The Republican Party Has ALWAYS RELIED ON Race-Baiting, Slut-Shaming, Homophobia, Christian Superiority, and Nuclear Family Supremacy
When Maia and I go out, people ask us if we’re sisters. When we say, “no, we’re mother and daughter,” I watch the way disdain creeps across the inquisitor’s face as they mentally demote us by a couple of social classes.
I had Maia in 1990, when I was 19 years old. We waded in Pacific tide pools, counting starfish, went home and made pasta for dinner, and discussed the existence of fairies. We were a wholesome family, the two of us.
Then the Family Values campaign charged in—the angry ex we couldn’t get a restraining order against because he was the government now.
The first Bush Administration launched that campaign exactly 25 years ago—at the 1992 Republican National Convention in Houston.
Even as today’s Republicans—including the two Bush presidents—duck and dodge and try to distance themselves from 45’s overt white nationalism, we remember that this has been a party of hate for generations. That 1992 convention was a shit show of race-baiting, slut-shaming, homophobia, Christian superiority, and nuclear family supremacy.
Dear Family Values,
You seriously messed with my little family. Do you know that? You must know that.
The shaming you spewed was at once a mind game and an on-the-body assault.
My skin still stings when I think of you.
The old white guys in Washington pulling levers and pumping Puritanism–I never knew if you were oblivious or sadistic or what, family values.
Luckily, I’d never expected much love from the American government.
1980s Punk rock philosophy taught me Smash the State as ethos, so punk rock philosophy saved my life even though Maia and I mostly listened to Free to be You and Me.
When the old white guys in Washington come after you, it’s so much better if you already knew they were the enemy.
“Family values” became a racist, bi-partisan campaign—a “war for the soul of America” against LGBTQ folks and women who dared to have children out-of-wedlock. Soon “family values” became white ladies looking us up and down in grocery store aisles, stalking us to see what we bought, whispering “slut” at our backs. Then “family values” was posters in all the bus shelters picturing teen moms with the words REJECT or LOSER emblazoned across our bodies and even my queer and progressive friends not coming to our defense because, Whatever, most of those girls who got pregnant in high school were ignorant trash anyway, right? ”Family values” was Newt Gingrich and the House of Representatives passing legislation to take our children away, passing legislation to take welfare away from any woman who’d had her first child before the age of 18—even if she was older now. “Family values” was that same legislation’s plan to divert the welfare funds to government orphanages that would house our wanted babies while they waited for older—presumably married and Christian—couples to adopt them.
Family values threatened my family day and night for years.
I always had this dual response to being insulted or abused: I felt like I’d been hosed with some blistering, existential chemical. It made my skin burn and made me curve my skeleton inward with the instinct to make myself small—to protect my chest.
In the next moment, I’d remember being taught to act big when you encounter a mountain lion—and not to look like prey—so I’d stand up straight, my heart beginning to race with some righteous rage. As I forced confidence, I’d breathe in, and plot my passive-aggressive revenge.
Yes, I would be the exception. I would flourish in spite of the violence of the cult of good motherhood. I would be the most successful, the most beautiful, the most fabulous reject mother ever. I would be the revenge of outcast queers and pregnant teens everywhere with my super-mom-super-stardom.
Fight or flight, rebellion or compliance—sometimes those felt like the only choices. That “just watch me do everything” feeling never lasted long. It’s a self-flagellating kind of revenge, anyway. Once the adrenaline surges doubled in on themselves, my muscles would relax just slightly, easing into a chronic, low-level tension.
A sharp knock at the door and I’d jumped.
Was it a mail carrier with a package or was it Child Protective Services here to take the baby?
Even when the social worker in her clean chinos couldn’t find anything awry in my apartment, she’d remind me that she could take the baby.
They could always take the baby.
This public shaming thing was nothing new in America. We are a society built on lynchings and scarlet letters. It’s how the government inscribes its power onto the bodies of the non-compliant.
Native, disabled, and other marginalized American mothers know too much about the way they can always take the baby.
These are traditional American values in action.
Sometimes the people who ask Maia and me if we’re sisters try to bail themselves out of the conversational ditch they’ve dug, and they kind of half-smile at me and say, “Well, you don’t look old enough to have a grown daughter.”
And I never know what to say to that.
Like, am I supposed to say “thank you?”
They’ve probably pegged my age about right.
If they’re ruder they lick their lips and say, “Well, I’m sure you’re the exception.”
Yes, Family Values,
Like hundreds of thousands of other families, we’re the big exception.
Do you want to know some other things about teenage motherhood? Besides all the dire predictions for our ruined lives you spun into propaganda?
It’s a lot easier to have your sleep interrupted hourly when you’re 19 than it is when you’re 39. When matched for economic class, teen parents actually do better financially over time than those who delay having kids because sometimes it makes more career-sense to take time off when we’re younger. Teen motherhood can cut the risk of breast cancer by fifty percent. Despite all the smack talk, there’s zero evidence that younger parents are any worse than older parents or that our children “turn out” any differently. Exhibit A: My “sister” Maia here—She’s a creative, politically engaged, and joyful member of society. She works in a tall building that reflects a Georgia sky and wades in rivers with her little dog. And, you know what? After 25 years of judgment and shame, I’m way too old to be taking this crap.
Maybe next time I’ll have the nerve to just wink and say, “Yep. Old school slut.”
Ariel Gore’s new book, We Were Witches, drops September 12 from The Feminist Press.