New Heroes (Mike Michaud), The Proposition Returns

Last year I wrote about the fight for Marriage Equality in Maine and explained how the upcoming vote was not  merely an issue of justice but it was also about the state’s character, that tolerance and acceptance of our differences was the state’s core identity. Over the weekend, one of the state’s political sons running for governor–Mike Michaud–publicly conceded his identity as a gay man while also asserting that his sexuality is besides the point, that the state (which has certainly suffered under the leadership of the current governor) needs good leadership.

Michaud’s bravery to be who he is (and he would be the first openly gay governor) despite the fact that it shouldn’t matter at all, that whatever his personal life includes he has already shown his character through the life he lives, is not only inspiring, it is exactly the type of no-nonsense honesty that best characterizes my home state.

So, here we go again, a re-post in honor of Mike Michaud. May his campaign go well; may he always live in a world where he can be true to himself.

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.

2 comments on “New Heroes (Mike Michaud), The Proposition Returns

  1. […] weekend, while my native state digs itself out of a terrible snowstorm in obscenely cold temperatures, I fly to Chicago for a whirlwind […]

  2. Baby Gravy says:

    Time Travel is Possible and your theory of distorted memories sounds more like an attempt to build your story to credibility being a “Teacher” i wanted to misspell all these words just to complicate your mission as you said you have a lot more learning to do..and well myself is more important.

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