Politics can sometimes hit too close to home

Posted on 07 May 2015 at 12:11pm

Russell.JamesI received a campaign solicitation this morning from a fellow prep school graduate whose husband is running for office. The generic donation solicitation e-mail, titled “Why Our Family is Running,” espoused the virtue and wisdom of her husband, Bo French, a candidate running to the right of incumbent Republican Charlie Geren of Fort Worth. (Geren’s family attended the school as well.)

Sheridan French, who graduated from high school a few years before me, describes in her e-mail how a combination of courage and faith has prepared them to enter the “difficult arena” otherwise known as politics. In a bold font indicating a clear sense of urgency, Sheridan writes, “Both Bo and I are deeply concerned about the direction of our country and strongly believe Texas is the light that can lead the way to a better America.”

I’ve been casually following French’s and other right-wing challengers’ campaigns against perceived moderate Republicans like Geren since their April announcements. French has so far remained mum on social issues, largely denouncing “radical Islam” and “burdensome taxes.” But Sheridan’s e-mail, with references to faith and family and freedom, gave me a sense of things to come. Given its veiled language, if his campaign unfolds as I expect, he’ll soon garner the support of hard-right groups, including the anti-LGBT Texas Values PAC, Texas Eagle Forum PAC and Empower Texans. He’ll pursue traditional values, extolling marriage as an institution between a man and a woman that should be kept that way by the state. Maybe he’ll oppose extending protections based on gender identity and expression and sexual orientation. (It’s part of a formula I’ve documented here and here.)

I don’t want to speculate. But I don’t want to be silent either.

Having shared teachers and hallways and classrooms and textbooks and the struggles of senior year with Mrs. French, her e-mail felt like a punch in the gut.

Even before landing my gig at the Voice, I regularly heard about and experienced suicides, bullying and hate crimes. While rarely on the receiving end of the bullying anymore, I am still reminded of high school. I remember being called a “fag,” cornered in the men’s bathroom and picked on more often than not. That type of vitriol was not representative of the student body as a whole, much less the amazing faculty and staff. And to them I am grateful.

In the ongoing struggle for acceptance, I also learned we must have courage and strength. I thank my privileged life for helping me develop enough strength to stick up for myself in even the most adverse situations. Yet I recognize not all LGBT Texans share that privilege. Not all Texans have the ability to fight back after being called a “fag” or the option of going to counseling when on the verge of suicide or, even, the confidence that comes from being out.

We all know the facts because we’ve likely all experienced them first hand. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a study of LGBT youth in grades 7–12 found that LGBT youth were more than twice as likely to have attempted suicide as their straight peers. According to a 2011 National Center for Transgender Equality, 82 percent of transgender youth feel unsafe at school while 44 percent of them had been abused physically.

Bullying and discrimination are not confined to youth though: lesbian, gay and bisexual adults can still be fired from their jobs in 31 states. Trans people can be fired from their jobs in 39 states, and 14 percent all of reported hate crimes are LGBT-related. We still live in fear of the police, of losing our friends to self-loathing suicides, of winding up on the streets.

Which brings me to my point.

Legislation is not an end, but a means to an end. Discrimination and hate do not have to be ways of life. There are opportunities for aspiring and incumbent state lawmakers to help inch Texas toward creating an equal working environment, where you’re fired based on performance; where you feel safe enough to report a crime without fear of retribution; where you’re free to hold your girlfriend’s hand in the hallway.

But is that the way Texas can be a light to the country, as Mrs. French suggests?

Our alma mater has, since its humble beginnings, regularly pumped out leaders. We in fact were all taught to use our knowledge to change the world. Its logo, per aspera ad astra or through difficulty reach for the stars couldn’t make that any more clear.

At the end of her e-mail, before the links to the various social media accounts, she requests  prayers for resilience and strength as they go on the campaign trail. I briefly felt a sense of pride that may not be familiar to someone outside our cloistered alma mater. Hopefully in the race for the 2016 Republican nomination, she’ll remember the courage of her LGBT classmates, who overcame enormous obstacles to become leaders. And hopefully, should her husband be elected, he will not make it any more difficult for any of us to reach for the stars.

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