The Proposition: An Open Letter to Mainers

Note: This post is politically oriented and strongly felt. If you think it might help change minds, share it wherever you may–pseudonymity be damned!

(And for the politically disinclined, tune back in this weekend for our regularly scheduled programming)

In the final episode of the first season of Showtime’s series Homeland, Sgt. Brody (Damien Lewis) takes his family to Gettysburg as he prepares to turn himself into a suicide bomber.  Before the battlefield, he tells them the story of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain to justify his actions (in his own mind) before they even know what he’s talking about.

Chamberlain taught himself Ancient Greek, became a Professor at Bowdoin College and led the defense of Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg with an insane bayonet charge against superior numbers. (He was later awarded the Medal of Honor.)

Sickly (and meaningfully for the show), Sgt. Brody tries to claim Chamberlain’s bravery, resourcefulness and patriotism for his planned act of domestic terrorism. (Equipment failure and a change of heart alter his plans.) But his repeated praise of the bravery of a teacher from Maine stuck with me well after the end of the show

Schooner Fare “Portland Town”

Schooner Fare is a Downeast band that I heard so many times growing up I can’t count it. They put sea shanties in my blood and dreams.

What does this have to do with me or music? Much with the former, and little for the latter. See, I was born in Portland (as was my father and his father before him) and I spent my formative years in Vacationland. No matter how far away I move or how many years I am away, I think of myself as a Mainer.  So that’s it, I am outing myself not merely as a New Englander, but one of the precious few whose land is the first in the US to feel the light of the sun every day.

Bill Flagg was born in Waterville, Maine

When “people from away” (as my father  used to call them) find out I am from Maine, they invariably ask about lobsters and Steven King (the crustaceans really aren’t that special; but our novel-laureate is). I can’t explain to them clearly enough what Maine really is, so I just deflect and re-direct the conversation.

But the truth is that being from Maine means something to me. It means a lot to me, so much so that my wife (who is from a less austere and far less impressive New England state that rhymes with “patheticut”) worries that I am part of some unknown tribe or secret cult. The values that I associate with that upbringing—grit, self-sufficiency, political independence, and stubborn integrity—are those very things that I prize as most definitive for my character.

Ray Lamontagne, a true-blue Mainer (even though he was born in sinful New Hampshire)

But Maine’s character is about more than just personal virtue. The political character of Maine is also fiercely independent—perhaps best reflected by my father’s voting record: Reagan, Bush, Perot, Clinton, Gore, Kerry, Obama. And in between, he crossed parties for representatives, senators and proudly voted for Angus King.

Now, he went on a democratic streak at the end, but that’s because around the time the state was the only one that tried to give electoral votes to Ross Perot, my father left the Republican party for the Green party (well, he changed his registration). His voting for Gore? Entirely environmental. His vote cast for Kerry? The wars didn’t make sense to my father, and he longed for the bygone days when New England was the center of the free world.

Maybe it is the cold weather and the isolation that makes Mainers stubborn and resistant to outside influence. Maybe I am misremembering the past, but the state I grew up in respected firmly that right so strongly espoused by Justice Louis Brandeis (not a Mainer, but could have been)—the right to be left alone. What this meant to my father was that people have a right to privacy and a right to live their own lives. Maybe it is the desire to live more freely that brings (and keeps) people in my home state.

All of this is a preface to help explain why I was so heart-broken in 2009. See, my home state was to be the first state to make same-sex marriage legal by legislative process. Of course, some groups dissented and demanded that the legislatively approved bill be put to referendum. The bill lost.

Clarence White of The Byrds was from Maine (his parents were Acadian!)

Maine has a great recent tradition of centrist politicians. From our Senators George Mitchell (who helped in the Ireland peace process) and William Cohen (a Republican who served as Secretary of Defense under Bill Clinton) to the current Senators Snow and Collins—moderate Republicans who have drawn the ire of the Tea Party but who have been instrumental in making necessary compromises for the good of the nation—Mainers have proved to be sensible, pragmatic and dignified on the national stage. (At least until Governor Lepage).

Now, I am reluctant to write about politics in an age when the internet and media echo machines distort everything and turn us against one another. But this is an issue I am simultaneously fearful and hopeful about. Even though my brother and I disagree on many things political—as I have sprinted leftward, he has become more conservative (even if he won’t admit it)—but on this we are in accord: it is nothing less than cruel and small-spirited to deny others rights you might enjoy when it costs you nothing.

Patty Griffin is from Old Town Maine

Let’s be absolutely clear about this. But let’s start dispassionately. As long as rights enjoyed by the many are denied to the few no one’s rights are safe. As long as we live in a system where a slim (or even major) majority can dispossess a minority, we live in a tyranny (ok, that wasn’t dispassionate).

In 2009, I hoped so much that Mainers (conservative and not) would see that same-sex marriage is a simple civil and human rights issues with nothing to do with religion or some imagined gay conspiracy to take over the world. I was so sure that Maine was going to vote in gay marriage that I took to my office a bumper sticker my father sent me reading “Maine: The Way Life Should Be”. When the vote went the wrong way, I put the sticker in a drawer instead of on my door. (It sits there still.)

David Mallett, who wrote my childhood favorite “The Garden Song” is from Maine

I grew up in a small town. There were gays and lesbians in our community. They were teachers, coaches, bankers, neighbors and members of our congregation. When very young, I didn’t know what ‘gay’ was and no one ever talked about why that teacher had a same-sex roommate or why the recreation coordinator looked so ‘manly’. Part of this is negative—everyone operated under a silent cease-fire (and this kind of silence can be positively fatal). But part of this was also just the way of life in Maine: we minded our own business and let our neighbors be who they were. No one hated them, ostracized them, or persecuted them. What went on behind their doors, as my father said, was for them and them alone.

Now, I grew up with both the positive and negative influence of this paradigm. Even after having many gay friends, I didn’t understand why gay marriage was such a big deal. I always thought that it would be just fine if they could have Civil Unions and enjoy the same financial and legal rights as heterosexual couples.

Then I spent some time in Italy. When I was there, the mayor of San Francisco started marrying same-sex couples. In the US, this news was broadcast with talking heads. In Italy, I watched an Italian newscast showing the real couples getting married. I witnessed young, handsome men kissing but also elderly women weeping as they clutched to each other, finally granted dignity and legitimacy after loving and supporting each other their entire lives.

Lady Gaga has nothing to do with Maine. But she’s not wrong.

Now, I’ll admit this: I am a sucker for a romance. I love weddings in movies. I hate when couples in books or on TV can’t work it all out. Those black-and-white photos of little kids holding hands? They make me weepy. Life is short and alienating. The world is cold and mean-spirited. Loving someone else (and being loved in turn) is a rare thing that brings comfort and lets us know that what we feel and see and think is real.

Academics have fancy words like “heteronormativity” to explain the dislocating, distorting and effacing effect that growing up in a world that models, prizes and privileges heterosexual relationships can have not just on those who are not born strictly heterosexual (if anyone is) but also on everyone else. We limit what we think is possible for the way we live our lives and in turn deny to others any chance to win the happiness, comfort, respite and, yes, human dignity that a societally sanctioned relationship can bring.

When we refuse the right to marry to any of our neighbors, we make them less than ourselves by denying them our status. Worse, we do not merely reduce their rights and limit their identity as citizens, but we enforce upon them a behavior profile and value set that is not ours to impose.

In 2009 I was heartbroken because I define myself by where I come from. I have lived my entire life proud to be from Maine and fiercely defensive of the state’s history and honor. On November 3, 2009, I took my old Lobster license plate down in my office and took it home. For a day, I wasn’t sure what it meant to be from Maine anymore.

Don Mclean wasn’t born in Maine, but he moved there as soon as he could

This year, there is a chance to change all of this. And I don’t mean to make me feel better about where I come from. I mean that Mainers can return to the polls and vote to extend equal rights to all of their brothers, sisters, cousins, neighbors and friends. I write today to beg my state to do this, to set an independent and brave example—to do the surprising thing and turn against ignorance, intolerance, and the mean-spirited parsimony that denies to others what we cherish for ourselves.

In eighth grade history class, we spent almost the entire year learning about Maine. When we read about the Civil War and learned the story of that schoolteacher from Maine, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, we had to memorize Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. All I remember is the first sentence:

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

I can’t get those last words out of my head. I hope I never do.

So, my Fellow Mainers, when you see this on the ballot in November:

Question 1:  Citizen Initiative

Do you want to allow the State of Maine to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples?

Please say yes. Don’t listen to all the noise from the well-funded national media machines. Think about your neighbors and yourselves. Think about how cruel it is to be alone at night in the Maine wintes. Think about how it would feel if someone it a distant city or state told you that your love was not up to their standard and unworthy of their recognition. Think of that stubborn pride in our state flag’s motto: Dirigo, “I Lead”. The chutzpah of one of the smallest and most minor states to make such a claim!

This isn’t about ‘right’ or church or slippery slopes or any of that. It is about simple, elementary fairness that we all understand as children but forget as adults.

Just say yes.

59 comments on “The Proposition: An Open Letter to Mainers

  1. Mother Mary says:

    wow! what a statement-I am so proud of you my son-I wish I could publish this and put it in the newspaper for all to read. What a beautiful treatise!

  2. professormortis says:

    Patheticut? You bastard! We Nutmeggers have strong, proud traditions, like, um, ripping people off with wooden nutmegs and hiding constitutions in oak trees, and, um, starting as two distinct and incredibly different colonies, one of hardcore Puritans and the other of guys looking to make a quick buck. Okay, so maybe we’re not the most unified little state. And yeah, okay, so New York stole Fairfield County, but fuck those guys. We used to make stuff, especially guns that killed people? And, um, yeah, we killed a lot of Pequots and Mohicans, and, um, then we gave them permission to have casinos.

    So, um, Yale?

    Kidding aside, as a longtime resident of Massholia, I like to keep my love for the good parts of Connecticut. Which boils down to my love of the low rolling hills, the Connecticut River, calling subs “grinders” and having a steamed cheeseburger once in a blue moon (though that’s specifically a Middletown thing, come to think of it).

  3. professormortis says:

    Great post-I hope that the great state of Maine will live up to your hopes. I know that when I walked out to return a movie in Central Square, and noticed a bunch of news vans, and I realized that it was THE day, the day when gays and lesbians could get married in Massachusetts, and I saw happy people leaving the courthouse together, I was proud to live in New England, and proud to be back in Massachusetts, even if we didn’t do it legislatively. It was a good day, and any discomfort I had with the idea from my Catholic upbringing was gone at that moment.

  4. theelderj says:

    Professor. Your part of the state is quite nice and pretty enough that I got married there. It is also that warm central place where people don’t either want to be from Massachusetts or New York.

    (Or that terrible border where people are so vanilla like Rhode Island)

    And, don’t forget, my in-laws so loved the state that they emigrated from the almost exact opposite side of the planet.

    I do miss New England, but even there has not been immune to the political depravaties of the modern age. Watching it from afar fills me both with hope and despair.

    • professormortis says:

      Probably should have kept the idiotic rebuttal to Twitter.

      As much as I’d like to imagine/pretend that New England is a special haven of wonderfulness immune to politics, well, I’d be pretty damn full of it if I said I actually believed it. I’m glad that so far they haven’t managed to turn back the clock here yet.

      • theelderj says:

        Hey, the intra-New England state rivalry may have enlightened some readers about our less-than-enlightened state.

        When I think about it, I sometimes get nervous about my assumption of political unity or an imagined liberal consensus in New England. I know, intellectually, that I should be anxious about expecting uniformity of opinion anywhere. Especially in this day and age, when the screamers go on and on about ‘intellectual diversity’, I find myself questioning myself too often.

        But then I buck up and remind myself that relativism is only relatively right. There are things that I have to assert as instrinsically right and wrong on a human scale even if I don’t believe in intrinsic right and wrong in the abstract. I know that New England isn’t as unified or liberal as I would imagine it is, but it is still more progressive than many other places. And for that, I am both thankful (because it helped shape me) and sad (because I only know this from living in exile).

  5. Brittany says:

    Well said and much appreciated, Elder J!
    Also, if you need a Lady Gaga-Maine connection, she made a very strange appearance at a rally to end Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell a few years ago: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MoqOvFJ5-0c.

  6. Jake says:

    Nice post. I was also sad about the results of the first referendum. But I think (some) people have learned a lot since then and realize that taking away other people’s rights, when, as you said, granting them costs nothing, isn’t fulfilling. I also hope that others learned that sitting idly by and hoping for the best (i.e. not voting) is very different than actively helping. In a way, it may have been for the best to take a small step back for a few years for people to realize what that step forward really means.

    • theelderj says:

      Good point on the step back. I also think that (1) demographics are in favor of incremental acceptance (rather than tolerance) and that (2) there was so much Obama backlash (and liberal exhaustion/dissatisfaction) in 2009 that conservaties were far more successful in mobilizing voters (tea party, Scott Brown, Gov. Walker, Gov. LePage etc.).

      My real worry is that the turnout for this election will not be truly demographically representative…

      But even in 2008, we had the fiasco for marriage equality in california.

      • theyoungerj says:

        Love your post brother and “Jolene” is my favorite song. Hopefully one day we will all be back in Maine together.

  7. Jeffrey Cisneros says:

    I am not from Maine, but I am proud to claim a friend from there. Reading what you wrote made me proud to know a Mainer. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was one of the great figures of US History and his leadership of the 20th Maine was far more deserving than simply a footnote in a dusty, unread academic monograph. Chamberlain was simply extraordinary.

    Allow me a moment to thank you. Your wonderfully well-written Open Letter made me feel hopeful about gay and lesbian Mainers’ chances this time around. I am cautiously optimistic.

    Thank you, JPC. I am proud to know you…and you have great taste in music.

    ~JWC

  8. Joel Lessard says:

    Awesome Post. I lived in Maine with my then partner (who is from Maine) when the referendum vote took away the right granted for us to marry. It was most disheartening. We are now back in Maryland, and as I am sure you know, are also having our right to marry put to a referendum vote this November. I am from Maryland, and I hope for all same-gendered couples in Maine and Maryland that the opposition isn’t stronger than our supporters this year. Not to mention the fact that I am also a wedding officiant, but I am also a wedding officiant….and I’d like nothing more than to be able to pronounce same gendered couples married in the very near future! Thank you for this post.

    • theelderj says:

      I am sorry you left the state, but I hope that the vote turns out better in both maine and maryland.

      And, for those of us who are sentimental, what’s wrong with more weddings all the way around?

      (And thank you for reading.)

  9. […] road in a truck that will only go in first gear to reach a maximum speed of about 15. It’s Maine, what can I say? He said that he heard a loud sucking noise and than the two loud bangs of the […]

  10. […] we can always still make a difference on the local level. As I have mentioned before, there are several states, including Maine, where Civil rights are being decided on the ballot. Vote for Marriage Equality. Vote for […]

  11. […] We take a break this weekend from political posts, apocalyptic visions, earthquakes, and Marriage Equality, to consider another personal passion (sports). Part 2 will be posted on […]

  12. […] sweet family. Having my brother, sister, and all of their spouses and kids in our family home in Maine is certainly not the easiest on everyone but is still a good time. Even when the furnace is not […]

  13. […] This stuff is the soundtrack of my high school years, even if I did grow up in the middle of the woods with almost no ethnic diversity. Rap is still huge in the trailer park scene and I think it […]

  14. […] the embarrassing juvenile confusion between Martin Luther and MLK that only a very white child from Maine could make…) One of our pastors, told us about “Silent Night’s” original shape as “Stille […]

  15. […] obligations and the horrors of traveling with small children. We made the yearly migration to our ancestral homeland in the north during Thanksgiving week and it nearly killed […]

  16. […] been pretty clear all along that I like more than a friend moved back to our home state of Maine this last fall. I dated a girl seriously for several years in between and a few not so seriously, […]

  17. […] We briefly dipped into politics and received only positive attention. […]

  18. […] of this, of course, was due to the fact that I grew up in a racially homogeneous area. One thing that strikes me when I look back, however, is that I have no memory of anyone or […]

  19. […] the Elder J and I grew up in the great white north, we both have been into very urban hip hop for some time. In fact, I would say that the predominate […]

  20. […] I know is broke, even those who normally are not, as many people are very poor in our native state. There are not a bunch of economic opportunities here and you have to work hard to make not a lot […]

  21. […] there is more to be said about it. But I want to warn you before you start reading: this post is one of those times when I am going to start ranting. I will definitely get political and […]

  22. […] this album on a loop in my brother’s basement apartment in Astoria, Queens. Coming from the palatial home on a dirt road, going to the big city, (the “CITY” as it was referred to) was very […]

  23. […] too David Grayish in the vocals. The spare instrumentation for some reason reminds me of the rocky seashores of Maine, so there is something going on. Yet, the harmonies and pacing of the cover make me think that I […]

  24. […] made me want even more to decrease the distance between the man I am and the one I want to be; it made my brother get serious about playing music and writing; and, whether or not we want to […]

  25. […] subjects verboten at dinner tables and water-coolers throughout the country—religion (we crossed the politics line a few times in the past few months, so why not get this one over with?). I responded with an […]

  26. […] first night, I decided to grill a steak in the sub zero weather of our northland home and for the first time, I literally salivated when I saw a spare can of my favorite IPA in […]

  27. […] to the debate. I wonder if my brother, for example, would like the band more if they were from the backwoods of Maine and were playing in his dive bar? Did I start liking them because I knew no one who did and had no […]

  28. […] I was growing up in Southern Maine, everyone loved The Rustic Overtones. This meant that I had to hate them. They were actually pretty […]

  29. […] does an upper-lower middle-class Scandinavian kid from the great white north end up being such a huge Biggy fan? I think that he was such an immense talent and personality, it […]

  30. Amy says:

    This is beautifully said and written. Thank you.

    • theelderj says:

      No, thank you for reading. I hope that the country (and the world) learn something from our home state.

      (And from the bravery and forbearance of our citizens who allow us to vote to give them the rights the majority enjoys.)

  31. […] years before he died, he always made it clear that he wanted to have his ashes spread on top of a famous mountain in our home state. Since he died in the winter and my brother and I had not been on skis in years, we waited until […]

  32. […] may remember a while back when I wrote on receiving a free half keg of Oatmeal Stout from one of my home state’s finest breweries. Afterwards, I gave up alcohol for Lent and tried to gain some clarity which I […]

  33. […] blog is peppered with youtube music clips that serve as a soundtrack for each post. But it’s The Proposition: An Open Letter To Mainers (in support of marriage equality) that truly inspired […]

  34. I have been sharing this post since I first read it. It is the very best argument for equality in general.
    Your blog is one I look forward to each day.

    Though it’s probably the blogger equivalent of a chain letter, but I nominated you for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award anyway. http://adignorantium.wordpress.com

    • theelderj says:

      You are way too kind for saying this! I wish I could say that the inspiration were my own, but it comes from years of watching the struggles of others.

      I am happy you found something to love on this blog, but happier that Maine voted the right way.

    • theelderj says:

      I also wanted to thank you for the praise–it came at a serendipitous time. Before I turned my computer on this evening I was thinking about telling my brother I couldn’t do the blog any more…I felt it was not really doing any good.

      So, thank you for inspiring me.

  35. […] rap song ever. It’s got bad-ass beats and, as an extremely white person from almost the most northern state of the United States, the lines “I was the last of G’s, pump the shit that make the […]

  36. […] guy was huge in my home state around freshmen year of high school, but it was “Cause I got High” and “Colt […]

  37. […] irony of the screamed chorus. I love the implied criticism of what ‘educational’ even means. Growing up in New England, the universities of Massachusetts loomed as castles of learning and bastions of experience. The […]

  38. […] too bad Ray wasn’t from Maine originally because then I could say he was our greatest musical export ever. Granted, there a few […]

  39. […] band has been a mainstay in Maine since the mid 90‘s and I believe the Elder J once peed in a urinal next to the lead singer […]

  40. […] real storm that should break this heat wave is brewing a few miles to the west of my small town in Maine and slowly moving its way to me. One old saying from our state is if you don’t like the […]

  41. […] to be passed. I look forward to finally being able to slow down and enjoy the beauty of my home state in the late spring.  I will have a long three day weekend before I hop back into landscaping which […]

  42. […] (unlikely, I feared, in light of recent decisions on Voting Rights and Affirmative Action), we are reposting one of my favorite and most passionate posts. Here’s some ancient Greek to get you in the […]

  43. […] industry. I was very wrong, especially in the small communities in which we live out here in Maine. It was naive of me to think this and now I see that almost every job can have this shit and the […]

  44. […] true it is that Maine is my home. And, yet, the paradox is that the twin forces of nostalgia and childhood identity formation make me identify with being a Mainer even more strongly. I know that I […]

  45. […] there is more to be said about it. But I want to warn you before you start reading: this post is one of those times when I am going to start ranting. I will definitely get political and […]

  46. […] subjects verboten at dinner tables and water-coolers throughout the country—religion (we crossed the politics line a few times in the past few months, so why not get this one over with?). I responded with an […]

  47. […] the embarrassing juvenile confusion between Martin Luther and MLK that only a very white child from Maine could make…) One of our pastors, told us about “Silent Night’s” original shape as “Stille […]

  48. […] years before he died, he always made it clear that he wanted to have his ashes spread on top of a famous mountain in our home state. Since he died in the winter and my brother and I had not been on skis in years, we waited until […]

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