Contrasts: Kathryn Brightbill’s Story
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My life in politics is a story in contrasts.
Election day, 1992, I’m in my county Republican headquarters making Get Out To Vote calls, working my way down the list to make sure everyone gets out to vote for George H.W. Bush. That night I watch in disappointment as state after state goes for Bill Clinton. I worry for the country.
Election day, 2008, I’m in my flat in Hanoi, using free minutes on my cell phone to call America, working my way down the list of numbers on my computer screen to make sure everyone gets out to vote for Barack Obama. I go to sleep while America is still voting, and wake up to the news that Obama is leading. Walking home from my morning class, I get the news that it’s official, Obama will be our next president. I’m thrilled.
It’s 1993, I’m in Tallahassee with Operation Rescue and I’m standing in front of a bank of cameras, arguing that an abortion clinic buffer zone law should be voted down because pro-lifers are non-violent and the law would make kids like me into felons. I’d spent the morning roaming the state capitol building, going from office to office with my friends, consciously played the cute kid card to lobby against the bill.
Fast forward to 2012, I’m in Tallahassee again, this time with Equality Florida, and I’m roaming the capitol building lobbying for an equal rights act to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. My return to Tallahassee feels comfortable, familiar, like slipping into a well worn pair of shoes. I know the game, I’ve played the game, and it’s easy to fall back into lobbyist mode after all those years. It doesn’t matter much that as an adult I’m on the other side of the political spectrum, the game doesn’t change and the skills I learned as a conservative kid are just as useful as a liberal adult.
I’m part of the leading edge of the homeschool movement, that first wave of kids who started being homeschooled in the early 1980s. There was no Teen Pact, no Generation Joshua, and I was a seasoned political activist by 1994 when HSLDA’s H.R. 6 fight taught the homeschool movement the political power they could wield. I didn’t get into politics because of homeschool leaders trying to build foot soldiers for a religious right takeover of American politics, I got into it because it’s interested me since I was the seven year old who stayed up past her bedtime to watch the national conventions.
At the same time though, my childhood coincided with the growing influence of the religious right, and that’s not something that can be discounted. The year I was born, the newly-founded Moral Majority helped usher in the Reagan Revolution of 1980. Over the course of my childhood, Christianity in America became increasingly synonymous with the Republican party, and by the time I got into high school there was definitely the expectation that good little homeschoolers should become the foot soldiers of the religious right.
We were told that we were standing up for justice, that the fight against abortion was marching in the footsteps of Martin Luther King Jr., and that we were on the side of all that was good and right. During my Operation Rescue days, I heard MLK and the Civil Rights movement invoked more times than I can count. At the Operation Rescue national event in Birmingham, they even took us kids to the Civil Rights Museum to reinforce that connection.
Unfortunately for the religious right, I learned that lesson a little too well. I didn’t know I was only supposed to pay lip service to MLK, I actually believed that we were supposed to be fighting for a country with more justice and equality.
That’s what started my journey from the conservative 12 year old making GOTV calls for George H.W. Bush to the politically liberal adult making those same GOTV calls for Barack Obama. See, when you’re telling an idealistic teenager that they’re fighting for justice and equality, they tend to start seeing the world through that framework. They just might realize that the party they’re supporting is actually fighting for policies that are antithetical to those values.
The great irony of my childhood is that I’m liberal precisely because of what I was taught in my conservative childhood, and have the tools to fight for my beliefs today because of what I learned from my political involvement as a kid. See, when you teach a kid that the idea of the American experiment is to work for a more perfect union, one that’s more fair, just, and equal, while at the same time teaching them to question authority, they just might believe you.