“Why can’t I be myself, be with who I love, and do what makes me happy?” This is the question I constantly asked myself while I was the Polk County Regional Director for the Republican Party of Florida.
Hailing from Vero Beach, I am a proud fifth generation Floridian. My father had served in public office since I could remember. Fourth of July parades, canvassing, and Republican campaign events were as much a part of my childhood as Pokemon and Rugrats. As I immersed myself in band and student council in high school, it was a natural progression that I found my own path into the Republican Party. I graduated high school, began school at Florida Southern College in Lakeland and took the path I assumed I should, the path that continued my career within the Republican Party in Polk County.
In 2016 I got an exciting opportunity. The Republican Party of Florida was hiring regional directors. I applied, got an offer and my professional career in politics began.
It was a few months into my post at RPOF that I started to notice a pattern. A pattern of hate. “Gays have no business in our party” and “Faggots are destroying our country.”
My heritage had brought me into the Republican party - the party that opposed government intrusion and favored low taxes. But in my new role, I was experiencing something very different. I was also coming to terms with something in my personal life. I knew that it was time to be true to myself, to come out as gay. First, I chose to come out to my close friends and family. My friends were accepting, an outcome I’d hoped for and assumed, but in the darkest moments my inner saboteur had convinced me otherwise.
The task of coming out as gay to your parents is one of the most dreaded moments for most LGBTQ people. For my parents, it wasn’t exactly the moment they’ve always dreamed about. But in mid-February of 2016 I decided it was time. My parents were surprised, but they saw and accepted me for who I am - their son who never picks up his shoes, is hard of hearing, and loves his family. A special moment for me in the chaotic and horrifying process of coming out was when my father shared a letter he had written before I was born. The letter was entitled, “What Dad hopes for your future…” The end read, “ Regardless of what you become in life, remember that you have my unconditional love.” My dad is still the man I look up to each and every day.
As time progressed I felt as though I had one foot in the closet and one foot out. My friends and family knew who I was but, I had to leave parts of myself behind when I came to work. Many of us who are LGBTQ know this feeling and how bifurcating and debilitating it can be. I had taken the steps to bring my whole self to other parts of my life, it was time to close the gap. I started with a coworker. “What do you think about me publicly coming out?” Their response... “it wouldn’t be ideal right now.”
The call to be authentic is a powerful thing. It tugged on me, despite the fear and reservations that my colleague had reinforced. I came out to a few more colleagues. And in my small world of Republican activists and operatives, word began to spread. It didn’t take long for me to realize I was no longer the vision of the future my “friends” and “colleagues” wanted to see for the Republican Party. While staffing campaign and party events, I’d overhear comments like, “Why would the party hire that fairy”...“anyone that takes it up the ass needs to get the fuck out”...“fucking sissies are the reason Obama got elected.”
I didn’t know it then, but these comments were the beginning of the end of my career in Republican politics. After four months of demeaning and discriminatory comments from party officials, co-workers, and volunteers I retreated into isolation, struggling to figure out what was wrong with me and where I belonged, because it wasn’t where I was. And then it happened. This home grown Republican organizer read Hillary Clinton’s 2012 interview with Marie Claire. "You have just one life to live,” said Clinton.“It is yours. Own it, claim it, live it, do the best you can with it.” I realized I mattered more than conforming to a group of people that treated me like a subclass of human.
My career in Republican politics did continue after 2016. I moved to DC and eventually to Nevada. All to work on campaigns. Knowing that my life was changing but not knowing how or where to go if it wasn’t forward in the life I’d built and known. From my vantage point in Republican politics I saw the horrors of the Trump administration and its toxic core. A group of elittled elitists that view any and all minorities as an enemy of the state.
After spending significant time reflecting on my experiences I came to the conclusion that I could no longer support the Republican Party. The party that treated some as inferior humans, and reminded me on a daily basis that I had no place in their good ole’ boys club. But the path to “owning, claiming, and living it” meant also challenging myself. Changing some fundamental beliefs and my political identity. For example, living in walking distance to Pulse Nightclub, one of the deadliest modern-day mass shootings and the largest attack on LGBTQ people in America in history, I urgently understood the need to strengthen and expand background checks and decrease access to military-grade weapons. Another example is healthcare. If you were to ask me a little over a year ago my thoughts on universal healthcare, I would have told you that it was a nice thought but too expensive and the wrong choice for Americans. Today, I believe that healthcare should be a fundamental right, not a privilege. We shouldn’t have to choose between a cancer screening or dinner.
The advice to use my ears and voice proportionately has allowed me to see that, although my beliefs are continuing to evolve, the Democratic party is not what I had been told. The Democratic party is not simply bureaucracy and higher taxes. It is a party filled with dedicated people who know that not everyone starts life with the same privilege and opportunity. It is a party that is far more reflective of my country; OUR country.
My final thought. For years I have been told that I don’t belong and that I couldn’t make a difference. Today I no longer stand in the shadows. I stand with my flame for all to see, hand in hand with my community to make our state and country a stronger and more inclusive place. Because like RuPaul says, “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell are you going to love someone else?”
WES DAVIS is an Equality Florida field organizer based in Orlando. He manages programs to educate, mobilize and empower LGBTQ Floridians and our allies.