I t comes back to me now in pieces, my misspent Republican youth: collecting Desert Storm trading cards, reading anti-abortion pamphlets, tying yellow ribbons around all the trees in my neighborhood and desperately wishing those ragheads in the Gulf would just give up and let our boys come home already—all the while singing along to the 1990s jingoistic power-ballad hit "Voices That Care." Reagan, with his handsome looks and gentle voice, was my dad, boyfriend, future husband.
George Bush the First less so, but I gamely made a try at it. I remember stuffing my ballot proudly into the box in our third-grade mock election, confident in my choice—who wouldn't be? The Republican Party was the party of my house and all that stood for: safety, security, prosperity, happiness. I never knew anything other than pride. But I remember, like it happened yesterday, my third-grade teacher, lithe and beautiful Ms. Ward, counting out the ballots, and Dukakis—Dukakis—winning by a landslide. And the kid next to me saying, "Who would ever vote for Bush?" Because this was late-'80s Seattle, and a Catholic school focused on social justice, and who ever would vote for Bush?
I managed to keep my Republican leanings a secret from my schoolmates. Or so I thought. Now looking back, I feel like there's no way I could have hidden it. It was in the roll of my socks and the way I walked, radiating from me just as clearly as the "PRAY FOR AMERICA" bumper sticker affixed to the family minivan. Everyone knew—maybe not that I was a Republican, per se, but that I was different, somehow. Wrong. Sitting in the pew at church, staring up at the giant Jesus on the crucifix suspended like the day's catch in the fishmonger's window, I did not feel warm, as we were supposed to. My eyes did not linger on his chiseled abdominals or the bulge concealed beneath the marble drapery circling his waist. Jesus had always seemed to me like a remote, sanctimonious older brother. My eyes usually wandered toward the alcove, where the statue of Mary stood: not aloof, but beseeching, understanding as she peered out from under her veil. Mary, with her gentle eyes and sweet smile, seemed removed from the political screeds I heard around the dinner table, the finger-wagging teachers ("Every time a child lies, the baby Jesus cries," my first-grade teacher was fond of saying). Whenever my super-Catholic grandparents sent a package with devotional cards—much better for the young Catholic girl than the baseball cards I liked to collect—I'd pick out all the Marys first and leave my sister the lesser saints and assorted Christs. Hail Mary, full of grace, Christianity's original MILF.
Then, in seventh grade, when the chains of Catholicism were loosening somewhat, a well-meaning religion teacher assigned us the task of researching, in-depth, some religion other than Catholicism. (And the Catholic Church wonders why its membership is down.) I chose Buddhism. My mom dropped me off in Chinatown, which I now know is called the International District, and I went to a service at a temple. Away from the hypersexed world of Catholicism, the cool, streamlined, sparsely populated world of Buddhism showed me the futility of the dichotomies I'd been raised on: boy/girl, Republican/Democrat, gay/straight.
By the time I got to high school, I fancied myself mostly unshackled from both Republicanism and Catholicism. But walking down the hallway to my freshman locker, I was assaulted by the vision—clipped out of The Stranger, actually—of "101 Names for Female Masturbation." (The phrase "ringing the southern bells" has been etched into my consciousness ever since.) My inner Republican spent a lot of time clutching her pearls that year. Later, I became friends with the girl who owned that locker, a wickedly brilliant, beautiful girl named Alexis, my first-ever lesbian friend. I admired her life from afar, as one would an exotic locale in a book, a place you desperately want to visit but have no idea how to get to.
We took creative-writing classes together and she wrote eloquently about Dorothy Parker and lounging in the bathtub drinking Gato Negro, and I had to spend a lot of time with Mary in order to drown out what my brain was saying about Alexis. Hail Mary, full of grace, good Lord, did you see that sweater today? When Rush Limbaugh blared in the house as I was getting ready for school, no longer did I hear the dulcet tones of a fellow traveler, but rather I felt each word sharply lodge under my skin (invoke here Saint Mungo, patron saint against bullies). The safety and security I had known faltered. On the one hand, as the coffee mug in our kitchen proclaimed, RUSH IS RIGHT. If I could have just believed that, it would have made everything so much easier. But deep down, I knew he wasn't right—not right for me, at least, no more than the string of meteorically unimpressive boys I dated, all the while trying to resist the allure of the Alexises of the world, who were always much smarter, better dressed, and nicer smelling. (Spoiler alert: I did not resist too long. Thank you, college.)
When I go back to visit my parents today, not much has changed. The "Clinton-Free Zone" bumper sticker is still stuck on my dad's office door, although it is now joined by an upside-down American flag. (I guess Obama is not only post-racial, but post- verbal as well.) Rush and Glenn and the crew still dominate the airwaves and bookshelves. And in my childhood bedroom, one can still find a well-thumbed stack of Mary prayer cards, sitting patiently in the drawer, waiting for the right person to be passed on to. Hail Mary...
Kate Preusser is a writer, a teacher, and no longer a Republican.