One of my favorite law school professors was Roger Fisher. He was a pilot in World War II. He graduated from Harvard Law School, and quickly became an accomplished lawyer with a prestigious firm. He was deeply troubled by the turmoil and conflict that persisted after the war, so he left the private practice of law and began his life’s most important work, conflict resolution. He started teaching and wrote a number of books on negotiation. He worked directly with governments to try to resolve some of the world’s most persistent and difficult conflicts. Every negotiator, which is everyone, needs to read his book, “Getting to Yes.” It has a lot of good advice about how to understand what the person across the table is feeling. 

Professor Fisher had an idea about how to eliminate the possibility of nuclear war. He suggested that the nuclear codes required to launch the missiles be placed in a capsule, and the capsule implanted next to the heart of a living volunteer. In order to launch the missiles, the decision maker would be required to kill the volunteer with a large knife to retrieve the codes. In this way, before killing millions of people, a leader would first be required to take one innocent life with his or her own hands.

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So here is my idea: Before the legislature passes any more bills dealing with transgender issues, each legislator needs to find a family in his or her district that has a young adult who is transgender. Go to the family home — not a committee room with an audience – and talk to the family, especially the young person. Don’t sit in the living room. Sit at the kitchen table. Seek to understand that family’s journey. Some of those journeys have been affirming and constructive, but many have been difficult and unsettling. Teen years are not easy for anyone, and sexuality is a topic that many find hard to discuss. 

Mostly just listen. If you must ask questions, ask it first of yourself, silently. Ask yourself whether, and when, you made a decision about your own sexuality. Did anyone criticize you, or make you feel  isolated? Did you feel pressured to be someone you really were not, and did you struggle in your decision? Did you really make a decision, or did you simply come to a realization? Did you accept yourself as you were and are, and are you willing to extend that right to others? Aren’t these very issues the foundations upon which your life, your liberty and your happiness are constructed?

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Again, my conservative father had a lot of subtle influence on me, and he did it in a very constructive way. He did it by affirming my right to make the major decisions that have shaped my life. I want to tell you about a discussion I remember with my dad, but before I do I need to tell you about a man who was very nice to me when I was growing up.

Paul Skodacek was born in Slovakia in 1910. He came to the USA when he was 20, speaking no English. He went to Chicago where he worked for a while before relocating to Hot Springs, which had a Czechoslovakian community. He was short and stocky, with sturdy shoulders and strong hands. He often fished on Lake Hamilton in a small flat bottom boat. He steered his small outboard with his right hand, which made it easy to spot him from a distance. He and his wife had multiple cats back when that was unusual. I got to know Mr. Paul, as I called him, when I was 12 or 13.

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 In  the summer, when a school of fish would surface to chase bait fish, sometimes the fishing boats would be fairly close together as we cast our lures toward the fish. One day when there was a break in the action, Mr. Paul and I began to talk. Before long we became fishing buddies. He called me Sonny Boy. I knew his wife, who made some kind of really good coffee cake. I could barely understand either of them because of their accents. Mr. Paul reupholstered furniture, and he did so with pride. His work was beautiful. I helped him a little from time to time, doing simple things like pulling upholstery tacks. When we cleaned fish, the cats would gather at his feet and he would pitch little pieces of fish to them, calling their names. He was the nicest man, and he accepted me without knowing much more about me other than I liked to fish, and wanted to get acquainted. 

As a teenager I was a bit unsettled, so to speak, and I was talking with my dad about what I might do with myself for a career. I told him I liked to help Mr. Paul when he worked on furniture. Pop told me that I should do, and be, whatever I wanted to be, and that I should simply try to be the best that I could be. He said he would be proud of me no matter what I did for a living, as long as I was doing my best, and as long as I was happy doing it.

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A true conservative wants life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for everyone. A true conservative knows that once the gang starts taking those things away from anyone, everyone is at risk. Mr. Paul knew a lot about that. He remembered World War I, and he told me he left eastern Europe in 1930 to have a “better life.”  He and his wife were good people who left a troubled area, where they found liberty and a good life working on furniture. Perhaps Mr. Paul found a bit of his happiness in fishing with a skinny kid who asked a lot of questions. People vote with their feet sometimes. It is happening here in Arkansas.

I wish every legislator could go fishing with a 14 or 15 year old transgender kid. If that would have happened before this legislative session, I don’t think we would have these punitive, regressive and senseless laws.

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I am not asking you, Mr. or Ms. Legislator, to remove the capsule from the volunteer’s chest. But I am asking you to find a way to listen when a teenager opens up his or her or their heart to yours.