The True Meaning of Patriotism

If I’ve learned one thing on my trip around the United States, talking to LGBTQ youth about coming out and suicide and depression for The Trevor Project, it’s the fact that the concept of unity in this country is an impossibility.

How do we unite:

The 18-year-old gender fluid person of color in Little Rock who has three current partners but really considers themselves only sexually attracted to themselves, and

The older white gentleman in St. Louis who said he liked E. Lynn Harris because he didn’t blame whites for racism, and

The older black gentleman who heard this comment and said, “It’s interesting that you said that…”, and

The cadre of curmudgeons assembled at a table in an East Texas diner, whose conversation I tried to eavesdrop on, but whose words were so drawled that I could not understand any word beyond “Goddamn,” and

The helicopter mom of an LGBTQ teen in Indiana that felt I was doing a “grave disservice” to youth by not starting my presentation with a trigger warning about depression and suicide, and

The self-righteous writer who was unwilling to see that point of view, and who puffed up and called her “a terrible person,” and

The Asian girl in Michigan who made sure she offered me a supportive smile for the entire hour I spoke to a somewhat shell-shocked group of rural high schoolers and came and gave me a hug, and

The married man with two kids in Missouri, who is out as gay to his wife and has always been, and

The guy in the “No Gays Allowed” t-shirt in Indiana, the back of which said “No entry” with an arrow pointed at his butt, and

The Muslim Uber driver in Chicago who, upon realizing I was going to a gay bar, said, “So much good nightlife here,” and

The gay boy from Ohio who froze up and scurried away red-faced when I smiled at him and said hello after a presentation, and

So many others. Men, women, trans. Every possible race and national origin imaginable. Gay, straight, bi, intersex, asexual, pansexual, and probably fifty other classifications changing daily.

Those who live for football, and theater, and guns, and gardening, and video games, and cheese fries, and God, and books, and wine, and opera, and politics, and pets, and yoga, and kids, and grandkids, and so much more.

I do believe the word “united” is probably the wrong word for what these states are. United in what?

I think it’s easy and popular for many of us on one side or the other to fret about how things are getting worse, and how we’re falling away from unity, but I think that’s actually untrue.

I think it’s always been this way. We are a society of so many stories, all of them valid, as much as we might like to validate only the ones that jibe with our own experience.

This is not an issue reserved for the political right. I’m guilty, too. I would assume most of us have been, at some point in our lives. We rail against those whose ideas about the world negate our own experience. And that’s natural. It’s abhorrent when others negate our experience. To be an activist, one must rail against those who negate our place in the world. Without activists, change will never happen. Even for those who are not activists, it’s natural. We only know what we know.

Someone recently called me an activist, and it made me think: Am I one? I do want to be part of the progress, and I work for change. And yet this trip has also showed me the limits of that activism. Which should make me sad, but instead makes me feel—comfortable?

Weird, huh?

I just think it’s all going to be okay.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the word “patriot” recently. I have a visceral reaction to the word, as it is often co-opted by those who would like to harken back to a make-believe time when people like me—I mean gay, Jewish, complicated—weren’t “here.”

I’ve been pondering patriotism, because clearly it’s a misnomer. A person who wishes to not include the experiences of a wide swath of our population is no patriot. That so-called “patriotism” is a love of revisionist history, and it misses, I think, the true American experience I tried to paint above.

To truly be a patriot, in my mind, is to do something that’s incredibly difficult.

To be a patriot, one must love the entire American experience. All of it. The fact that we seem to be a country on the brink of combustion, and we have been that way for so long, yet we never seem to explode. Yet, anyway. To be a true patriot, we must love the clashes of culture, race, national origin, sexual orientation, class, politics, ideology, and religion. We must relish the fact that this country will never be united, because these clashes are in many cases unsolvable. We must accept the fact that hatred and distrust and bone-crushing heartbreak and soul-sucking unfairness and hurt feelings and devastation have always been and will always be part of this experience. I think the key may be to embrace the chaos.

And I think to be a true patriot, one must accept that one’s place is in this mess, and not above it, because there is no above it. I’ve always thought I was above it, but my trip gave me enough opportunity to feel the hatred and disgust and disappointment that tells me I belong here. We’re all humans and we’re all full of shit.

I came on this trip feeling optimistic about finding an America that could be healed, but what I’ve found is a society so steadfast in the utterly diverse exploration of personal freedom of thought and expression that maybe we don’t need to be healed. Or united, anyway. It’s a tapestry of deeply explored and unexplored lives. How do you merge that?

You don’t. You just love it and live it.

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2 Responses to The True Meaning of Patriotism

  1. Matt McMann says:

    Bill, thanks for sharing your experiences and thoughts here. Sounds like quite a trip! I agree that you’re on to something here about the messy melting pot that is America and what it means to be a part of it. It reminds me of something I learned from a leadership talk by Andy Stanley, a pastor from Atlanta. He said that in whatever organization you are a part of there are both “problems to be solved” and “tensions to be managed”. The key is to realize that there are some tensions that will always be a part of your organization and managing that tension is an ongoing necessity, one that can even be healthy. An example would be how much a company invests in research and development vs. how much they invest in marketing, or in a church setting, how much of your resources do you pour into helping people in your community with no connection to your church vs. how much you use to help people that attend. Those aren’t “problems to be solved” once and for all so they go away. They are ongoing “tensions to be managed” that need to be continually monitored and shifted depending on what season your organization is in. I think trying to find the “united” in the United States of America, standing up for our rights and beliefs while respecting the rights and beliefs of others who think differently than we do, is one of those ongoing tensions we are all called to manage.

  2. George says:

    I think your observations are spot on and absolutely reflect the fluidity of our country and its population. Interesting thought about embracing the chaos….something that I recently came to terms with in my life and business. Chaos always caused me to ultimately feel stressed out. And then I realized that I was choosing to be stressed out. I have come to accept that there will always be chaos and that I need to just go with it. It turns out that I no longer feel so stressed about it and that I can just get on with living my life in a little more uncomplicated way. And when it comes to all the turmoil, anger, and vitriol that I see around me and how I am tempted to respond to it…I keep one thing in mind always…..Grace will always trump malice. So graceful I will always try to be. I love what you are doing and how you are doing it….gracefully and without malice. In the meantime you are affecting many young lives in a very positive way. Carry on my friend…..

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