Political Bullying

Mourning a Loss
Image Credit: Jerry Wolford/AP

We’ve all become more familiar with the issue of school bullying. What we may be less aware of, though, is the fact that bullying abounds on several fronts. It’s commonplace to use politics to intimidate the LGBT community; last night’s passage of Amendment 1 in North Carolina is the latest example.

Anti-gay legislation is political bullying.

Every time a state amends their constitution to limit marriage to one man and woman, every man and every woman who is gay feels as though they’ve been personally attacked. Just as people are affected by the abuse of bullies in the hallways of their schools, there are very real effects on people who get beat up at the ballot box. The results in North Carolina were far from surprising. What caught me off guard, though, was the reemergence of a long-forgotten feeling.

Punched stiffly in the gut. Knocked down with the wind blow out of me. Stabbed in my abdomen by people I thought were my friends. My intestines slowly eviscerated by hordes of strangers. Nowhere to go for help. Wanting to run away. Lacking the physical strength or mental constitution to pick myself up from off the ground.

That’s how I felt the night of April 5, 2005. That’s when Kansas passed its own version of an anti-gay constitutional amendment limiting marriage to heterosexual couples. It passed with 70% of the vote statewide, with the same percentage supporting it in my home city of Wichita. I emphasize the word home for a reason; this is the first place where I ever truly felt at home. I came out of the closet in North Carolina and walked into a tumultuous year of being physically and verbally assaulted everyday at school. I felt rejected by the state I had grown up in. I moved to Kansas the next year; when I did, I decided I would never lie about who I am. Honesty is a seminal Kansas value, and I’ve always been able to find a home here on the range being my homo self. That campaign and the political machinations that precede it caused an odd diaspora of sort. I’ve never truly trusted my community or the people in it ever since.

The Kansas legislature first debated the constitutional amendment in 2004. At the time, I was the 22-year-old Executive Director of the Sedgwick County Democratic Party and a rather central figure in local Democratic Politics. We had a 12-member delegation of Democratic legislators, including 9 state representatives and 3 state senators. I had worked closely with each of them for several years, and considered them all to be friends and mentors. Every single one of them knew of my sexual orientation, and it was never an issue. In fact, nearly all of them had voiced their support for gay rights to me.

Yet, when it came time to vote, 3 members of the house delegation (including a very liberal member who I regard as a very good friend) voted to amend the constitution to ban gay marriage. Two of the three called me in tears to apologize. I greatly appreciated that on a personal, but it did nothing to change public policy or their voting record. Nor did it ameliorate the hurt feelings of countless others. The other member also called me, but he did so to lecture me on the politics of being pro-gay marriage. He told me that if I had any true political instinct, I would understand that this was a losing issue. I was told to be happy that he voted the way he did because that meant he’d keep that seat in Democratic hands. He also implored me to defend him to party activists who would be angered by his vote.

I should have hung up on him. I should have told the other two exactly what I thought of their post-vote water works. Instead, I just took it. I continued being a soldier for the Democratic Party because they at least gave me a home, even if some of our members went on record to say I didn’t deserve to have one. After that vote, though, I felt homeless.

A key part of political bullying is the constituency getting used to taking the hits. Politicians only beat up on groups who don’t fight back. For too long, we in the LGBT community haven’t fought back. It wasn’t until after the anti-marriage amendment passed in Kansas that we had a truly effective statewide LGBT civil rights organization. Today, The Kansas Equality Coalition holds people accountable who don’t have the backbone to stand up for what they believe in.

Twenty-nine states have had battles similar to the ones in Kansas and North Carolina. Each time they have, lots of people have been hurt. They’ve felt disenfranchised by the political process. They’ve felt left behind by their communities. They’ve felt betrayed by their friends. When you’re getting harassed at school, you wish that someone would stand up for you. Often times, you find out that the people you thought were your buddies are too afraid to take a stand; in fact, they sometimes join in just to fit in. Our lawmakers are supposed to champion our safety and well-being. Yet, for LGBT folks, they’re often the ones who take away a sense of security. We look for those few allies who will stand up for us, just like we looked for those friends back in school to be our defenders. Cowardice legislators who hold quiet sympathy yet fail to stand up to anti-gay prejudice are just as culpable as the bully lawmakers.

I’m happy to report that two of the three lawmakers I mentioned above switched their votes and voted against the marriage amendment when they had the chance later than session. The other one? Well, recent polling showing a majority of Americans supporting marriage equality show he was definitely on the wrong side of history. This issue is so much larger than them or me or any single state. Political bullying is an affront to the very core of who we are as Americans. This is a country where we’re supposed to enjoy the freedom of attachment—to people, to communities, and to the process that governs us. When we take away other people’s rights, we deny them the dignity of what it means to be a whole person.  Beaten up and disembowel, those of us who survive political assaults do so without our full spirits. We’re left with only part to offer. All of our state—from North Carolina to Kansas to California—deserve fully engaged, healthy populations of people from all walks of life.

Just as we’re having conversations about how to end bullying at schools, I hope we can start talking about how to end the bruising battles like the one that just occurred in North Carolina. President Obama’s announcement today that he personally supports marriage equality is a step in the right direction. We need to take many more giant leaps. Political bullying leaves scars. It’s time we heal all of our wounds.

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