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What Do You Say at the Dinner Table? (#27)

Dec 10, 2020

Guest blogger:  Jessica Kanzler


One of my first introductions to politics was during dinner with my family. My dad was sitting across from me (I was probably six years old) and said, “In this family, we vote Republican.”

I remember he said it in the same tone he’d have said, “For breakfast, we will be eating bagels.” Casual, just another announcement.

To my knowledge, he held onto that conviction for a long time. I intend to learn if he left it behind for the 2020 election, only two years after learning one of his children is transgender. Coming from a man who had used my new name maybe seven times over the course of two years, not voting for President Trump – who at that point had a history of supporting anti-LGBT policies[1] – would be a landmark act of support, not something I’d let myself expect.

During the upcoming holidays, I and many of my LGBTQ+ and POC friends will be putting themselves back into contact with families who haven’t seen them for the issues that define them, families who voted for a President who threatened Black Lives Matter protesters[2] and deemed transgender people unfit for any military service[3].

If they have quarantined well, they might return home. Otherwise, like me, they’ll be seeing their families on a screen, but that does not make sitting with people who voted against you any easier. When there is a conflict between the love expected from a family and the actions that family takes against you, sitting down to dinner is not easy. During the holidays this year, I’ll be sitting at that table, and as much as it tires me to do it, I’m going to talk to my dad about who he voted for because I need to be sure.

Millions of Americans cast their support for Donald Trump, and as the month nears its end, more and more families split by politics are going to sit down and talk to each other. It’s going to be hard, but it’s a necessary difficulty.

When I think about asking my dad who he voted for, I’m left with three questions: When do I talk to him? How do I talk to him? And is it really my responsibility to do that talking?

One of these questions can be answered relatively easily: if 74,196,153[4] people voted for Donald Trump, it is the responsibility of the millions who didn’t to make sure the next election doesn’t walk as sharp a razor’s edge. If my dad was one of those 74 million, it’s my job to ask him why. It’s not fair, but it’s necessary to find a way to take the high road.

With Donald Trump’s Twitter claims of voter fraud[5] – and 74 percent of Republicans agreeing[6] with him – it is clear that, in explaining how voting for Trump was a vote against me and millions of other Americans, it’s not likely to be Republicans who start that conversation. My dad has also never been one to initiate it.

When to talk

It is futile to think any minds will be changed in the space of one conversation. When I came out to my father, it took him a year to even try to use the right name. In that year, there were many conversations. I’ve read a lot about how to bridge the gap between massive differences in perspective. A statement by Zuniga Ximena, a national diversity expert, grabbed my attention:

[F]ace-to-face conversations encourage listening and questioning across lines of difference, which in turn fosters mutual understanding of similar and conflicting needs and perspectives. Such communication must be continued over an extended period to allow for the development of reciprocal, active, and committed communication[7]

This certainly matches my experience: I’ve had to come out so many times, with reminders that calling me by my deadname in public can get me killed. One conversation at the digital dinner table is a beginning to an ongoing process that, at no point, is very easy.

How to Talk

When I came out to my parents, it was over the phone, comfortably hundreds of miles away from either of them. I called them individually.

With my mother, it was a two hour-long conversation. She asked, “Is someone making you do this?” which just made me picture my doctor demanding I make my life immeasurably more difficult.

I said, “No, I don’t think anyone could make me do this.” 

“Ok, but how do you know for sure?”

“I think it’s the same way you know your gender for sure. It just makes sense.”

“Are you sure you aren’t just gay. It’s ok to be gay.”

“No, mother. Boys are yucky.”

The interview continued until she eventually admitted I probably knew myself better than anyone else. She would oscillate between supportive and hurtful for years, ending with her at my wedding crying, but they were happy tears. (I checked.)

The phone call with my father lasted 2 minutes and 24 seconds exactly:

“Hey dad, I changed my name.”

“Oh, why did you do that. What did you change it to?”

“Jessica. I’m transgender.”

“Oh,” I remember wondering what he was thinking while he paused.

“Well, I hope you’re safe and doing well. I was thinking of visiting next Sunday to see a movie with your brother if you have time.”

We made movie plans, and though the conversation with my father went far smoother, he rarely made an effort beyond those two minutes to show support. I think he saved up all his good parenting for that phone call and then rarely followed through with it.

In the difficult time when I was first coming out, I had to talk to far more people than I wanted to, mostly family, close friends, and co-workers. It’s a long process telling so many people something that could go so wrong.

For friends and family, I would call. For co-workers, an email. These conversations work best face-to-face, but sometimes it was safer or easier to do it from behind a screen.

During that time, what helped me was trying to support people beyond myself. I made myself into an active member of my university’s Office of Inclusion, participating in panels and events advocating for LGBTQ+ students and faculty alike. I marched in protests and tried to contribute to my community beyond myself.

I was afraid of stagnating, of being stuck in the stage where I was still scared and uncertain of my relationships with the people I’d come to rely on. I wanted to nurture something good outside myself, and doing that helped me grow comfortable in a new role in a community I’d always looked at from the outside.

I started participating in events to help others if I couldn’t help myself. In doing that, I became certain of my identity and a developing sense of who my family was beyond blood relations.

The scary part of coming out

When I came out, I had friends, my now-wife, and a job that supported me. While having a political discussion is not equivalent to coming out, anyone starting that conversation can still benefit from some guidance.

When I was coming out, I did a lot of research. Organizations like Planned Parenthood or the Trevor Project gave me so much insight for a safe experience in a conversation that ends in rejection for 57% of trans people and in violence for 19%[8].

Planned Parenthood told me to think about who I wanted or needed to talk to, the possible reactions those people might have and if I am in a place to weather a negative reaction, and that I didn’t have to talk to everyone at once[9].  This advice lends itself well to tense political discussions as well as coming out. I’m using these guidelines going into the holidays. 

When a trans person comes out, there’s a lot more they have to think about than the specifics of what they’re going to say. Our concerns generally focus on three primary areas: the expectations of others, their reactions, and the threat of violence[10].

I realized I needed to modify and cater to the gender expectations of the people I was coming out to. In many cases, they just wouldn’t believe me because they saw me as a masculine man, largely because I had extensively researched how to be one. Similarly, people were more likely to use the right pronouns if I leaned into things they associated with women and femininity.

How people reacted was a huge determinant for my transition. My friends and family were so important to me, and the times when they reacted poorly were devastating.

Once, I texted a friend that I was trans, just a simple “I’ve been meaning to tell you that I’m actually transgender. My name is Jessica, pronouns are she/her” and her response was anger. “I just can’t believe you wouldn’t tell me this after all this time. And now you tell me over text. I feel so hurt and betrayed.” It took years before I was out to everyone just because of reactions like that. 

I was lucky not to worry about violence when coming out to my family, but no trans person is free from that threat.

Coming out is a lifelong process. Sometimes, people know without me wanting them to. Those are the most frightening circumstances. At a bus stop earlier this year, I was sitting with my groceries listening to music. A man wearing a dirty polo shirt walked over and asked me the time. A few minutes later he came back over and asked me “Hey, you aren’t one of those tra***es are you. Bunch of liars and men in dresses.”

Naturally, I said “Nope, I’m sure not” because lying is a skill we have to get good at.

While he stood in front of me, blocking me from leaving the bus stop if I needed to, this man ranted for 15 minutes about how trans people were rotting the United States from the inside out, how if he ever met one he’d “beat them until they know what they are,” while I waited very eagerly for the bus to arrive. Every time we are exposed, whether we mean to come out or not, we have to be on edge because there’s always a chance someone hates us. 

The conversation

I’m not going to talk to everyone at once. I don’t plan on talking to the Facebook friends I haven’t spoken to in 10 years who posted a selfie in a MAGA hat. If I took responsibility for every person I’m tangentially connected to, there wouldn’t be much of me left in 2022 when our votes will be essential again.

It’s the people closest to me that I plan to talk to, the people who know me now. In 2016, a friend revealed to me that he was thrilled to be voting for Donald Trump. He was my neighbor, and he was excited for the border wall, optimistic about an end to DC corruption, and respected what he saw as Trump’s “natural charisma.”

Back then, we were close, spoke every day, and it felt like my responsibility to talk to him. I approached the conversation with my friend poorly, responding to his optimism inspired by Trump’s promises with my own pessimism about what I thought a Trump presidency would be. I remember it going like this:

He said, “Trump is going to clear out all the corrupt politicians from DC.”

I said, “How can you be sure he won’t just be the next corrupt politician?”

“He’s going to stir all of them up and change things. If nothing else, it’s going to be interesting to watch.”

“I prefer things to be boring and stable than interesting and falling apart.”

We traded inverse arguments back and forth for hours until we never spoke again. Sometimes I saw him smoking outside at the picnic table between our doors, but I never joined him. I’d decided that the conversation had gone poorly because he wasn’t convinced during the space of a few hours.

A lifetime of convictions, and I was bitter he hadn’t changed just from talking to me once.

I’ve had four years to watch my rights and the rights of POC be questioned and litigated against. I know this has happened, and if I had to talk to my former friend again, I wouldn’t focus on the abstract pessimism that characterized my 2016 leading up to the election. I wouldn’t throw his arguments back in his face.

That didn’t work; it just made us both angry. What I would do now, what I will do with anyone I talk to about this election, is rely upon my genuine, lived experiences as an irrefutable example sitting in front of him. I’ve had to watch as my rights became a political talking point, and that is a better point to make than just bouncing what-ifs back and forth. 

Whose responsibility is it to start the dialogue?

Earlier I said that it is the responsibility of the millions who voted against Trump to start talking to the millions who voted for him. Dr. Latting wrote how to bridge the divide with the 47% of people who voted for Trump. If we continue that discussion, bridging the gap between Trump voters and Biden voters is not an offer of forgiveness or a removal of culpability for what was done with Republican permission, but a place to start. 

As another diversity expert, Dr. Allan G. Johnson, explained,

[T]aking responsibility doesn’t have to involve guilt and blame, letting someone off the hook, or being on the hook yourself. It simply means acknowledging an obligation to make a contribution to finding a way out of the trouble we’re all in and to finding constructive ways to act on that obligation[11]

This is not a post asking you to look at the attacks on the civil rights of minorities and forgive; it is asking you to take it upon yourself to do what you can to make sure those attacks never have the chance to happen again. If there is anyone in my life who gave their endorsement to discriminatory practices, I’m going to talk to them because someone needs to.

Even when families may be geographically separate this year, the holidays are a time to come together as a family and a community. I love this time of year. I love my family, even if I’m scared some of them don’t act on the same feelings. This year, the holidays offer a unique opportunity for us to talk to each other shortly after the election has been called but just before the President-Elect takes office. This is a unique chance to be at a distance and start a conversation to build a connection.

When the time finally comes to talk to my parents, I know what it’s going to look like. With my father, I plan to ask him who he voted for, not as an accusation or as an attempt to root out some secret support for the President. I plan to ask him so we can have a conversation about who he voted for and what went into that decision.

When he asks me the same thing, I plan to explain why I voted for Biden, how he is the candidate who had supported[12] my community and the communities of my POC friends.

With my mother, I plan on confirming for her the answers I gave to all her questions years ago by being myself, happily and completely without shame.

This is what we can do during these hard holiday conversations: be genuine in our desire to talk through differences and even similarities, and be genuine in our identity and experiences because that is the best evidence we have.


Jessica Kanzler lives with her wife and two cats in Northern Arizona, where she teaches high school and college English. Jessica completed her MA in Rhetoric, Writing, and Digital Media Studies at Northern Arizona University, and writes primarily about issues of social justice, modern pedagogy, and fiction.

Questions to ask yourself:

  1. How can you keep yourself safe mentally and physically through sustained conversations with someone who voted against your rights or the rights of others you care about?
  2. Who has the primary responsibility for initiating these conversations?

Leading Consciously concepts and skills covered in this blog post:

  • Bridging differences
  • Address underlying systemic biases
  • Accept responsibility for your own contribution
  • Surface undiscussables 

#DiversityandInclusion   #Love   #Transgender   #Activism

Disclaimer

The views and opinions expressed in this or other blog posts at www.leadingconsciously.com are those of the guest author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Leading Consciously. Any content provided by our bloggers or authors are of their opinion, and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, organization, company, individual, or anyone or anything.


[1] Garza, Alejandro de la. “Trump Administration Approves Anti-Gay Discrimination.” Time, 25 Aug. 2019.

[2] Donald Trump’s Tweet: George Floyd Protests

[3] Donald Trump’s Tweet: Trans Military Ban

[4] Kommenda, Niko, et al. “US Election Results 2020: Joe Biden Defeats Donald Trump to Win Presidency.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 2020.

[5]  Donald Trump’s Tweet: Voter Fraud

[6]  Dan Balz, Scott Clement. “Biden Leads by Double Digits as Coronavirus Takes a Toll on the President, Post-ABC Poll Finds.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 19 July 2020.

[7]  Zúñiga, Ximena. “Bridging the Differences through Dialogue.” Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, Third ed., Routledge, 2013, pp. 635–638.

[8]  Grant, Jaime M., Lisa A. Mottet, Justin Tanis, Jack Harrison, Jody L. Herman, and Mara Keisling. Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey. Washington: National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 2011.

[9] Planned Parenthood

[10]  Stacey M. Brumbaugh-Johnson & Kathleen E. Hull (2019) Coming Out as Transgender: Navigating the Social Implications of a Transgender Identity, Journal of Homosexuality, 66:8, 1148-1177, DOI: 10.1080/00918369.2018.1493253.

[11]  Johnson, Allan G. “What Can We Do.” Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, Third ed., Routledge, 2013, pp. 612–618.

[12]  Joe Biden Transgender Day of Remembrance Tweet

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