Not long ago, my kids and I spent five nights camping in Big Bend. We had a great spot for our little pop-up camper right next to the Rio Grande. By day, we hiked the Chisos Mountains and the Chihuahuan Desert. By night we listened to bats and coyotes as we roasted s’mores. Max is 9 years old and Lulu is 5. They delighted in whittling sticks and playing in the muck of the river. Max got scared of the wind at night; Lulu learned the hard way that blind prickly pear can give you a nasty sting. We studied the desert plants and animals, and Max and Lulu earned their Junior Ranger badges. There was a tremendous feeling of freedom, of isolation, of deep connection with the land and its history.
This is the Texas that I love — minding my own business in wide-open spaces. Going slow. The kids entertaining themselves with little more than a hammock and flashlights. Letting the rocks teach us about our insignificance. Now we’re back in the city, getting ready for school. Kindergarten and fourth grade, ballet and taekwondo. Time is flying. Soon we’ll take our annual back-to-school photo by the pecan tree in our yard, and we’ll marvel at how much Max and Lulu have grown.
I imagine that most Texas parents can relate to our story – not in the details, perhaps, but in broad outline. Like me, and like you, they love their kids more than anything. We watch them slipping away, growing up. It’s natural and good, yes, but also sad. They stretch out and change as invisibly and as assuredly as our pecan tree.
Parents try hard to strike the right balance of two kinds of love: molding and beholding. We attempt to shape our kids according to our best understanding of what it means to be a good human being. Discipline is required, which is to say, working against natural inclinations. But we also let them be who they are by honoring their natural inclinations. It’s a constant series of adjustments.
Of course, we all roll our eyes at other people’s kids. We mutter things like, “Well, I would never…” under our breath. But for the most part, we stay quiet because we know parenting is tough and we haven’t walked in their shoes. That is, we acknowledge both the shared human experience of being a parent and the unique experience of being this parent with this child.
Sympathy and humility, in other words, bind us together in ways more fundamental than laws. When you talk about making Texas more conservative, it brings to my mind these basic virtues. To be conservative is to be cautious and full of care — to be reserved in one’s judgments. It’s to go slow, like a hike in the desert.
Lulu is cisgender. That means she was identified as a girl when she was a baby and she has stuck with that identity now that she can have her own say. She, in fact, is into the whole princess way of being a girl. That’s cool and lots of people can relate. Max is transgender. That means he was identified as a girl at birth, but when he could start expressing his own self-understanding, he persistently informed us that he is a boy.
It is much more difficult for most people to relate to this. My wife and I get lots of love, but we also get an unusual amount of judgment. People fancy themselves qualified to conclude, in no uncertain terms, that we are doing it all wrong. Never mind that to be possessed of such moral certitude is the stuff of extremism, not conservatism. We are regularly accused of child abuse. We get lots of hate mail. The occasional death threat.
It is tempting to return fire with fire. Sometimes, as a matter of self-defense, it is even necessary. But that is to completely sever the strands of sympathy. I keep insisting: We are not so different. Rather than form a fist, I keep opening my hand and extending it to those I have every excuse to despise. I want you to know something: I understand.
Had I not walked this journey with Max, I would likely scoff and cast my own aspersions. Had I not seen how naturally he has opened up into himself, I would disbelieve it. This transition is a lot like faith itself — it is shocking and personal. It reveals something new and issues a radical challenge to rethink old ways. It is hard to communicate. It can break you down. But love abides.
So, yes, there is something very un-conservative about our story, but we fixate on that element too much. I mean both the left and the right. Some well-meaning supporters of transgender rights have slipped, in the words of Andrew Sullivan, from “rightly defending the minority to wrongly problematizing the majority.” I am happy to honor longstanding traditional notions of gender and recognize that they often have roots in biology. As Sullivan said, you can’t be queer if there isn’t such a thing as normal. I’m not interested in instigating a cultural revolution or getting on a high horse about “toxic masculinity.” I’ll tell Max as he gets older that his experience of gender is somewhere on the margins of society. But that’s all right. In fact, lots of great stuff happens on the margins.
That is, as long as we protect the margins, as long as they are not outside of the gravitational pull of sympathy or exposed out there in the wild beyond the protective shield of equality under the law. Marginal, fine. Vulnerable, no — ostracized, no. That’s where I need you to take a step my way.
I don’t know if the “bathroom bill” will wind up on your desk. I hope it doesn’t. But if it does, I hope you reconsider. It’s not a conservative act, but rather the opposite. It’s not just that it legislates the most intimate of spaces — a move that should be anathema to conservatives. More problematically, it has operated like the One Ring from The Lord of the Rings: driving people into fits of passion and irrational fury, yoking them to a cruel, single-minded quest that can only lead to self-destruction. It has poisoned our civic discourse and torn the fibers of community. This is what happens when conservatism is unmoored from a basic decency of character and set adrift on a thin raft of policy. Fear governs in the places where a largeness of spirit has withdrawn.
The Trevor Project, a suicide hotline for LGBT youth, recently released data showing a troubling spike in phone calls from transgender youth during the Texas “bathroom bills” debate. The hurtful talk that permeates this discussion is endangering young lives. It is hard to hear state leaders question the legitimacy of your existence. I want to lash out and fight back. But I am extending my hand. In light of all the mean things people have said to me and my family, maybe I am the ultimate fool. But here I am.
I’m not asking much. Please treat Max and Lulu — and all children — with the same respect.