How I Learned to Hate Gov. Pence and Start Loving Myself
There is a dead mouse beneath me, in the recesses of my cubicle by my trash can. It’s still stuck in the trap, gray-brown and fluffy, tail stiff, limbs splayed awkwardly, looking up at me with hollow eyes, a small trickle of blood dripping from its upside down lips, a frown turned to a grin in death.
There’s still grumbling and growling in the breakroom. I can’t hear what they’re saying but I can hear the tones, that inflection that gives words jagged edges, that aggressive tilt to their twang, to me ghastly. It makes me cringe deep down to hear it. The timbre is like a fist to the face, the snap of a trap. It makes me flinch.
I went into the breakroom moments ago, and a few guys were hunched over the table reading the newspaper, standing that way that rural Americans do when talking over the beds of trucks or tractors or leaning side by side on fences. The front page had more about the rallies, the protests against that stupid religious freedom law Gov. Pence thrust on our state. My co-workers were complaining, deriding, spitting hate words like tobacco juice from their slack jaws, showing their displeasure for “sinners” standing up for their rights. Someone said something about shooting them all to a chorus of aggressive agreement.
I heard their tones, and I flinched, more like winced. I’ve been working on that for so long, I think I’ve reduced it to a nearly noticeable twitch.
The mouse is not flinching anymore. I nudge him with my foot. He shouldn’t have been here in the first place, and this would never have happened to him.
They don’t know they make me wince, that their hate and prejudice makes me uncomfortable, even scared sometimes. I don’t show it, and I think for the most part they even like me because I grew up on a farm and can pretend to fall into the way they speak, know what they’ll find acceptable. There may be a slight resentment because I went to college. Maybe they are suspicious.
If they really knew me, they’d hate me.
If I revealed my deep, dark secrets – those vicious monsters that hide in the black, back corners of my mind, the little truths in the chasm behind my heart – their ire would turn to me. I’ll tell you little dead mouse who is now a ghost haunting the space beneath my desk and won’t tell anything the netherworld doesn’t already know. I’m bisexual, and my duplicitous nature is a secret I’ve shared with almost no one, at least not people I will likely ever see again.
Don’t hate me, as my hands shake.
Don’t judge me.
Don’t hurt me.
Behind a closed door in the statehouse in Indianapolis, the Governor signed the bill into law. Mike Pence, white-haired and plastic skin and sallow eyes, was surrounded by more than thirty clergyman and conservative family rights lobbyists, all of them gripping to their dogma, their religiously justified hatred, now state-sanctioned discrimination with the swoop of a pen guided by his Evangelical hand.
Everything is done in the closet. So appropriate. No pizzas for L’s. No cakes for G’s. No financial investments for B’s and T’s and Q’s living in union trying to save college money for the kids they hoped to adopt. No love only biblically propagated hate – a hate more palpable and real than the desk that held the paper, the action leaving a darker stain than the ink from the fountain pen.
Pence, his laws, and rhetoric – the misguided beliefs and bullying of his constituents – might as well have been nooses at the gallows, burning crosses on ninety-two courthouse lawns.
They’re laughing and cussing in the breakroom. I’m fighting back tears for the mouse.
Everyone wants to fit in, no one wants to stand out. Everyone wants to be who they are or allowed to find that out peacefully.
I never asked for this. I never asked to start having sex dreams about boys and girls when I hit puberty. I never asked to be equally drawn to the curves of breasts as the lines of a man.
I’ve never had to tell a man how to treat me in bed. I’ve had to make requests to women for things I wanted. Men work their hands, their bodies with divine fervor. The movements of a woman are intoxicating. Men have always been tender. Women always want to be dominated, taken.
The partners of my experiments never knew my real name. I didn’t have to conceal my identity to any of the women. I never saw the men again. I dated a number of women. I’ve never cheated on anyone, never acted with both simultaneously.
Hiding the desires is self-preservation, survival, I tell myself. I felt wrong when the experiments turned positive, even though I knew I shouldn’t. Since I am attracted to both, it’s easier to conceal the pieces of me that would result in my ostracism, to keep my truth behind closed bedroom doors. I am lucky, perhaps, and unlucky.
They make laws and discriminate and hate and bully and threaten and hurt and ridicule. Then they go to church and tell themselves they are good people.
I wonder why I never left this awful state, even if it’s always been home.
I can’t believe in God anymore.
In the breakroom, the statehouse, the churches and diners and small towns and rural farms, this is what you do, have done, will continue to do.
In the small Indiana town where I grew up, there was a boy. I saw him once at the county fair showing his sheep. He was thirteen at the time. He had long, curly black hair, a skin just a little darker than white, a swish in his hips, a lisp on his tongue.
They had been calling him a “fag” since he was nine when he first came to town with his mother who wanted him to grow up simpler, on a farm with fresh air and animals. It didn’t matter the boots on his feet, his olive skin and feminine demeanor made him a target.
He loved his animals, the sheep and horses he cared for incessantly, whispering soft words and reassurance. He nuzzled their noses. They nuzzled back because they didn’t care. They only saw a boy who was kind.
By eleven, he was getting into fist fights daily. One day a group of farm boys came to school with their boots caked in pig crap so they could corner the boy on the blindside of the playground and kick him mercilessly. They laughed as he cried. They smeared excrement on his face with their heels while he bled. Their angry faces obscured the sky.
He was barely able to move as the principal pulled him to his office. The boy was suspended for fighting. The farm boys were not. They went to church on Sunday and did their chores.
I imagine him sitting in the principal’s office, his tears mixing with the smeared remains of refuse while this administrator blamed him for all the trouble that had befallen him, this boy, this child targeted for being there.
I wonder what he thought, not knowing his own identity, to be told what he was before he even knew it. I wonder how much he hated himself when he hit puberty and found himself staring longingly at the bodies of the boys who beat him. I wondered how much he hated them for being right.
He switched schools, from the county to the city. Maybe his mom hoped it would be more accepting there. The ridicule continued. The fights continued. The administrative discipline, always one-sided, continued.
I saw him at the fair that day when I went to see my nephew show his sheep. The men were leaning on the fence in that way of country folk, slouched and casual, with bare sun-tanned arms resting on the aluminum gate at the entrance of the arena. I stood near them as the boy rounded the ring. They were laughing at him, hate words falling from their mouths as easily as prayers.
The boy concentrated, his sheep immaculate, obedient, well-trained. As he stood in line for the final judging, the ewe affectionately rubbed its face against his chest. He scratched its ears and smiled, standing in just that way that singled himself out. His persuasion was obvious.
The men near me laughed. The people in the crowd scoffed. The judges judged. The whole town judged. He lost. He was just standing there, and that was his crime as far Indiana was concerned.
That was in the month of July five years ago. In August, he turned fourteen. I know that because of the article I saw in the local paper when I went to visit my sister in late September. The story said the boy was bullied on social media. He was bullied in the lunchroom. That day, someone pulled a chair from underneath him, kicked him on the ground, told him “fags” don’t belong there, anywhere. The kids all laughed. The staff all turned away. No one came to help him, not even teachers. A kid viciously told him to go home and kill himself.
So he did.
The boy went to the barn that night likely fed his horses and sheep one last time, nuzzled them one last time. He flung a rope over a rafter, then mounted a milking stool. His mother found him hanging, a sign pinned to his favorite western-style shirt that said “worthless,” an undisclosed suicide note in his pocket.
He died amongst his only friends, the animals that didn’t care who he was, who didn’t look at him and become disgusted by acts he never did but the religious right, the conservative small town people considered unholy. His crime was being born.
I look at the mouse, and my heart still hurts for that boy. I hear their voices in the breakroom, and he dies all over again. He dies inside of me as I hide from the jagged timbre of my co-workers’ words.
I want to go in the breakroom, march into the boy’s school. I want to storm the statehouse and say, “You killed him Gov. Pence, you and all your religious, backward ilk with your hateful, oppressive, intolerant rhetoric. It doesn’t matter how you phrase it, words arranged in a certain way still will not detract from their meaning. You are hate, Mr. Pence, and God should have no mercy on your souls.”
I stay silent, lest I end up like him. I am a coward, I know.
I threw the dead mouse in the trash, made the sign of the cross like they taught me in Catholic school and said a prayer. I went into the bathroom and disappeared into a stall to compose myself, my confinement only serving to conjure a long-harbored memory.
I was seven, maybe eight, back when I used to get excited to go with my dad when he visited friends on farms around the county. He was talking with his friend and the man’s older son, leaning over the bed of my dad’s F-150 in that same casual way while I played with the puppies near the barn, gently petting the mother dog and the other hounds roaming the barnyard.
I was walking back to the truck when I spied a rabbit peeking from behind a bush near the farmhouse porch, its big black eyes reflecting the clouds in the sky. It sniffed the air, frozen, not moving, obscured partially by the bush. I snuck quietly across the yard like I was taught, watching the creature curiously. It hopped out slightly, then cautiously, another hop. Suddenly, it made a dash and raced across the barnyard. The mother dog spied it first, then the other hounds and they bolted after it, snarling and frothing.
Fear shot through me, a bullet to the gut. As a hound was bearing down on the zig-zagging rabbit, I screamed for my dad. There was a blood-curdling squeal like a child screaming in agony as I reached the truck, and I knew the rabbit was in the jaws of a hound.
The tears made the words hard to pronounce. The farmer and his son laughed at me. My dad didn’t move a muscle. I turned around, and the dogs were ripping the rabbit to pieces, the puppies bouncing around them.
“Stop them!” I begged my dad.
My dad’s exasperated expression held tinges of embarrassment and subtle shame.
“Rabbit ought to know damn well not to run through a pack of dogs. Can’t punish a dog for following its instinct, doing what it knows is right.”
“But that rabbit wasn’t doing anything wrong.”
“He was stupid enough to show himself. That’s enough.”
Enough is enough is enough is enough.
I’ve been walking around for the last two weeks with a head full of spiders, strings of thoughts cobwebbing my brain.
I’ve been following this religious freedom law. I went to a protest, stood on the outskirts and listened, surveying the crowd to see who was there. Some of my co-workers talked about going just to yell at the people protesting, but they didn’t. Their absence brought a sweeping relief over me.
I saw this guy there. He was a little taller than me with shining, corn-silk hair and a slim build, flashy grin highlighting the sharp strength of his jawline. We exchanged glances, and I was immediately embarrassed so I disappeared into the crowd only to run into him later in the parking lot. He was carrying a sign that read “Freedom for All.” I made a remark about it, and he started flirting with me, little crystals of excitement prickling in my chest. I did something I never do. I gave him my real name. We exchanged numbers and texted a few times, the getting-to-know-you part. I am still uncomfortable and unsure, even as I write him notes to the contrary. I think I like him in a way I’ve never allowed myself to feel about a guy.
I saw Gov. Pence on TV making a fool of himself, stammering to differentiate between discrimination and religious freedom with those unnerving, sallow eyes shifting swiftly, nervous and defiant, white hair nearly glowing under the studio lights.
Pence caved under pressure – the only pressure a conservative politician understands, money. He edited the law, adding language prohibiting discrimination. It won’t matter. It’s still not safe to come out from under the bush.
This guy wants to take me on a date. It’s been a little over six months since I went out with anyone. The last was a woman – a beautiful, intelligent, effervescent woman. I was falling in love with her after only a month, fantasizing about the rest of our lives together. I had never told any girl of the shifting attractions inside me, but I wanted to be honest, so sure with her maturity and intelligence, she would understand.
As soon as the words fell from my lips, I could tell I made the wrong decision. She shifted uncomfortably, and though she thanked me and told me she understood and wasn’t bothered, our relationship deteriorated. Little details frustrated her, sex because less frequent, affection almost nil, and when there was intimate contact, I could feel her awkwardness reverberating like aftershocks from an earthquake.
Our relationship died, drowned by the truth. I didn’t point out the elephant in the room when we said goodbye. I knew she was tolerant and accepting of diversity, just not in her bed.
I’ve already told this guy that side of me. People are all different, he said.
I still haven’t accepted his offer, making excuses for myself. I’m not sure I’m ready to tumble down that road, scared of how it would make me feel if I hurt him if it doesn’t work out, scared of the chances it might.
It’s such a horrible thing to be human, to be terrified of happiness and aware of the fragile state of perception.
Last night, I dreamt of the boy. I was in the barn kneeling before him, hanging there, swaying slightly in the air. He held an unblinking rabbit gently in his hands, stroking it so subtly I couldn’t tell if he was moving. The rabbit was close to his chest, obscuring the “less” on his scrawled sign. My eyes welled with tears, and he looked down on me. He held no expression on his tender face. He gazed into my eyes and said, “You might as well.”
My eyes descended from the boy’s face in shame, heart pounding my ears. I clambered to my feet, running for the blackness at the end of the barn. Gov. Pence stood in the way, arm raised with a knife in his hand, slaughtering sheep, his dull, monotone voice echoing in the air.
“But here, Indiana steps forward to protect the constitutional rights and privileges of freedom of religion for people of faith and families of faith for people in our state, and this avalanche of intolerance that’s been poured upon the people of our state is just outrageous,” and his Evangelical hand sliced the throat of the lamb that squalled until the spilling blood stole its voice, and it crumpled to the dust, crimson soaking its pure white coat.
He pulled another lamb, repeated the words, fouling the animal’s white fluff with blood, and again and again as his sallow eyes swam like murky pools in his pale skull, the carcasses piling at his feet, rivers of blood running in all directions from where he stood. I looked back to the boy, dangling from the rafters, tears of blood raining down his cheeks onto the soft fur of the unmoving rabbit.
His face crumpled into a heartbreaking frown, “You might as well.”
I woke up, arms flailing through the darkness, covered in sweat, shaking. I couldn’t go back to sleep, rolling around in the sheets, hiding under the covers that would bring no comfort.
I arrived at work in a daze, moving like a ghost through the sunlight of a spring morning. I smoked a cigarette on the patio deck outside the breakroom, the boy’s face still clear in my mind, his words ringing through the swirling smoke exiting my lungs in ribbons of my soul.
A few of my co-workers were at the other end of the porch, the same aggressive tones rumbling around their mouths like marbles of hatred.
I didn’t flinch. I didn’t wince. I didn’t twitch.
I thought about walking over to them, telling them the truth, telling them how much pain and suffering and hurt they cause over something that wasn’t even their business, which doesn’t even affect them. I caught the words in my throat. There was no use. They were ignorant and jaded, blinded by the dogma that kept them chained to their stupidity.
Instead, I texted the guy and made a date for tomorrow.
I know now, there is nothing wrong with me. There is something wrong with everyone else, at least those who think like my co-workers, the clergymen, Gov. Pence. My private life is mine. Who I choose to be with and bring to my bed matters only to me. It’s that American guarantee – the pursuit of happiness, love, and identity being the greatest of those pursuits.
There is nothing harder than being who you are.
No one should ever be persecuted for that alone.