I grew up in the small desert city of Tucson, Arizona. When I was seven or eight, we moved out to the edge of town.
And I mean waaay out. The nearest shipping center was at Orange Grove Road, a good 3-4 miles from our house. I still remember vividly the trip to the “microwave store” (yes, they actually had stores devoted to selling only microwave ovens) to buy one of these miraculous sci-fi devices for our home.
Our brand new home was built in the virgin desert, in amongst the palo verde and mesquite trees and the occasional saguaro cactus. Prickly pears provided vivid purple and yellow flowers in the spring, and the monsoon rains left behind the unmistakable aroma of the creosote bushes.
I was blissfully unaware of politics for most of my childhood, and it only occasionally touched on my life. I do remember the headline “Ford Becomes President” when I was six years old – it was the first newspaper headline I can remember reading.
Two years later, in 1976, my mom took me out of school for the day so we could see the Bicentennial Freedom Train as it passed through town, along with a replica of the Liberty Bell. We were proud to be a part of such a fine country, founded on the principles of respect, freedom of speech, and freedom from religion.
A few years later, when I was nine or ten years old, I remember a friend saying that “Jimmy Carter is the devil.” Why did he think that? Because his parents told him so. This demonization stuff goes way back, even if it wasn’t anywhere near as prolific and easily spread as it is now.
My parents were both democrats, so I grew up one, but never gave much thought to what that meant.
My actual political awakening came slowly. The first inklings were probably at the start of the AIDS epidemic. I came of age and had my first sexual experience when I was fourteen.
This was in 1982, the year after the first case of HIV was diagnosed in Los Angeles. Back then they still called it GRID – Gay Related Immunodeficiency Syndrome. Institutionalized homophobia has a long history in this country too.
I didn’t become aware of HIV/AIDS until 1984, when I saw a Time or Newsweek article about it on my teacher’s desk in high school. I thank my lucky stars that I wasn’t sexually active for a few years after my initial experiences, as that may have saved my life.
When I saw how Reagan treated the gays and wouldn’t even say the word AIDS, let alone do anything to save my gay brothers who were dying from it at record rates, I started to see how politics could affect my own life.
Still, by and large, both parties respected the rule of law and the political norms of the country.
My government teacher in my senior year also played a role in my awakening. Mrs. Patterson instilled the tenets of a civil society and the checks and balances of government in us in a big way. And I still remember her telling our class “I may not agree with what you say, but I’ll fight to the death for your right to say it.”
She was short – probably five foot two? But she was a firebrand, and I often wonder what she’d make of our “cancel” and “free speech” debates today.
I had awakened, and started voting in elections that year, a tradition I have kept up in every election since.
But the thing that finally clinched the importance of politics to my own life was marriage equality.
I met Mark in 1992, shortly after coming out and moving to Alameda, an island town in the San Francisco Bay Area. He was a handsome guy, smart and kind, and we hit it off right away – in fact, within two weeks, we’d moved in together.
It was a heady time. As we plunged into the fall and the Presidential election, the excitement in my newly discovered GLBT community (yeah, the G generally went first in those days) was palpable. Not only had Bill Clinton promised to lift the ban on gays serving in the military if elected, he would also allow couples like us to finally get married.
Not that Mark and I were personally ready for that, but it was definitely something we wanted to do when the time came. And what had seemed like an impossible dream ever since I’d come out now seemed suddenly, tantalizingly within reach.
Everyone alive and old enough to vote then knows what happened next. Moderate Democrats rebelled, Republicans screamed, and a “compromise” was reached that let gays serve in the military, but only if they never revealed who they really were – shorthanded as Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
And in the states, the anti-marriage equality laws began to pop up like mushrooms.
It would be another nineteen years before the heinous Don’t Ask Don’t Tell law would be repealed – an entire generation of young gay men. And It would take twenty-three years to finally secure marriage equality for couples like is across the nation, in 2015.
Then the backlash began in earnest, and the years since 2016 have been like living in some weird and warped version of the country I had grown up loving.
Now Roe V. Wade has fallen, and so have we.
I remember the crushing weight of the day the US Supreme Court, freshly filled with new Justices, handed down the ruling. the sense that I was being dragged back into a past that I thought had long been vanquished.
And that’s not just hyperbole.
Roe V. Wade was based on a “right to privacy” that the Supreme Court inferred from the US Constitution. But it’s not the only such right. Marriage equality and interracial marriage (and a host of others that we have all come to take for granted) are tied to that same lynch pin. Pull it out, and they will all collapse like a house of cards.
Tomorrow, Americans will participate in a time-honored democratic tradition – electing the people to represent them in Congress. In a way it’s just like any other election. People vote, winners and losers are chosen, and support for parties ebbs and flows. We long ago learned to accept that as part of the process. Sometimes you’re on top, and the next time around you’re relegated to holding meetings in the dimly lit basements of the Capitol. Just hang on, and the pendulum is guaranteed to swing back again in an election or two.
Except this year, things anything but normal.
One side has out-and-out said they will not accept the election results if they go against them, and that if they win this year, they will never let the other side win again. And polls show that a majority of Republicans would rather have a good economy than a representative democracy and their constitutionally guaranteed rights. This is dire stuff.
Or as one pithy meme put it recently:
“The economy will come back. Your rights may not.”
What happens tomorrow? No one knows. But I’m afraid it’s not going to be good for people like me. I feel the fear in my bones, and am trying to accept that I have no control over how things will go.
God willing I’m wrong.
But if I’m not, then the real question becomes “what happens the day after?” It feels like we’re in freefal, and I don’t know when we’ll find solid ground.
No matter what, though, I know one thing. This is my country too, with all its warts and flaws. The arc has long bent toward justice, sometimes with great backlashes, and I’m not ready to give that progress up.
I won’t quit fighting for its ideals without a fight.
Mrs. Patterson would be proud.