questions like that!” That didn’t set well with me – I was just curious, after all. So when I was 11, and disappointed that I didn’t feel the same way about god that my family did, I decided to get better in touch with my religion by reading the Bible. So I read it – the King James version – cover to cover. …And then promptly declared myself an atheist. I was horrified, and though I later “backed down” a bit and slid back and forth between deism and agnosticism, I know deep down that I will never be a Christian. I told my parents this, and they insisted that I continue to acolyte and attend church weekly until I graduated from high school.
I started looking at pictures (not naked ones at that age!) of women when I was about 11 years old. I started sketching them, but I wasn’t sure why I appreciated the female form so much. I just thought women were beautiful. It was not until I was 14 that I began to accept my bisexuality, and I hid that from my parents until I was 18. Beyond my support for abortion rights, environmental protection laws, and gay marriage, I was still not very politically conscious by the time the 2000 presidential election rolled around. Still, I knew I didn’t like Bush – he was an idiot, and I have never been the type of person willing to laud someone for his or her stupidity. So I watched those debates too – and the election as well – and was horrified along with much of the country as the results unfolded.
My parents were never overtly racist, but I was exposed to racism and bigotry via my paternal grandparents. My grandfather called people of color “darkies,” and my grandmother did not hesitate to use the “n-word.” Although such flagrant displays of bigotry aroused disgust and disdain in me, I had no particular reason to value diversity. I went to a school that was almost 100% white, and I guess one could say that at that time I had no cause to think that cultural issues had much to do with me. Still, on one occasion when I was 16 and riding in the car with my grandparents… my grandfather went into a spiel about African Americans and IQ tests – insisting that black people aren’t as smart as whites, and that the cold, hard statistics bore that out and were irrefutable. To be perfectly blunt, I pretty much lost my shit. Yelled and screamed at an old guy who, perhaps, “didn’t know any better” du
e to his upbringing. I went into a screaming rage about testing bias and told him he was racist over and over again, while he yelled back about how the tests don’t lie. After that, I told my parents that I wouldn’t be spending any more time with either of my paternal grandparents. My grandfather died about 3 months later. I had seen him twice during that time period. The fact that he was bigoted and wrong doesn’t erase all of my regrets on that front.
I went off to college, and it was there that I truly discovered myself politically. It wasn’t hard. I already disliked Republicans and much of what they stood for, and a bit of education was really all it took for me to declare myself a liberal. I got involved in more volunteer work (though to be fair, I’d done a lot in high school as well, particularly working with disabled children and horses) and started actively paying attention to social injustice. I became vocal about my liberal views in class and around my family. My whole family was pretty stymied, to tell the truth. They visited me at college one time and were horrified by my new bumper stickers and my dorm room door, which was covered in political cartoons. I had a poster up in my dorm room listing the 10 dumbest Bushisms. I got into frequent political debates with my father and, on occasion, lost my temper and told my mother she was too “stupid” and ignorant to talk about politics period.
My family had to wonder where this had come from. They were horrified when I supported Dean for president, and perhaps even more so when I automatically transferred that support to Kerry (who my father calls “Lurch” – I think he may have gotten it from Limbaugh). They didn’t get it – it all seemed so foreign. They knew I’d rejected my religion – they knew I hadn’t bought into the Republican smears. They knew I had liked Clinton when he was in office and preferred Gore over Dubya in 2000. And now there I was, “weirder” than ever. “Obnoxiously” and loudly liberal in the Deep South, despite being raised to be a staunch Republican.
They’re still asking themselves where they went wrong. And from the looks of it, my 18-year-old brother is likely to be more like me than like them. “Different,” secular, liberal, and probably bisexual. How could they have raised two such children?
And here’s the thing – I don’t get how it happened either. So maybe with this diary I kind of want to make a case for nature over nurture. I have said often enough before that I had the upbringing of a conservative, the “bleeding heart” of a liberal, and the defiant mind of an Independent. Maybe being a Republican was just not in my nature. I’m not really sure. I don’t think that it was a matter of wanting to “rebel” against my parents, because outside politics and religion, my parents and I agree about a whole lot. And I enjoy my parents immensely – they’re fun, funny people. But there was just never a time when I felt any affinity with the Republican party. There was never a time when I felt comfortable with the idea of the GOP at the helm. Is it my generation? Maybe, but then again I never really talked politics with my generation until I reached college – and by the time I was 18, my core beliefs were already in place. I became more knowledgeable, but not “less conservative.” I was already intensely opposed to conservatism. The tactics and rhetoric of the GOP were just always off-putting to me, and I don’t have any clear explanation for why. I have a million reasons for hating conservatism now – but what reason did I have to recoil from it in the beginning?
I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. Maybe I was born to be a liberal. Maybe I just got lucky. Whatever the case, I hope as the years pass more and more children are so born – and so lucky.