How 2016 permanently damaged my relationship to my home, my family, and my roots.
It was the day after the election in 2016, and I was talking to my Mom. “I’m sorry that your candidate lost,” she said, “and I know how sad you must be. But I want you to know that no matter what that we’re still family.”
Coming from my staunchly Republican mother, this was an olive branch, and in better circumstances I might have been more willing to receive it in the spirit with which it was no doubt intended. However, I was (I’m sure) very surly about it. Still, it was a small island of security in a world that suddenly seemed as dangerous as it had when I heard of the murder of Matthew Shepard almost twenty years earlier.
In the days following, however, I continued to stew about this exchange. I harbored suspicions that my parents voted for Trump, but it was one of those cases where I just didn’t want to know. They’d expressed enough skepticism about him that I held onto a faint sliver of hope that they might have voted for Gary Johnson. Needless to say, such hopes were vain (though this wouldn’t be confirmed for some time), but at that point it was easier to pretend that they hadn’t voted for a man so loathsome and so antithetical to the values that I held dear.
Finally, a few days later I told my mom how I really felt. I confessed that, for the first time since I heard about the murder of Matthew Shepard, I was afraid of living in my own country. I don’t normally cry in front of people (though I sob at commercials and movies and books when I’m by myself), but I lost it then. I just…couldn’t hold it back anymore. She seemed to understand exactly where I was coming from, and she even offered to wear rainbow bracelets as a sign that she still very much loved and supported me, her gay son.
At the time, and to some degree in the present, I thought that was a great step forward. I have to admit, though, that some part of me thought (and thinks): well, that sort of gesture means a lot, but it’s not enough.
And it never will be.
I’ve long struggled with this aspect of my relationship with my parents. I’ve been staunchly liberal since before I went to college, and after I came out I became even more so. I was the kind of screaming, hair-on-fire liberal that many people mock, and many, many conversations with my parents (particularly my mom) ended with us screaming at one another. Sometimes, it seems that we’re just too temperamentally similar to ever really be able to discuss stuff like this.
At least, not if we want to continue speaking to one another afterward.
Things were pretty ugly in 2004, when Bush and his “God, guns, and gays” campaign swept him through his re-election. I knew that my parents voted for Bush both times, but the second time really hurt. It hurt to know that my parents, with whom I am very close — I’m an only child, after all — could vote for someone who would take specific actions that would hurt me and the people that I care about. No matter how hard I tried, I simply couldn’t get them to understand how their electoral politics threatened my day-to-day life. It’s not that I ever doubted they loved me; it was just…they didn’t understand how their political choices contradicted their personal feelings for me.
To be quite honest, I’m not entirely sure that I ever got over that completely, and 2016 just brought all of those old emotions and all of that unresolved bitterness out into open again.
Well, sort of in the open anyway.
Unfortunately, it’s very difficult for me to have the types of conversations with my parents that I need to have. I tend to get very emotional about politics — that tends to happen when legislative agendas affect your life on a regular basis — and I don’t always approach differences of ideology with as much tact and patience as I should. This tendency is exacerbated by the fact that I’m a first-gen college student, and this has created something of an intellectual divide between my parents and me. They think I look down on them because they don’t have college degrees, and I find it frustrating that they don’t seem able (or willing) to speak the same language that I do.
The other important thing to remember is that it’s very hard for me not to come across as contemptuous of people with whom I vehemently disagree. I recognize this about myself and do what I can to combat that tendency, but it is increasingly difficult to have meaningful conversations with people who know so little, not because they aren’t intelligent, but because their information diet is so unhealthy. Unfortunately, this makes most such exchanges with my mother extremely emotional.
Recently, I had another of those very emotional conversations, and it went about as well as could be expected. But then, maybe that’s not fair. While there are still a lot of unresolved issues from 2016 (and heading into 2020), we at least agreed to begin opening the channels of communication, not necessarily in an effort to change our vote, but to at least help us understand one another better.
It’s not ideal, but it’s a start.
In the years since 2016 I’ve struggled with a profound sense of alienation. Every time I go back to West Virginia, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m entering a foreign country, one where I’m viewed with suspicion and even outright dislike. I am, after all, all of the things people in working-class areas have been taught to hate: college-educated, queer, in an interracial relationship. Is it any wonder that I feel like a stranger in my own home sometimes?
Indeed, it seems like every time I go home I’m confronted with the blistering reality of just how far people in my state are willing to go in their retreat into ignorance.
These incidents are wide-ranging, but they happen with alarming regularity: the guy at my father’s work who told him that Michelle Obama’s book Becoming was underselling (categorically false by any measure); my friend’s coworkers who claimed that Jordan Peele’s Get Out was racist (the skewed perspective that enables such a belief is staggering); and the revelation that one of the two news stations that my parents and friends frequently watch is owned by Sinclair Media.
For someone who once harbored dreams of returning to Appalachia to teach after finishing my graduate work, this is tremendously frustrating. How can I ever hope to find a place for myself there, when seemingly everyone bends over backward to drown themselves in ignorance?
It’s hard to accurately put into words the pain I feel each and every time I go home. I can’t shake the sense that most of the people there would be quite content if I didn’t exist. And, while I still feel a peculiar lightness in my chest when I behold the breathtaking beauty of those hills and hollers, those rivers and streams, I can’t shake my awareness of the hatred and intolerance that all too frequently take root there.
And it’s more than just the atmosphere. West Virginia is currently in the throes of the natural gas boom, and it’s like a knife to the heart to see the ways in which the gas companies are destroying my beloved hills and clogging those rural country roads. I kid you not, I see about a hundred trucks a day pass by my parents’ house, a constant reminder of the perils of this industry.
Yes, I realize that these companies frequently bring jobs to the area, but I have to wonder: at what cost?
Some things, it seems to me, are beyond price.
About a year ago, I read J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. At first I liked what I was reading, if for no other reason than that it’s still very rare to find a book written by a person from Appalachia that gains nationwide attention. However, I soon realized that the book, while ostensibly a memoir (and hailed by many in the punditry as a sort of Rosetta Stone of how to understand Trump’s America) was actually just a conservative manifesto dressed up as a memoir.
Like Vance, I have a conflicted relationship with my Appalachian roots but, unlike him, I don’t embrace a firmly conservative perspective about what to do about it. In fact, I actively reject it. It is the cynical conservative movement that makes it possible for the West Virginia state government to continue to sell out to fossil fuel companies while defunding education. It’s the cynical conservative members of the state legislature (to say nothing of the governor) who continue to sell their constituents hatred of all kinds while defunding their future and that of their children.
Yet I do agree with Vance in one key respect. 2016 made me confront, for the first time, a truly uncomfortable truth about my fellow Appalachian residents: that their independence can be their own undoing. Thus, while their independent, stubborn streak has frequently been a source of strength in dark times, recently it has taken a distinctly ugly turn. It has slowly become a canker, eating away at the soul of Appalachia. What was once a place that welcomed the stranger had now become a wasteland of hatred, where delegates can joke on television about drowning their hypothetical queer children and Islamophobia is peddled at the state house.
Is it any wonder I hate going home sometimes?
What’s the takeaway from all of this? I’m honestly not sure. NPR has recently done a series of snapshots of situations similar to mine, and while it was validating to see others struggling to find common ground with families and friends who have become strangers, in other ways I find that even more depressing. What it reveals is that the fundamental ties of what bring us together as a country have broken down even further during Trump’s time in office.
There’s no question that the fraying of the social fabric is a real and present danger in this country, and Appalachia is one of those places (I think) where that fraying is most visible. The thing is, though, that people there have to make the conscious choice to do the right thing, to take the higher road, to become a place of welcome rather than retrenchment and resentment. And, while I know there are people there who do exactly that–you’d be surprised just how many queer people there are in West Virginia–sometimes I worry that they are too few to stem the tide.
For me, the aftermath of 2016 has made it impossible — for the foreseeable future — to move back to state that I once called home. I know that might seem silly and naive to a lot of people, but I just don’t have the energy to move back to the state that continues to be one of the bastions of support for Trump. How can I ever hope to feel at home there, when it is so clear that so many of the people I once thought to help have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that they don’t want it and are in fact likely to become even angrier should I be foolish enough to offer it?
I don’t know what the future holds, either for myself or for the region I called home, but there are times when I have hope that somehow there will come a time when it will be possible for me to return there without that feeling of loss, despair, and anger. Perhaps in ten years, or twenty, when the Trump fever has broken and things have been returned to a state of quasi-normalcy in the country at large.
Still, I worry that something has been irrevocably lost, something irretrievably broken in these dark times.
I mourn for a world that I’ve lost.
But then, perhaps it wasn’t ever really there.