Photo credit: Scott Goldsmith
One night in June 2015, a mom in Pennsylvania was watching the news when she decided to write a letter to President Obama. She wanted to tell him how disappointed she was in his conduct at an event celebrating LGBTQ Pride Month that day. A heckler at the event had abruptly interrupted Obama’s speech, shouting a demand to end the deportation of LGBTQ immigrants. “You’re in my house!” Obama had shot back, and he had her removed.
Dear President Obama,
I felt chilled and disappointed. I’ve always seen you as someone who gets the plight of marginalized and discriminated against people. In that moment, I realized that I was wrong. You don’t seem to get it….I am raising a transgender child. This world terrifies me — how it brutalizes, openly discriminates against, and shames trans people. Please listen to their voices rather than shaming them.
It was one of about 10,000 letters Obama received on any given day, and, as it happened, it was one of the 10 letters chosen to land in the back of his briefing book one evening. Obama had committed to reading 10 letters a day when he first took office; the staff charged with managing the flow had committed to making sure he got an authentic sampling.
Sitting in the White House Treaty Room, Obama wondered how he should respond to Alisa. Perhaps he should simply apologize, smooth things over. But that wasn’t the point of this daily exercise. It was about tuning in and listening to people, taking them seriously, and part of that meant responding honestly.
You could argue what good does it do? Defending yourself to some random lady in Pennsylvania who misread the motivation behind any one White House moment. Obama did it day after day, letter by letter — countless responses. He did it with the blind belief that somehow, someday, the words he scrawled onto the White House stationery cards might matter.
Three years after she received her letter from Obama, in June 2018, Alisa Bowman wrote again. Trump was now president, and she was thinking about how much of the world, and her life, had changed since she wrote to Obama about the heckler. Getting that letter back from him had supercharged her. It wasn’t so much what he said. It was the fact of it. It was the notion that her thoughts had mattered, if only for an instant, to the most powerful man in the world.
Dear President Obama,
When you wrote back to me in 2015, I was shocked. It had never occurred to me that you would ever have the time to read my letter, not to mention respond to it. Perhaps I merely sensed that you were willing to listen to a scared mother. I’ll never truly know why I felt so compelled to write to you.
My transgender son had socially transitioned earlier that year, and I’d spent months bathing in fear. I’d been continually reading comments from people accusing children like mine of being perverts and mentally ill and sick — and I felt helpless, lost, and terrified.
I responded to it all by living small, trying to attract as little attention to my family as possible….
You gave me the courage to put an end to living small.
About a year after I wrote to you, a student addressed our school board, saying she would rather fail gym class than change in locker rooms with trans students. The media swarmed all over the story, splitting our local community apart. I read horrifically hurtful and downright scary comments from fathers, from a local police officer, and from other members of the community. I contemplated moving and starting over.
But then I decided to stop being so small, place some faith in the goodness of humanity, and ask for help.
Two weeks later, my trans son, myself, and more than a dozen community members addressed the school board in support of trans students. My son’s speech was met with a standing ovation and covered by the local paper. The superintendent shook his hand and told him he was proud of him. His vice principal pulled him from class the following day to tell him the same. Soon people were reaching out to me, asking me if he would come to speak at various events. Mothers I barely knew walked up to me at soccer and hugged me. Teachers reached out to let me know they loved my son. Random people got in touch just to let us know that they were there for us.
A year later, in 2017, when seats were up on the school board, I ran for one. Not only did I win, I got more votes than any other candidate.
Just weeks ago, my school district quietly and unanimously passed a comprehensive nondiscrimination policy that protects gender identity, along with many other classes. A board member from a nearby district asked me for a copy of our policy — and she got her district to pass the same one.
I tell you all of this because it can sometimes feel as if our country is moving backwards, as if everything you fought for and accomplished is being undone. But I can tell you one thing: once a mind opens, it does not close back up….
Your legacy lives in the hearts of the warriors who carry it forward.
I thank you for that.
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New York Times
bestselling author Jeanne Marie Laskas
is the author of eight books, including her most recent, To Obama, With Love, Joy, Anger, and Hope