I grew up in a small town. We had one stoplight, one tiny grocery store, one very small public library. There was a church on every corner. We never locked our doors at night. In more prosperous times this small little town would have been described as picturesque, but looking back its decline had begun long before my childhood memories. Today it is like every small town in America, desperately hanging on as it tries to reinvent itself for a future it cannot escape yet unwilling to let go of a past that will never come back.
I sometimes feel like I have spent the better part of my life trying to escape that town and everything it stood for (or maybe, against). Even on those days when I found myself seduced by its many charms—the mighty river that cut its way through the town, the endless train tracks and their promise of adventure, the great park with its ball fields and swimming pool and storybook playground—even on those days when I was besotted with every street and house, I was plotting my escape to somewhere not there.
The day I left for college I never looked back. There was the occasional visit home, a few months in my first apartment after I left college followed by the subsequent moves to towns nearby where the only thing really different was the name. The real break-up didn’t happen until 2004 when I moved to a new city in a different state. Hundreds of miles from home and it felt as if my real life could finally begin.
I have since returned to my home state and although I now live just 25 miles from my childhood hometown, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve visited in the past ten years.
I suppose what keeps me away now is the very thing that sent me away then. I needed more. I knew there was a world full of people who were nothing like me. They ate foods I had never heard of and celebrated holidays I could not pronounce. They practiced mysterious religions or no religion at all. They were men who loved other men and women who used to be men. They were black and brown and they came from a world I did not understand because until that moment I left for college everyone and everything had been white.
In my former life, everyone ate steak and celebrated Christmas and worshipped white blonde Jesus and even when they felt otherwise inclined they sacrificed love for acceptance.
It’s what they knew and it’s who they were and there was nothing wrong with that I just knew I was different. I was other.
Today when I pass through these towns of yesterday many of the faces are the same. My teachers and classmates and friends still call this place home. They don’t need me to say it, but they are good people and I believe the majority of them do not embrace the narrow-minded values that sent me fleeing almost 25 years ago. The truth is people I have not seen in two decades regularly reach out to celebrate my non-traditional family. They embrace me and my husband and my gay son and my black son and my possibly-future-criminal mastermind son.
They may still live in a world where (most) everyone and everything is white, but they recognize that there exists a world where two gay men can have a black son.
Of course not everyone has progressed. In some parts of my childhood it will forever be 1857. In some parts of my childhood I am a disgusting pervert and my boy better know his place in the master’s house. Unfortunately this 19th century mentality has found new strength in a 21st century world. Our president has dog whistled a host of phobias and racism onto the main stage of 2017. He delights in sowing unrest and playing to our basest fear—the fear of other.
To paraphrase a great president from back when presidents were still great, “There is nothing to fear, but everyone who isn’t a straight white Christian.”
Muslims are terrorists. Mexicans are rapists. Women are objects. African Americans being murdered by law enforcement are just as culpable as tiki torch-carrying white supremacists in khakis, who by the way are “very fine people”.
For decades our president has been waging a war against black Americans, starting with housing discrimination in the 1970s to his ferocious condemnation of the (innocent) Central Park Five in the 1980s to his being one of the architects of the birther movement during the Obama years to his handling of Charlottesville this past August to his calculated conflation that African American athletes peaceably protesting racial injustice is an affront to our flag and veterans.
And as our racist president single-handedly destroys our democracy, as he continues to wipe his ass with the freedoms enshrined in our Constitution, people in small towns across the country, like the town I grew up in, wrap themselves in the flag and follow him blindly into the abyss. These people are not stupid or hateful, but they are afraid, and Trump is selling fear like a snake oil salesman at a medicine show.
Whatever ails you, it’s not your fault, and he has the cure. Ban the Muslims. Deport the Mexicans. Make sure the black man stays at the back of the bus. Make America great again.
We have to be better. We have to not be afraid. We have to leave our small towns and step outside of our whiteness and understand that sometimes what is happening is bigger than us.
We have to rise up and resist and do the hard work. We have to take a knee so that a young black man like my son isn’t gunned down by the police.
I am not a red, white and blue bleeding, flag fetishizing kind of patriot. Don’t get me wrong, I love this country and I’m grateful for every opportunity it has given me—including the opportunity to write these words—but I’m more of a low-key America Rocks! kind of guy so no one was more surprised when this past Sunday while watching a clip of football players kneeling during the National Anthem I began to cry. As I watched these athletes stand up (by kneeling down) for our most basic freedoms I was proud to be an American.
This was patriotism.
It wasn’t about a flag or a song. It was about coming together to do the right thing.
Sean Michael O’Donnell is 42 year old married gay man. He lives in Pittsburgh with his husband and three sons. Sean enjoys Law & Order reruns, Christmas movies in October, and Facebook stalking. He likes donuts and beer. Sometimes he goes to the gym. He is the author of the best-selling book Which One of You is the Mother?