Maybe most kids are tuned out of politics. Not me. I would come home from high school after choir, turn on the television and watch Rush Limbaugh. (Yes, he had a show for a minute.) There can't be many closeted kids who, when killing time by sorting through the bargain bin at the bookstore, ended up taking home one written by Newt Gingrich. (I thought I'd found a real steal.)
I distinctly remember one conversation about the broken welfare system that I had with my more liberal mother during a car ride to school. She was pretty disappointed; I could tell. I kept telling her what some Republican had been saying on TV, that most people on welfare were pretty damn lazy. Get a job, you slackers. Somehow it never occurred to me that our family had been on the government cheese program years earlier during a hard time. I'm sure my mom remembered.
When in college I figured out that I was gay, and it meant reconsidering huge parts of who I had been — an evangelical Republican, for starters. The people in those two groups were incredibly important to me. They were my family. And I'd always been a Republican because I was born into a Republican family.
Growing up, I watched a lot of Meet the Press. If it was Sunday, my father and I were in the living room watching Tim Russert interview the heck out of some politician. It was like watching football. We rooted Russert on and rehashed the whole thing. Did you see that? He couldn't answer! Way to go, Russert.
Policy discussions were father-son bonding time. I don't remember many of the ins and outs of those debates. But I do vaguely recall a conversation with my dad about gay people wanting more rights. I said something about how crazy those gay people must be. It's as if they don't see anything wrong with what they're doing.
Something about my dad's reaction showed I'd caught him off guard. He didn't disagree with me, though.
We've both changed a lot since then. I dropped my Republican Party affiliation shortly after coming out. I'd stopped siding with the GOP on a lot of things — the morality of my life chief among them. I also quit because I wanted to be a journalist, and that job gave me an excuse to bite my tongue whenever a political conversation started. The turmoiled young man I was probably needed a cooling-off period anyway to figure some things out. But I told myself I didn't want anyone to discover my party affiliation because they'd make assumptions about what I believed.
That's the problem with being a part of a political party. Everyone gets lumped together. Somewhere in that GOP lump, even now, is a young gay boy.
And nowadays he hears a consistently antigay message from the party's most important figures. The party's last presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, signed a pledge to ban same-sex marriage and opposed LGBT equality in everything from adoption to service in the military. He and many others oppose making it illegal for businesses to discriminate against LGBT people in hiring.
Michele Bachmann ran for president and won the supposedly pivotal Iowa straw poll. Her husband runs a Christian counseling clinic caught offering "reparative therapy," which is now outlawed for minors in California and New Jersey. Bachmann and the others will probably never come around to my view and accept LGBT people. Still, they'll talk and talk. What I hope is that at least some Republicans will disagree — and loudly.
I talked with Robert Traynham, former press secretary to Rick Santorum — who is no slouch on the antigay front either — about the effect of antigay rhetoric on kids. And I was glad to hear him condemn it.
"When you hear other people applaud that horrible language, it just reinforces, OK, there's something not right here — is it me, or is it them?" said Traynham, imagining the effect of words on kids who haven't come out. "And for someone that is young, someone that is vulnerable, someone that is confused about their feelings, that makes it even more difficult, which is very, very sad. And that's why it needs to stop."
Traynham says he came out to his family in 1998, and then to his boss, Rick Santorum, in 2000. The public learned about his sexual orientation when it became news in 2005. Like most people, Traynham said that when he came out, political party affiliation wasn't his primary concern.
"It's much more nuanced than that. I know in my case, just being an African-American and growing up in a culturally conservative home where God is still very, very much the guiding force in my family's life, I have some family members that are Democrats that were homophobic," he said, and he's right. My point isn't merely about politics. It's about how much the groups we belong to matter in our self acceptance.
Traynham says it's important that any of us "feels safe — regardless of whether they are Republican or Democrat." The trouble is all this antigay rhetoric coming from one party in particular.
"Can there be a voice of reason?" he asks, proposing a sort of truce. "Can we at least agree that any type of language that is demeaning or derogatory, can we at least agree that that has no place in the public square?" Traynham says "that type of hurtful language literally kills people, literally forces people to commit suicide, literally commits people to hide themselves within themselves."
Antigay words matter — not to policy, though. Even Michele Bachmann's home state of Minnesota recently passed a marriage equality law. We will eventually get marriage equality in all 50 states, the passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in Congress, and more. But all the while Bachmann and company will be on television trying to shame the world — since they can't change it.
Did you know a school district that Bachmann represents was once named a "suicide contagion area" by the state government? It's a weird designation. But so many kids died there that public health officials issued a warning.
No one likes to think of the children when examining political rhetoric or policy. And I'm not really asking for Bachmann and Santorum to pipe down. I know they won't. I'm asking for others to speak up.
I know my father is speaking up. At the reception for my wedding to my husband, he took the microphone to say how proud he is. By the way, he's now a registered Democrat.
LUCAS GRINDLEY is editorial director for Here Media. He lives in Los Angeles with his husband and two foster children. Contact him on Twitter @lucasgrindley.