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Elections tend to turn me into a bit of a nervous Nellie. Not a full-on drama queen like Andrew Sullivan, who set the sky-is-falling gold standard for that after the first presidential debate, but someone who approaches any election night with a fluttering stomach and sense of foreboding. Despite polls and pundits and the reassuring mathematical models of Nate Silver, I always feel like something’s going to go wrong.
That’s why Tuesday night’s election left me feeling like I needed a cigarette afterward. President Barack Obama re-elected. A record number of LGBT candidates heading to Capitol Hill. Four marriage-equality victories in one night, reversing a decade-long string of defeats in a way that left Maggie Gallagher slack-jawed and Brian Brown likely crying into his pillow. That is a night where almost everything’s gone right.
When Obama voiced his support for marriage equality earlier this year, I thought it was a watershed moment. I was wrong. It was keystone moment, an important and long-missing piece of the puzzle finally snapping into place. Tuesday night was the actual watershed moment, when Maryland, Maine and Washington voters stood up and said ”yes” to equality; when Minnesota voters refused to write anti-gay discrimination into their constitution; when Iowans declined to turn out a judge who had decided in favor of marriage equality; when Americans re-elected a president who had taken a pro-gay stand on an issue that just a few short years ago would have meant political suicide.
It’s nothing less than remarkable. It’s even stunning. And for those of us who are of a certain age, with still-fresh memories of the battles of the ’80s and ’90s, it still has the hint of a dream about it. Brown and Gallagher can keep up their rear-guard fights to deny gay and lesbian Americans their rights, to force close-minded theologies onto us through laws and court cases, but they know they’re losing. We know they’re losing. The game may not be over yet, but the clock is quickly running out.
Just before the election, I put out a public letter to my red-state family, asking those of them who were planning to vote for Romney to consider what that would mean for me and my husband. I didn’t expect to change many minds and I don’t expect that I did. But what was more important to me was to make the case, to ask them to put themselves in my shoes, and to be willing to put myself into theirs, because that begins to address the thing that bothers me most about our current politics, which is how much we seem to hate each other over our political divides.
I’m not talking about the Donald Trumps and the birthers and the Kenyan-colonialist fantasists who run around the fringes of the Republican Party stinking the joint up (although they bear a lot of responsibility). What I’m worried about is the absolute contempt with which we treat each other over our political beliefs. I’m surely not the only one who flinched at how debased Facebook conversations could quickly become, from left and right. We’re a nation of would-be snarksters who aren’t often as funny as they think they are, but are certainly as cruel as they intend to be.
I may get nervous about elections, but they don’t make me naive. I don’t expect we’ll all suddenly decide to be excellent to each other. But no matter how big a victory we just achieved as LGBT people, it’s still our job to persuade more people to our side. When it comes to our families and neighbors, understanding and empathy should flow both ways.