Election 2016, one of the most fascinating, mind-blowing, exciting, upsetting, surreal election cycles I have ever experienced, and I can’t help but wonder how I got here, enrapt in this thing called politics. I guess it goes way back – back to the way I was raised, both in Honolulu and in Dallas. Mind you, I didn’t grow up in a political household by any means. I don’t ever remember my parents or grandparents or aunts or uncles discussing politics when I was a child. Instead, the adults at our family gatherings enjoyed guitars and ukuleles, Primo beer and Spañada wine, infectious laughter and song, “talking story” and hula. I don’t know whether my parents and grandparents identified as Democrats or Republicans. We never had bumper stickers of any kind – much less political ones – marring the chrome fender of our 1975 Chevy Blazer. That honor was reserved for the regular dousing of thick, smelly, Trinity River Bottoms mud, from our regular 4-wheel drive excursions to the West Dallas levies. (Yeah, the Mahelonas did mudding before mudding was cool.) No political signs sprouted from our once-thick St. Augustine lawn. If there had been, they would have been flattened by my brothers’ constant football games with the neighborhood kids – or by my Grandpa Mahelona’s determined lawn mowing on a summertime visit to our home. I don’t remember my parents talking about voting or encouraging us to pay attention to politics. Nope, in my suburban Texas neighborhood in the 1970’s, the focus of parents was getting food on the table, paying the bills, keeping the kids in school, and keeping the family together. And with the hard-headed persistence and insatiable curiosity I have had since I was little (just ask my parents!), it was destined to happen, anyway. I would find politics; and I would love it.
But what DID resonate with me was the way in which our Texas-Hawaiian community operated, connected, cooperated, succeeded. Our community had more than its fair share of strong and leading men (case in point, my Dad and my uncles); but the women were the engine, the glue, the nourishment, the discipline, the creativity, the last word. I learned from my Mom and my aunties that women are leaders; women are strong; women are organized; women listen; women are intelligent; women have a plan; women are protectors; women don’t take any shit from anyone. I realize now that every cousin and calabash cousin I grew up with shared with me and my siblings as feminist an upbringing as there ever was. As kids, what we garnered from that was, “I can always count on Mom to look after my best interests” and “Don’t mess with Mom or the aunties”. But it got filed away in my brain for safekeeping under the heading “A woman has what it takes to lead us to a better place”.
Reflecting back on my childhood, the only political memories I have are 1) TV talking heads reporting on Watergate (which, in my child’s completely literal understanding, was much ado about water), 2) LBJ’s nationally-televised funeral (which affected me deeply, as it was still too close to that of my Grandpa DuPont, whose loss I was still suffering), 3) seeing and hearing Texas politician Barbara Jordan speak on TV (mesmerized by her unique speaking voice and her strong and intelligent presence), 4) political cartoons in the newspaper depicting our newly-elected President Carter as a toothy hick from the sticks and 5) the shocking, attempted assassination of President Reagan. Government class in high school was a wash. It didn’t pique my interest in any way, whatsoever. I had fashion on my mind…
Fast-forward to the 1990’s. By now, I had finished college, survived the threat of nuclear war and the Cold War, had become an Uncle to a niece and two nephews whom I adored, had landed a career in fashion that I loved and which had given me a taste of financial freedom, had witnessed the transition of Texas from a solidly Democratic state to a Republican one, had begun to travel the world and engage in discussions with people from other countries, had become an avid environmentalist and, quite importantly, had come out fully to the world as a gay man. It was the interaction of these important factors in my life that primed me for an awareness of political issues, that left me open, willing, waiting, ready to get involved.
Enter Ann Richards and Bill Clinton.
Anyone who caught even the slightest glimpse of Ann Richards had to be comatose not to take notice and want to know more about her. With her cool, Texas twang, “big-ass” Texas hair and wicked, biting wit, she had the presence of a big, Texas drag queen – the one who just hit the long, dramatic, final note of “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” from “Dreamgirls”, bringing down the house and leaving you standing up and throwing dollar bills at the stage. And once she reeled me in with her powerful persona, I had a chance to actually LISTEN to what she was saying. I couldn’t believe she had the audacity to be inclusive of all people, including gays and lesbians. I was amazed at her defiance against the Good Ol’ Boys’ Club of Texas politics. I was awestruck by her vision of Texas’ future. As a Texan-by-choice, I was full-on ready to jump into the fight for her vision… MY vision. She added another, validating footnote to my childhood intuition, “Women have what it takes to lead us to a better place”. I was with her…
And while that shake-up was going on in my home state, by happenstance, the same was starting to occur on the national stage with our new president, Bill Clinton. For the first time, I felt there was a space for power being carved out for minorities, for women, for the LGBTQ community (and that was even before B, T and Q were added to the “family”). Although I must admit I was distrustful of Bill Clinton at first (a prejudice I had – and still work on resolving – against white, Southern, male politicians who remind me of white, Southern, male televangelists), he quickly, through policy and action, had me in his fold. Despite his marital infidelities (glass houses, anyone?), I still hold FIRM to my belief that he started a chain of events that have shifted the social, political and economic landscape in a positive direction for people of color, women and LGBTQ Americans. During his two terms as president, I began to pay attention to policy rather than rhetoric. I began to read about politics and politicians, an endeavor that once sounded mind-numbing and soul-crushing. I began to pay attention to my elected representatives – especially their voting records. Through that research, I began to see a very clear separation between my values and vision and those of the Texas politicians elected to represent me… and it mobilized me.
I realized there was a clear implication common to one group of politicians and their supporters: “I got mine; you figure out how to get yours”. Alternately, there was a clear message from another group of politicians and their supporters: “I’m willing to give up some of mine so that we can all have some.” The distinction was apparent, in varying degrees, among my friends, my colleagues, everyone with whom I had engaged in discussions of social issues. And every cell in my body, every thought in my head, every pang in my heart, screamed its membership in the latter group. It was just the way I naturally moved through life. It was just the way my parents and grandparents raised me and my siblings. It was just the way my Hawaiian heritage and culture spoke to me through countless generations. It was just the way the most important Hawaiian word my Mom ever taught me, “malama”, “to care for, to preserve”, embedded itself deeply in my soul.
I… was clearly a Democrat… at least in its current, early-21st century meaning.
And so it was in the years that followed that I weathered the barrage of “I vote for the person, not the party” or “Both parties suck” or “I hate politics” points of view, expressed in ways ranging from casual, disinterested comments to snide remarks to foaming-at-the-mouth fits. (I think these people a) haven’t been paying attention or b) watch too much TV… or most likely, both.) I say there IS a distinct difference between the parties. Just look at the policies each party has put forth. Just look at the way each party votes. I say that everything we want for our lives, everything we want for our children’s lives, is dependent on politics. To run from politics is to muffle one’s voice, to give up every chance one has for achieving these desires. Meanwhile, I just kept paying more attention, began holding my elected representatives accountable, and made it a point never to miss voting in an election, whether it be at the local, state or national level. And I began encouraging others to lift their voices, as well.
Rewind for just a bit to Bill Clinton’s presidency. Two important things took place. Hawaii began the push for marriage equality in 1993, dropping the pebble that rippled the water that steadily grew into the tsunami that became the law of the land 22 years later. And first lady Hillary Clinton bravely (and with great opposition) began the quest for universal healthcare in America, the lack of which had wrought devastating effects on millions of people and entire communities. Both of these issues were of supreme importance to me; and they have been the litmus test in my analysis of politicians for over two decades.
Since that time, I have paid very close attention to Mrs. Clinton. I pre-judged her early on, after her Tammy-Wynette-Stand-by-Your-Man-Baking-Cookies snafu. But I have watched her work, listened to her own vision (separate from that of her husband), listened to those who have worked with her, scrutinized her voting record, sorted through all the fact and fiction surrounding her.
So, yes… I was thrilled to have her as my senator when I left my longtime home of Dallas, Texas for bluer pastures in New York City. And in 2008, I donned my “Give ‘Em HILL” campaign t-shirt and got active in her first presidential campaign. And yes, I was disappointed – no, devastated – when she lost her bid for the presidency to Senator Obama. And I could have remained there, sulking and bitter; but SHE showed us supporters how a champion does it. Following her lead, we picked ourselves up and focused on WHAT we wanted to have happen, on WHAT we had been fighting for, not on WHO we had supported. We discovered our values and our dreams were in alignment with – not opposed to – those of President Obama and his administration. And look how amazing the past 8 years have turned out for us: we have BOTH marriage equality AND universal healthcare. (I love how life often takes you where you want to go – just on a totally different and highly unexpected road. Are you paying attention, Berners?!)
The rise of social media has changed everything. I love it for the broad and easy access to information it provides us, for the ability we have to share knowledge, spread awareness, find commonality, acknowledge differences, build relationships and strengthen alliances. But it requires diligence and hard work, to sift through the barrage of information to separate the fact from fiction, the sound bites from the subtle nuances. That work has been incredibly rewarding. It has made me a more informed voter and political participant. It has opened my eyes and provided a tool for me to open the eyes of others. It has given me an opportunity to call out untruths and hold those in my social media circles to the same, higher standards to which I try to hold myself in terms of sharing information (not that the “calling out” has always been well-received.) C’est la vie.
The work of operating within the social media environment during this election cycle has emboldened me in my fight to support and promote a politician who stands for diversity and inclusiveness, who has at their core the desire to serve others and lift the conditions of all citizens, who will protect the environment, and who can work as a strong and cooperative leader on the world stage. It has also given me better insight into the opposing side, the values and philosophies entrenched within. It has made me more determined than ever to prevent the rolling back of all the accomplishments we have achieved together through the years – women’s empowerment over their bodies and their health, healthcare for all, the right to love, and so much more.
Call me a “Hillary Shill”, a bleeding heart liberal (although I never quite understood how that term could be taken as derogatory), or whatever the insult-of-the-month may be. Try to shame me for “being political” or reprimand me for being “negative”. It won’t shake me from my personal stand; the stakes are too high for the future of my grandson, for my nieces (now numbering four) and nephews (now numbering three), for my grandniece and grandnephew, for my aging parents, for my siblings as they (we) enter middle age (what?!), for the happiness and pride of my lifepartner and me.
I support and stand, proud as ever, with a candidate that embodies my values and vision for a better future. I defend vigorously a candidate that has survived with grace decades of attacks and false scandals and misogyny to the nth degree. I vote for a candidate that will make a positive difference in the lives of the majority of Americans. I stand by her the way she has always stood with me and my people. I’m with her. I’m with my grandson. I’m with my nieces and nephews and their children. I’m with my parents and my siblings. I’m with my lifepartner. I’m with ME. And now I don’t just have a sense – I KNOW – THIS woman has what it takes to lead us to a better place.