Dispatches: Cognitive Dissonance in Cattle Country

Our courageous exvangelical warrior on the ground in Texas, Shana Nielsen, has graciously provided us an update about how life has been down there since signing their anti-trans bill into law. As I’ve stated before: This is the theocracy that the Moral Majority wants, and it is only going to continue to escalate as they tighten their grip to remain in power. With church attendance on steady decline, they did what they do: Create a moral panic out of thin air (the anti-CRT frenzy this time around — but there have been others) to mobilize their base, then use that mobilization to convince lawmakers in states where their base is the strongest to start making changes that reflect their evangelical values. The result is smaller templates for what they plan on becoming an nation-wide dystopian theocracy. Welcome to Jesusland — if the Moral Majority has its way, this empire will continue to expand.

Once again, I am grateful beyond words for Shana’s courage. Thank you for sharing, thank you for persevering. We see you. We see ALL of you who are told that your humanity has less value than another’s. I can think of no crueler lie, and it is the oldest one in the evangelical playbook.

* * * *

It’s been a few weeks since the first throws of Texas’ new battle took place.  And these last few weeks have been so surreal that I haven’t been able to process them.  The last time I wrote, we talked about the real danger transgender kids and their families face living in Texas.  The fear was both palpable and visceral as I read news articles about moms trying to raise money to move out of state permanently so that their children could receive the health care and support they need.  The rage was almost overwhelming, reading about how an employee at the Department of Family Services went to her boss and asked if they were really going to start opening these types of investigations.  Her workplace knew she had a transgender child.  A day later, she was placed on leave from her position with DFS.  A few days after that, an investigation on allegations of child abuse was opened against the employee. Even as District Attorneys across the state publicly stated that they would refuse to prosecute these cases, families of transgender kids who were out of state temporarily made the quick decision to move permanently.  Other families started fundraising campaigns so that they could move as quickly as possible.  

And yet I went to work every day.  And I came home.  NPR might run a news story about it briefly, sandwiched in between the coverage on Ukraine and the other culture war battles cropping up in Florida, Idaho, Tennessee. The list seemed to grow daily.  My daily life did not change.  No one talked about this in person.  Life was as normal as it could possibly be. Sometimes it seemed like everyone around me was trying a little too hard for the “everything is fine, nothing to see here, nothing’s changed”.  And underneath that was fear.  Who could you talk to about this?  Who was safe?  We are a deeply red state, though my city can trend very purple or even blue in certain neighborhoods.  But there was no one safe, except my close circle of friends, to share my concern, my outrage, my fear with.  I am very lucky to have had that close circle of friends.  But it also meant that discussion about a policy matter affecting all of us in some way was non-existent.  It didn’t feel safe to debate the merits of such a decision, lest someone who agreed with that agenda simply make a report to DFS and suddenly I am under investigation for child abuse.  

The thing about this particularly subversive decision is that no legal proceedings have to happen, and no one has to be charged with any crime, for it to totally obliterate someone’s job and family.  As in the case of the DFS employee above, all it took was her asking a question, and she suddenly is no longer working and her former co-workers are investigating her family for child abuse.  That means they can contact her and her spouse’s work, their social contacts, the child’s school, anyone they want to in the process of collecting testimony and evidence. An investigation like that is enough to cause a family to lose their jobs, to stigmatize the child at school, and to lose whatever social support network they had.  All for someone to say, “Oh sorry, we didn’t find anything?”  Or for the District Attorney to say “ we understand you built a case but we won’t prosecute”.  By that point in time it doesn’t matter, multiple lives have been upended.  Security and stability have been stolen by the state on nothing more than someone else’s word. 

I keep looking for words to describe the level of horror that I’ve been living with.  Frightening, scary, daunting even… none of them work.  It is a visceral, lizard brain wariness that lives below the conscious.  I am even more  hypervigilant of who I speak with and what I say.  I want to pause here because at the same time that this surreal horror, this wariness of my neighbors and coworkers, this lizard brain hunt for an ongoing threat swirls inside me; I also do not believe I or my family are in any danger.  

And y’all.  That is some shit.  To feel an existential dread of your surroundings while also having reinforced on a daily basis that everything is fine and there is nothing to be afraid of is very difficult.  That’s an understatement.  It’s  impossible to describe.  So I turned to books as my friends, to see if there were characters in fiction or in our past that had lived through something similar.

The answer was yes.  It happened in the Middle East and Africa recently, in the Rwandan genocide where neighbors turned on neighbors depending on what tribe they belonged to.  It happened to Germany in the 1930s and 40s, during the rise of the Nazi party and the Third Reich and continued through World War II and the Cold War.  The former USSR’s KGB and former East Germany’s Stasi effectively used this type of social network undermining to control and punish their citizens.  Everyone could potentially be an informant, so no one could safely or freely discuss their concerns about their government.  Now Texas has employed these same despicable tactics here.  I expect to see this continually  deployed on matters the state feels won’t hold up to Constitutional review.  By turning individual citizens into bounty hunters or informants, there is no governmental body to sue in court, and therefore no way to challenge the new decrees.  

On one hand, what kind of cowardly state government hides behind its citizenry to make laws that do an end run around Constitutional rights? On the other hand, I can no longer be appalled or outraged.  That energy is wasted.  Now I have to prepare, as a woman and a mother, to learn the lessons of women and mothers that have come before me and apply them to my situation.  I can learn from Harriet Tubman, Angelika Barbe, Marianne Birthler, Lyudmila Alexeyeva and countless others who have been brave in the face of similar challenges.  May their courageous spirits guide me forward to once again stand up for the humanity of the most vulnerable among us. 

I am not alone.  You are not alone. We are strong, and loved, and together we have the ability to withstand this war on our friends, neighbors, children, and ourselves. 

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