How Facebook, Famous People, Gay Marriage and 9-Year-Olds Can Help Us Talk Our Friends and Family Out of Voting for Mitt Romney
Irony is defined as "the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning" or "incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result."
If I hear one more person explain how, even though they believe in gay rights, they're voting for Romney, I'm going to lose my mind. We need to find ways to reach these people who say they love us and call us friends.
With about a week before the presidential election, I am finding myself in a world of people tragically unaware of the irony that surrounds them. It's a dangerous irony, dangerous for us all, because unseen (willfully unseen, I wonder?), it may lead us to elect a man who so many out there believe will save us when in fact he may only take us deep into the ruin we've been escaping, and at the high cost of decimating rights for gay people, women, the poor and immigrants. A Mitt Romney presidency is just the tip of the irony iceberg.
Perhaps it's because I'm a poet by occupation that I'm especially sensitive to the pull of irony and, as in the case I'm about to discuss, how, when we mistake irony for the truth, we risk digging our own graves (or at least inviting our children's shame). Let me explain through a story. It's a story that has deep relevance for all the gay and lesbian people out there wondering how they can convince their family and friends not to vote for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan.
The story begins, as perhaps too many stories do nowadays, with two posts on Facebook. Perhaps you've read and/or reposted them yourselves. They've just recently gone viral, and for good reason. They are both from lauded theater folks who are gay, and they both speak directly to friends and loved ones who may vote for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. Below I share the most salient moment from each post. The first is from Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning playwright Doug Wright, who said:
I wish my moderate Republican friends would simply be honest. They all say they're voting for Romney because of his economic policies (tenuous and ill-formed as they are), and that they disagree with him on gay rights. Fine. Then look me in the eye, speak with a level clear voice, and say, "My taxes and take-home pay mean more than your fundamental civil rights, the sanctity of your marriage, your right to visit an ailing spouse in the hospital, your dignity as a citizen of this country, your healthcare, your right to inherit, the mental welfare and emotional well-being of your youth, and your very personhood." It's like voting for George Wallace during the Civil Rights movements, and apologizing for his racism. You're still complicit. You're still perpetuating anti-gay legislation and cultural homophobia. You don't get to walk away clean, because you say you 'disagree' with your candidate on these issues.
The moment I read this I felt that it encapsulated feelings and ideas I'd been stewing in for weeks. "Yes!" I shouted at my computer screen. "I want you to face me! Tell me these are your priorities!" Can you imagine the cathartic moment? But more importantly, think about all the people who might not vote for Gov. Romney if they knew they had to look their gay and lesbians loved ones in the eyes after they did so.
Moments later I found this open letter from Broadway star Max von Essen. He writes to his friends and family:
I know there are important issues involved in this campaign. I know people are suffering and the economy has not improved at a rate we all wish it would. Yes, people are suffering but the gay and lesbian community has been suffering for hundreds of years and I am so tired of it. So tired of feeling that I am less than. So tired of knowing I have friends on here who will vote for someone who will keep me a second class citizen for my entire lifetime...
He goes on to make a plea for a vote for President Obama, of course -- and a request that anyone voting for Romney remove him from their Facebook friends list. Again, I was filled with the feeling that this needed to be said, that family and friends needed to be warned just what their votes would mean for those of us in their lives still desperate for our equal rights to love, acceptance and fairness. "If you want to be my friend," I wanted to shout, "you need to face me and explain your support for a man who said in 2005, "Some gays are actually having children born to them. It's not right on paper. It's not right in fact. Every child has a right to a mother and father.''
In a heady bliss at seeing my feelings so perfectly put into words by these men, I posted them and waited for my friends to rally around me. And they did. In fact, one friend posted the items on his page, as well, to which one of his "friends" posted a response something like this (I'm paraphrasing, because I'm sure I don't have her permission):
Dear friend, I hope you know I have absolutely no issue with gay marriage...But I am voting for Mitt Romney because I'm thinking about my children, their future. I want my kids to have a job when they grow up and I don't want them to be in debt. We need to give Romney a chance to do what Obama hasn't been able to do.
I responded by pointing out what I saw as the first of our ironies in this story: that Obama has been thwarted at every move by a happy-to-admit-it obstructionist Congress, inherited a problem so large we're lucky we've made any progress at all, and had to deal with Greece and the EU and other realities of globalization that make completely fixing the economy in four years a ludicrous expectation.
Here comes irony number two, folks. This mother then proceeded to play the victim. My one comment (as far as I can tell) sparked this response (again paraphrasing): "Everyone is piling on me for having an opinion, but remember I never did that to you." And here's the best part: "Like all of you, I am a U.S. citizen and have the right to my opinion." Putting aside the fact that there was no argument put forth that threatened her right to an opinion, I was struck by how quickly she became the victim, how it was her rights being trampled. Folks, this is irony at its best! This was her sentiment, expressed in a comment on a gay friend's heartfelt post about how he is a second-class citizen, literally, not in some victim fantasy.
But let's rewind a bit. Let's give this Facebooking mother with gay friends a fair look. She says she's doing this for her children, for their future. But when we open that door, what are we inviting in? Again, putting aside all the economists who say Romney's math simply doesn't work, let's give her the benefit of the doubt. As a nod to the talented gay men of the theater who began our journey, I offer my own piece of dialogue, albeit one meant to make a point, not to be poetic. Let's go 15 years into the future and listen in on the conversation I imagine between this mom and her kids.
Daughter: So, Mom, who did you vote for back in 2012?
Son: We heard today in school that gay people back then couldn't marry. That seems so ridiculous.
Daughter: One of the presidential candidates even publicly admitted that he would keep rights from gay people. A lot changes in 15 years.
Mom: That candidate was Mitt Romney. I voted for him because he was going to make your economic future bright.
Son: But what good would that future be if it was based on inequality, if people like you voted for someone like him?
Daughter: I don't want to know that you did it for us. Then it's worse.
Son: You raised us to be better than that.
Daughter: You voted "for us," but you raised us to be the kind of people who would be ashamed of you for doing that.
It's a clunky scene but, as I see it, a brutally real possibility -- maybe not kids speaking these words, but it's not hard to imagine that that's how many will feel. The excuse that "it's for the kids" is an excuse that will haunt the one who resorts to it. If we raise our kids right, they will hate us for our weakness in this moment. This, for me, is one of those truths that, once someone makes them clear to you, are so profoundly unarguable that you feel their impact in the core of your being.
So where does all this irony get us? It should crystallize for us in the gay and lesbian community how to frame the stakes. And the stakes are high! (Imagine what the Supreme Court will look like if Romney is elected!) More importantly, we need to make clear to our friends and family what the stakes are for them. The stakes are our relationships with them, our continued willingness to meet them without rancor, to feel like part of the family, to not wonder how a slight decrease in their yearly taxes could mean more to them than we do. Those are pretty grim stakes.
I want to leave you with one final bit of irony. My best friend in the world recently shared this story with me. His 9-year-old son recently declared that he would no longer be in the Boy Scouts. Why? Because his godfather (me) and my fiancé were gay, and the Boy Scouts wouldn't allow us in if we asked. That was unfair, he said. That wasn't right, he said. He made this statement unbidden by either parent, out of earshot of either my best friend or his wife, in fact. And he did it because even 9-year-olds (or especially 9-year-olds?) recognize irony: How could he be part of a group whose values declared one thing but in practice showed the opposite? It's a question we all must pose to our friends and family. And we don't need to be Broadway stars to do it. We have a week left. Share your feelings with those who love you, and ask that they do the right thing. Tell them that the future they think Romney will give them comes at a cost, sadly. And it might not be their friends but their very children who ask for their money back.
Christopher Hennessy is the author of a book of poetry, Love-in-Idleness, about growing up gay and finding love, among other things Mitt Romney no doubt finds undeserving of his respect. Next year in Boston he will marry his partner of over 10 years, and he is praying that Obama will win on Nov. 6 so that he won't have to worry about what will happen to his marriage in a Romney era.
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