Growing up, we tend to unquestioningly accept the things our parents tell us as true. I was no exception in my youth. Brought up by one parent with conservative values and another who trusted her kids to be free thinkers and therefore didn’t intervene politically, I skewed a bit to the right prior to adulthood. I read all of Atlas Shrugged for pleasure. I decried “handouts” and taxes when they were brought up in conversation. I thought that if women wanted respect, they just needed to cover up their bodies; that if people wanted to succeed, they just needed to work harder. I wasn’t aggressive with my beliefs, and I wasn’t exactly consistent—I was a tree-hugger passionate about water conservation, especially growing up in southern California during a drought—but it’s who I was at the time nonetheless.
In high school, this was a bonding opportunity for my father and I. My dad, a man who comes from a poor family but who has achieved the American dream by finding financial stability, starting a family, and (at one point) owning a business, is as “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” as they come. I never had a strong relationship with him, only really coming to him for financial advice and some low-stakes conversation about food. (He works in the restaurant industry; I love eating.) Just a few years prior, everything about our relationship had been laced with tension: my parents divorced, I was diagnosed with both anxiety and depression, my dad’s brother and father—my uncle and grandfather—died in close succession, my dad began dating a woman I initially didn’t like, and I had newly become a busy, moody, and confused teen. Our conversations had long suffered, and I rarely communicated with him without sprinkling in sighs and angsty grumbling. With shiny new topics to discuss with my dad like Ayn Rand’s philosophy and the ignorance of people who choose to use marijuana, our relationship finally deepened slightly. We agreed on what I thought then to be issues of morality.
Today, I wonder if my dad mourns those days.
People who know me today know that I’m far from the girl I was in high school. Instead of decrying taxes I decry white feminism and preach intersectionality above all. I run a business that focuses on environmental advocacy, mental health awareness, and protecting LGBTQ and reproductive rights. I host Zoom meetings with friends to walk them through writing to their elected officials for the first time. I donate to pro-choice, pro-equity, and anti-police brutality organizations. I say this not to pat myself on the back, but to prove that growth is possible.
In between high school and halfway through college, something shifted. My dad believes this is a systemic issue, that American schools transform students into leftists because too few universities are religiously affiliated or because they have some sort of liberal agenda. What he doesn’t understand is that despite education on vital issues being a factor in some people’s crossing of party lines, my degree is not the reason my beliefs and voting habits have changed. (In my opinion, a criminal justice degree is one of the most politically conservative degrees one can possess, if not approached with a critical eye.) Instead, I realized that I was attracted to women as well as men. My eyes began to open, through conversations with others, the Internet, and some teachings from my criminology classes, to the types of injustices faced by entire populations purely due to demographic. I learned more about the depression and anxiety I’d lived with for years—how to treat it, where it came from, the stigma surrounding mental illness overall. I came into the realization that the relationship I’d been in for almost two years in high school had been emotionally and sexually abusive. I witnessed and faced sexual harassment at work. I was not suddenly more concerned with embracing equity and empathy because I was brainwashed by college; rather, my blinders were being removed, and I was forced to take inventory of the world around me, no matter how difficult that was.
One of the most disappointing parts of this process—which endures, by the way, as I will never be done learning and unlearning—is that instead of choosing to embark on my journey with me or at least be proud of my personal growth, my father has chosen to stay behind, to dig his heels deeper into where he’s always stood. At no point in time has this been clearer than in the months preceding the 2020 presidential election.
It came as no surprise to me in 2016 when my dad mentioned that he was voting for Donald Trump, but it did concern me that he genuinely bought into Trump’s empty promises. “He’s going to make the economy great again,” I remember him telling me in the car one evening. I could understand party loyalty or skepticism toward the other candidate, but I was disappointed in my dad for falling for the marketing spun by a mediocre entertainer, for actually supporting someone who’d already proven himself to be inflammatory and insensitive. When the Access Hollywood tapes resurfaced that revealed Trump to be a proud sexual assailant, my father remained committed and cast his ballot. This was a year after I’d confided in him about my experience with sexual abuse, and well after my father had learned of the abuse his new wife had once suffered at the hands of her ex-husband.
This time around, I’m of the belief that virtually no one in this country has an excuse to vote for Trump. We’ve seen the damage he can exact; we’ve witnessed the way he dangles America over the line between democracy and fascism; we’ve watched as he’s broken federal law. I can (begrudgingly) accept that some Americans are okay with hatred, selfishness, and rampant instability living and breathing in the White House, then thriving outside its gates. But it’s hard to accept this about a family member, especially one with whom you’re “supposed” to have a decent relationship.
Throughout my adulthood, I’ve tested several coping strategies in the hopes that they’d either help to open my father’s eyes or mitigate my frustration. I tried arguing with him. I tried speaking calmly with him, only ending the conversation when he raised his voice (more out of passion for his “values” than at me). I made donations to Planned Parenthood and Campaign Zero in his name in an attempt to achieve some internal sense of justice. Then for a good while I refused to talk about anything even remotely political with him, cutting him off with a snappy “We aren’t talking about this” when he tried to steer the conversation in that direction. I’d learned that it simply wasn’t worth my time.
Finally, at the peak of Black Lives Matter’s second wave and a few months prior to the 2020 presidential election, I made the realization that our relationship was paper thin. Once again, we were capable only of making small talk and discussing what we’d eaten for dinner. I remember telling my partner that my dad felt more to me like a coworker than a parent.
Always better at putting my thoughts on paper than saying them aloud, I decided to write my father a letter. I wrote that I couldn’t bear to gloss over our differences any longer. I wrote that my father no longer felt like family to me. I wrote that the way he viewed LGBTQ people, reproductive autonomy, racial equity, and even environmental issues had long prevented me from sharing parts of my life that were important to me: who I dated, my small business, my writing, my reasons for living. I told him that it was possible to overcome old ways of thinking and learn from others, that I had done the same, and that his refusal to do so was his responsibility alone.
At first he responded positively, and I had hope. We arranged weekly phone calls in an attempt to get to know each other and our values a little better. But our fourth call inevitably turned to current events, and I found in the things my dad said that he hadn’t just retained his heartbreaking beliefs, but simmered them in a toxic Trumpian broth, even bringing up shocking phrases I could recall the President saying at rallies and on TV. After saying our terse goodbyes, I burst into tears.
Since our last call, I’ve texted my dad a few times, all in response to photos of food. I’ve visited him once. I’ve spent time at my desk, in drive-thrus, on walks, and in bed wondering what’s worse: to maintain a half-assed relationship with my father knowing that he sees me and my kind as second class citizens undeserving of the very rights he enjoys . . . or to not have a relationship with my father at all? I’ve wondered if the pain of even contemplating this dilemma will ever get easier, joked unconvincingly with myself that at least I have a step-dad, too.
I know that my father’s voting habits alone don’t indicate a conscious intent to hurt me or people like me. I know that my father doesn’t wake up in the morning with the willful mission of causing harm to others, myself included. But acknowledging the pain one causes others, then choosing to exact that pain anyway, is its own kind of cruelty. Committing to exacting that pain despite several chances to do better is, to me, unfathomable. This is a train of thought I know many others in marginalized communities have followed before, or are still following.
I’ve explained to more than one friend that while it sounds melodramatic, it feels like my father has fallen into some sort of cult. No matter what I try, I can’t seem to get into his head, and his actions and beliefs are harming those around him. (I know for a fact that I am not the only one who’s been hurt.) I’ve used the phrase “too far gone.” If his beliefs have only gotten more severe with time and a relationship with his daughter is not reason enough to stop and reconsider, there is nothing I can do.
It probably doesn’t need to be said that I hope one day my dad comes around. I hope he realizes that he’s all but lost his oldest daughter, not because we disagree but because it is depraved to say you love someone and then consistently act to nullify their rights. I hope he recognizes the harm he’s helped to facilitate, not because I want him to experience some kind of emotional karma, but because I want to stop questioning whether my father is a good person. But twenty-four years of knowing him have taught me not to hold my breath, and the last four years have showed me that the hill only gets steeper from here.
For now, I cannot willingly spend my time and energy with a person who does not see me as a whole human being deserving of the same rights they enjoy. I’m not ruling out the possibility of getting along with my dad in the future; however, I believe that everyone deserves to surround themselves with people who help them feel better about the world they’re in, not worse, and this is not currently achievable by having a relationship with him. Instead, I’m focused on nourishing relationships in which equality is a necessity, not a liberal daydream. I soothe my heartache by reminding myself that my life is full of people who look out for more than just their own, who believe in fighting for the underdog. If my father doesn’t want to be one of those people, that’s his choice.