Before Rachel and I met, the fact that she was consistently attracted to men with opposing political views was kind of a joke. In her words, she’d fuck a Republican, she just wouldn’t vote for one. (That’s my future wife!) But after things between us got serious, the question became… could she marry one?
When we started dating, it’s fair to say that feminist issues just weren’t on my radar. I simply didn’t have a lot of conversations about things like abortion access or racial profiling. It’s not like I was a caveman… but being a straight white middle-class male meant that I didn’t have to think about them. My friends weren’t particularly passionate about these issues, and it’s not like they are being covered regularly on the nightly news or ESPN.
After I met Rachel, I found myself having a lot more of these conversations, mostly thanks to her go-to phrase, “So, I read this article today…” Though Rachel and I have very different views and priorities, we are both pretty reasonable, open-minded, and willing to listen, so most of our discussions about controversial issues were spirited but not overly emotional. We could talk about the facts, do further research together, and educate ourselves. Sometimes things got a little heated, but mostly we had hours-long, interesting conversations and the occasional healthy debate.
In the weeks leading up to the presidential election last year, our debates became more frequent and considerably less fun. Every day, Rachel was reading about more of the antics happening in the GOP (hello, Todd Akin and Legitimate Rape!) and I had the feeling that she was looking at me differently and wondering if I was one of them. Even though I repeatedly reminded her that I didn’t agree with any of what was being said in the slow-motion rape comment train-wreck, I could tell her anxiety was growing. Frankly, everyone’s anxiety was growing at that point, my own included. As the mythical swing voter you always hear about, I felt forced to pick a side, and was inclined to go with the side I had leaned toward my entire life.
Things reached a breaking point a few days before the election. It was Halloween, Rachel’s favorite holiday, and the first time we were celebrating in our new house. We had no idea what to expect or whether we’d even get trick-or-treaters. I started the evening on candy duty, and, as the night progressed, I felt consistently disappointed. Because while we did get trick-or-treaters, very few of them were wearing costumes. No cheap Halloween mask. No barely recognizable and hastily applied face paint. No bed-sheet-turned-ghost. They were just wearing the khakis and polo shirts they had been wearing when they got off the school bus, and their trick-or-treat bags were their backpacks, which they had just emptied out right before heading out. This bummed me out.
I thought back to my childhood—one that I can admit was sheltered and privileged—when kids at least did something before going out trick-or-treating. Don’t get me wrong, I get it: costumes are expensive. Even my parents were not particularly excited about going out and spending lots of money on my costumes, so I mostly made my own. But I always felt like trick-or-treating was the reward for that creativity and thoughtfulness. I felt like as kids, we entered into a social contract when we went trick-or-treating; we went to our neighbors’ houses and gave them license to judge us accordingly. If they liked your costume, they would hand you good candy (or just a bigger handful if all the candy was the same). If your costume was lame, well, I hope you like Mounds and Bit-O-Honeys. So that’s where my mind went when the costume-less trick-or-treaters showed up. I found myself wishing I had a separate bowl of Good-N-Plentys, because while I was not going to turn them away, I certainly did not want to be giving them the Blow Pops or Butterfingers.
I expressed my disappointment to Rachel about how these kids weren’t even trying. She wasn’t fazed by their lack of costumes, and we started to have a discussion about it. That’s when I may have (definitely) said something to the effect of, “They have to do the work; they can’t just show up expecting handouts.”
Note: this was the wrong thing to say. At that moment, Rachel’s fear that she was marrying one of them crystallized. Words like “privilege” and “bootstrapping bullshit” started coming at me rapid-fire. She was on the verge of tears. Then she was in tears. Her reaction seemed to confirm the fear I’d had all along—that she really did think I was sexist or racist—and it wasn’t a good feeling. Thus began a very intense discourse on the ramifications and socioeconomic implications of manufactured holidays with regard to the human condition. It was never about the trick-or-treaters. It was a microcosm of the opposing views that existed within our relationship. It went on until 3 AM.
For my part, it was frustrating because, while ultimately I have always leaned more Republican, I don’t identify with the GOP in some very fundamental ways. I’m not religious; I don’t want others’ religious beliefs forced upon me or anyone else. I think that women are capable of making decisions about their bodies, and it’s not okay to make that decision for them. I believe that gay people are, you know, people. But I can admit that at times last year, I was a little belligerent defending aspects of my party, particularly with regards to job creation and the economy. Not so much because I actually believed all their bullshit, but because after I evaluated all the good with the bad, I still identified as a Republican. Last fall, I wanted so desperately to feel like they are doing the right thing that I blindly defended their actions in the hope that I could convince myself I wasn’t betting on the wrong horse. (Hint: don’t do that.)
For my entire life, my paradigm was one of like-minded people (who were predominantly affluent white men in Kansas and then Texas), who believed that they worked hard for the things they had, and who took issue with perceived injustices such as being passed over for a scholarship/job/promotion/etc. when it was given to someone who did not seem to work as hard or was otherwise as meritorious. Rachel introduced a major shift in that paradigm, and became the voice of a group that was unrepresented in my world.
I wish I could say that things were fine the day after Halloween, but they weren’t exactly. There were more tense moments, and we pulled a few more all-nighters to shout at each other, including one on Election Day.
In the coming months, she got through to me; honestly, I’m not sure how she did it. Maybe it was her persistence in raising my awareness of the issues facing women and minorities in a casual but compelling way, or maybe it was because when I would oppose her views she would stay focused on the facts instead of just calling me sexist or racist. Ultimately, I appreciated that she didn’t treat me like some doofy bachelor in a rom-com who was in need of fixing. Rachel owns it when there are gray areas or when she doesn’t have the answer. Even when we’re losing our shit over Halloween candy entitlement programs, we are always trying to learn from each other.
I began to understand her points of view, particularly with regard to feminism, and, slowly but surely, it just became part of my daily life. My views and opinions on things have not changed overwhelmingly—I’ve just gained some much-needed perspective. I realized that when you look at what it really means to be a feminist, I’ve actually been a feminist all along. Rachel hasn’t overtly tried to change my views, but she has done a very effective job of presenting me with information I didn’t have. Once equipped with that information, I still applied my own system of values to assess the situation and drew my own conclusions. But it was much easier for me to draw feminist conclusions when I had a feminist around full-time. (Which is how, last month, I found myself confidently going head-to-head with some of the older white men in my office in Texas, about the battle over abortion rights.)
So, as a straight, white, conservative-leaning male on the verge of vowing to spend the rest of his life with a biracial feminist, I can tell you that finding common ground takes a little bit of faith and a lot of patience on both sides, but it’s definitely possible.
Photo from Rachel’s personal collection