In the early 1990’s I was working at performing arts center on the campus of a Midwestern university. I worked a lot, more than was ideal for a full time student, but I was paying my own way though school and needed the money, and besides that, I loved my front of house theater job. As a small town escapee, I relished the exposure to the world of performing arts my job gave me and since I only needed to work when customers were in the lobby, I was free to watch the delightful lineup of programs in the theater. That’s right people, I was getting paid to watch shows; opera, theater, dance, musicals, comedy, jazz—you name it, I ate it up. And not just performances either, I sat in on whatever group happened to be renting the theater on its off days; Wiccan ceremonies, Inuit art auctions, and bizarre Amway conventions where people threw cash in the air. I’m pretty sure my best education those four years came from the stage of that theater.
One night I was working a theater rental featuring a right-wing syndicated news columnist speaking on the subject of Family Values as a guest of a local conservative political group. I had never heard of this columnist, but as was my habit, I slipped into an empty seat in the back of the theater just as Right-Wing Writer stepped to the microphone. Right-Wing Writer began his speech with patriotic fervor, praising America as the best country in the world, throwing around the words “freedom” and “opportunity” and of course that old standard “The American Way.” The American Way talk transitioned neatly into Family Values and now Right-Wing Writer was really in his element.
Family Values was the topic in early 90’s Midwest America. While it may seem difficult to imagine now (when the Republican president elect, an adulterer with children from three wives, once publicly bragged about getting away with sexually assaulting women) but at that time conservative minded citizens were really quite concerned about other people’s private lives. Gays, single mothers (never the fathers, though how those women managed to get themselves pregnant single-handedly I’ll never understand), welfare collectors, feminists, and non-Christians were bad news because they did not embody the ideal of Family Values. Right-Wing Writer really laid it out for us that night, how these gays and feminists were corrupting America, degrading the memory of an unspecified but much lamented American past. The solution to the erosion of Family Values? The Bible needed to be taught in public schools, gays needed to be “reeducated” and for God’s sake women needed to keep to their rightful place as married homemakers.
Ardent conservatives clapped at the end of Right-Wing Writer speech and he smiled and handed the microphone to an assistant, asking “Are there any questions from the audience?” and why yes, I did have a question, so I raised my hand and the assistant ran up the aisle to me with a microphone.
I did not then and do not now object to people wanting to live differently than me, nor did I care if Right-Wing Writer promoted Family Values. As a philosophy major trained in logical argument, I objected to his inconsistency and said as much so, calling out Right-Wing Writer for praising the core value of American freedom, while also advocating for his religion to be taught in public schools, for suppressing the freedom of LBGT Americans to marry the person of their choosing, for demanding that women cede control of their bodies to religious and paternal authorities. I asked Right-Wing Writer to address these contradictions, but he did not, instead he called me an immoral atheist.
A week later Right-Wing Writer published a nationally syndicated newspaper column about his encounter with me. He described me as a young girl with a soft voice, who sadly encompassed everything wrong with American youth. He said I was left bereft of Family Values by my Godless liberal education. This picture of me, it was so sad, who was that corrupt young castaway, thrown into a sinful, unfulfilling life by the demons of feminism and secular thought?
Here’s what I learned from my experience with Right-Wing Writer: I have a voice. In less than two minutes of unprepared speech I upset a well regarded commentator enough that he was driven to write a column about me printed in newspapers across the country. Now, as 2017 approaches and the prospect of a new president whose hateful rhetoric I loathe and whose unqualified cabinet choices and flippant tweets about nuclear weapons scares the pants out of me, I once again remind myself: I have a voice. I am not helpless. I may not be a brilliant writer (in fact I may not even have a grasp on basic grammar and punctuation some days) but I can speak up against this new appalling political regime. I can call my senators and representatives. I can ally myself with like-minded friends and community organizations. I can use the same logical skills that I learned as a Philosophy major at my Midwestern University to resist propaganda and lies. Oh, and I can keep my sense of humor.
Don’t stress: this will still be a travel blog. I love traveling for art and eating picnics in front of cathedrals and I’m not going to stop (stayed tuned in January for an especially wondrous travel adventure). But still, I’m going to speak up when I see fit and if you don’t like it, remember, dear reader, you too have a voice. Write an opinionated blog of your own, volunteer for a political cause, call out a newspaper columnist at a performing arts center, but for the sake of humanity, stay awake and speak out. In the words of Allen Ginsberg, in 2017 we’ll all need to put our queer shoulders to the wheel.