Small-town Texas and the politics of silence

Photo by Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

I am a progressive Texan residing in a very red county in a very red state. Over the past ten years of living in Sherman, I have learned to hold my tongue in order to keep the peace. Damaging my relationships with friends, colleagues and neighbors, as well as concerns about my professional reputation in a small community once kept me from speaking my mind about the social and political issues that matter most to me.

However, the election of 2016 and the current political climate have made me more vocal. In the past several months, I have conveyed my beliefs through public protests, on social media and in published opinion articles. I have been very direct about where I stand on matters such as a woman’s right to choose, the racist legacy of Confederate monuments and, more recently, gun control.

On Saturday morning, February 17, three days after the shooting that killed 17 people at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, I scrolled through my Facebook newsfeed and saw that the local newspaper had posted several photos from the Grayson County Republican Party Lincoln-Reagan Day Dinner the night before. One of the photos featured a smiling woman in a bright red dress holding a semi-automatic rifle in the air as those around her laughed. A man in the foreground took a picture of her on his phone. Without any context provided by the newspaper, the photo appeared to show local Republicans lampooning the Florida tragedy less than 48 hours after it happened.

I created a meme of the photo and then shared it in order to make a point about Republican indifference toward the recent calls for common sense gun control. A few days later the meme had been shared almost 3,700 times. That might not seem significant, but it is probably the most widespread publicity any event in Sherman, Texas has received since a lynching that took place here in 1930.

After their photo went viral, the newspaper issued a series of follow-up stories about the event and the infamous photo. At their annual fundraising dinner, the Grayson County Republican Party auctioned off the AR-15 rifle held by the woman in the red dress (the local chair) to raise money for Republican political candidates. Comments on the newspaper’s Facebook page from those who were at the banquet provided other details. Apparently earlier in the evening, before the notorious photo had been taken, there had been a moment of silent prayer for the 17 victims of the Parkland, Florida shooting.

Many of us had always assumed our local Republican friends and neighbors were reasonable and kind people. But because of this photo, we realized that our assumptions may have been too trusting and naïve. Personally, I now wonder what other extreme and unsettling perspectives are voiced by my local Republican “friends” and neighbors behind closed doors. Those of us who live in small towns tend to give our fellow citizens, including those with whom we profoundly disagree, the benefit of the doubt. But all too often this generous spirit allows us to excuse and enable the insidious behavior and treacherous beliefs of those closest to us.

There are many in my community who wear Republican masks out of fear of losing their jobs, businesses and family relationships. I received a few private messages from people providing information about the Republican event and what was happening in the photo — because they were there and disturbed by it. It says something about the stronghold of Republican ideology in small-town Texas if so many people have reason to believe their livelihoods and most important relationships would be ruined if they expressed disagreement with the community’s dominant Republican viewpoint.

But more and more of us in small-town Texas are finding the courage to speak out, and finding new friends and allies when we do. I have been refreshingly surprised by those who support me when I take a stand for what I believe in. I urge more progressive Texans in small towns to use their voices and their influence, in whatever way they can, to embolden those around them and change their communities. More and more progressive people in Sherman and in Grayson County are coming out of the woodwork and writing letters to the editor, organizing town halls, running for office and, most importantly, voting. Change is coming, and we can make a difference. So if I had to do it all over again, I would have done just one thing differently. I wish the meme had said: “Grayson County Republicans, February 16, 2018: On the wrong side of Texas history.”

Randi Lynn Tanglen

Professor, Austin College