One phone call in particular stands out. Late one October afternoon, I sat in the small office at the corner of Charles and 22nd Street which serves as the headquarters of the Baltimore City Coordinated Campaign. The place is strewn with flyers and campaign lit for all the Democratic nominees for whom city residents may cast their ballots at the city, state, and presidential level. The script for these phone calls is different than most, as the goal is to ask potential Democratic voters if they are planning to vote the straight ticket. I began this call – to a 65-year-old African-American man – identifying myself and stating the reason for my call. He was receptive. I began by asking him if he was planning to support Democratic Senate candidate Chris Van Hollen.
He asked, “Where does he stand on same-sex marriage?”
“He supports it,” I responded, happily. I knew that Van Hollen had a strong record of prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and supporting gay rights across the board.
“Then he won’t be getting my vote,” he stated firmly. I was taken aback for a moment, as he continued that the problem with the Democratic Party was that it had taken up same-sex marriage.
“That’s why I left the party – I’m Independent now. Don’t get me wrong,” he continued, “I just don’t want all this lesbianism and homosexuality everywhere. The party has gone completely downhill. I don’t want any part of it.”
My gut reaction was to inform him that at that very moment he had a live rep of said “lesbianism” on the line, but I did not. I calmly asked if he was then planning to vote for the Independent candidate Gary Johnson; he replied, “Oh no, no – he’s a Libertarian.” So he had clearly made the effort to be an informed voter. Solicitously, I asked him to explain to me how he could be considering giving his vote to Donald Trump, when every word out of his mouth was so insulting to so many sections of our society. “And he’s so obviously racist...” I offered…
He interrupted me, “Oh, no, no – he’s not a racist. Now listen, I’m a 65-year-old African-American and I’ve lived in this city all my life, and believe me, I know racism when I see it. He’s not racist.”
We began a lengthy conversation about Trump’s supporters and the complicated measures of a leader’s responsibility when it comes to inciting darker passions in his audience.
The conversation was polite. The man believed he was “helping me out” by revealing the truth about voters’ real feelings– that they may be saying that they weren’t going to vote for Trump, but once they “got in there and closed that curtain,” it was a different story. He predicted that people would be surprised come Election Day. He railed against the Democratic Party – “they push same-sex marriage and then called you a bigot” if you weren’t a supporter. I decided to tweak him a bit. “You know, it is not for certain that Trump is against same sex marriage. He’s only recently actually became a Republican.”
“I know,” he lamented. “I never said I was voting for him. Some other Republicans have also folded. It’s disgusting.”
We talked some more, and I could literally feel his fear of the world that was changing before his eyes. Then I thanked him for his time and his honesty. He returned the thanks, saying he liked talking to me and that what I was doing was important.
He appreciated that someone had actually listened to him. Again, the temptation to reveal myself. What if he was suddenly informed that the friendly voice on the phone who politely disagreed with him was the very kind of person he was so disgusted and afraid of? Wouldn’t that make him think twice? Could I inject some doubt in his so-deeply-entrenched beliefs? What possible difference could it make to his life if I was in love with a woman and we married each other? Would his world stop spinning on its axis? Isn’t there enough hatred out there, I wanted to scream – wouldn’t it be better if gay people were able to feel safe and loved as they went about their business – thereby injecting more positive energy into the world?
Of course, the answer is no, and I made no such revelation. I knew that telling this man in a triumphant voice at the end of the conversation that I was gay – that would have been for me, not for him. I was there to ask him about his voting intentions, and I had kept my cool and done that.
But as I hung up the phone I thought – he was born in 1951. In the course of his life he had surely experienced untold fathoms of racism and discrimination. And if he actually lived that and was now unable to recognize that he was doing the same thing to another group of people –well, it left my heart hurting. What will it take to learn?
It is hurting still.