“Whatever fear invents, I swear it makes no sense.” — Peter Gabriel, from the song “Come Talk to Me”
In the summer of 1987, I quit a job I loved because I felt a burning need to spend time interviewing and hanging out with my two remaining grandparents, my maternal grandmother, Mammaw, and my paternal grandmother, Nana. I don’t remember if any particular event sparked this burning need, or whether I just suddenly realized that they probably wouldn’t live forever.
I bought a video camera and a decent tape recorder, packed up my un-air-conditioned Honda Civic sedan, and headed from Washington, DC to Mobile, Alabama, where Mammaw had spent most of her life. Mammaw was 88 years old, sharp as a razor, and a complete spitfire. Her macular degeneration had advanced to the point that she only had the barest slivers of peripheral vision. She still loved to watch TV, though, so throughout the week that I stayed with her, I often found her in the living room, chair pulled up to within inches of the TV, head turned to the side, watching TV out of the corners of her eyes. She talked back to the TV a lot, a trait I seem to have inherited.
Like many people with visual impairments, Mammaw did a lot of things by feel. One of the things she couldn’t do by feel any more was driving. Mammaw had always loved to drive so this was a particularly difficult loss for her. My childhood memories of riding in the car with Mammaw and Pampaw involve giggling quietly with my brothers and/or cousins while Mammaw peppered Pampaw with reasons why he needed to pull over so that she could take the wheel: he was lost; he was going the wrong way; he was driving too fast; he was driving too slowly; he wasn’t passing cars she thought he ought to pass; or she just plain didn’t like how he was driving.
I was more than a little nervous when we set out one morning for a day trip Dixonville, Alabama, where much of that side of my family is buried. Mammaw had made that trip probably thousands of times in her 88 years, and she probably could have driven it herself if there had been no other cars or pedestrians to worry about. So when I took a particular route past Flomaton, she started complaining that we were going the wrong way. I checked the map to make sure, and we had a little verbal back and forth for awhile before she muttered, “Well, you know, this is not the way AH would have gone.”
In Dixonville, Mammaw gave me a tour of “our” little cemetery. The video footage from that day is hilarious to me because every now and then I would stumble over a stone and the camera would suddenly be pointing at the ground, or the sky, but you can still hear Mammaw telling a story about someone. The woman couldn’t see a lick, but she sauntered and glided through the bumpy ground of the cemetery in her high heels as if she were Ginger Rogers. I lurched and careened through it as if I were a one-legged rodeo clown wearing a blindfold and a shoe with a broken heel.
On our way back to Mobile, it started raining, and Mammaw cranked up the volume of her fretting. She kept telling me to pull over to the side of the road. I channeled Pampaw and insisted that I could see just fine. Finally, she scolded, “Now Jo-wah, ah want you to pull ovah like all these othuh cahs.” I looked around and all I could see were the pine trees that lined both sides of the highway. There weren’t even any other cars ON the highway, much less pulled off to the side. “What cars, Mammaw?” She turned her head toward me, glared and waved her crookedy finger, “See? ALL those CAHS on the SAHD of the ROAD!” I took a deep breath. “Those are trees, Mammaw. Not cars.”
Five minutes of heavy silence passed. Then Mammaw’s spirits rallied and she broke the silence: “You know, ah still think you should pull ovah, Jo-wah.” “Why’s that, Mammaw?” “Well, you know, theah’s a drawbridge up ahead a ways. It might be open.”
This is the story that came into my mind when I wondered what to write about Judge Vaughn Walker’s recent ruling that California’s Proposition 8 violates the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. I’ve been worried that my license for queerness might get revoked if I let that occasion pass without comment.
I always suspected that Mammaw’s irrational fears — the drawbridge that might be open, my ignorance of or refusal to acknowledge whatever imminent danger had prompted every other driver (or tree) to pull over — were fueled in part by her severely limited vision. Macular degeneration had left her navigating a world of shadows and dim light, as described in this excerpt from Google health on the symptoms of the disease:
Often objects in the central vision look distorted and dim, and colors look faded. A patient may have trouble reading print or seeing other details, but can generally see well enough to walk and perform most routine activities…As the disease becomes worse, you may need more light to read or perform everyday tasks. The blurred spot in the center of vision gradually gets larger and darker. In the later stages, you may not be able to recognize faces until people are close to you.
Whenever I read the various cases people make against equal marriage, I hear that same sort of irrational fear, that same macular degeneration that reduces queer people and our families to unrecognizable shadows. Although Judge Walker’s fact-based ruling picks apart those fears with the same efficiency of Bayou people picking apart crawfish, I doubt that many of the foes of equal marriage will be swayed. As anyone knows who has ever tried to convince a child that there are not monsters in her closet, or trolls under his bed, irrational fears, and the intellectual/ideological macular degeneration that spawn them, are immune to reason. To quote Emilia’s great speech about jealousy from Shakespeare’s tragedy, “Othello:”
“But jealious souls will not be answer’d so;/They are not ever jealious for the cause,/But jealious for they’re jealious. It is a monster/Begot upon itself, born on itself.”
Having recently watched “Othello” performed on the Boston Common, it occurs to me that, whether consciously or subconsciously, the foes of equal marriage borrow heavily from Iago’s toxic fear-cultivating agenda. Whispered insinuation, reliance on frightful stereotypes, planting a corrosive seed and then urging the person in whom it is planted to not let it grow (also known as “hate the sin, but love the sinner”), these are but a few of the weapons used to sanction, encourage, or at least tolerate the oppression, imprisonment, and execution of queer people around the globe, based on the notion that any evidence of our innate queerness makes us sub-human, or at least not as equal as other humans.
One of the clearest examples of the irrational argument against equal marriage comes from moderates, people who are willing to acknowledge a fundamental right of queer people to enjoy the legal status and protections of marriage, but only if the union of queer people is not actually called “marriage.” You can have the thing, you just can’t call it what the REST OF HUMANITY calls it. One such moderate is our own president, Barack Obama, who cites his Christianity as his reason for understanding that marriage ” is something sanctified between a man and a woman.”
As the product of an interracial marriage that was illegal in many states at the time it occurred, Barack Obama should know better. As a constitutional law scholar and professor, he should know that marriage as “something sanctified between a man and a woman” is a DEscriptive statement, not a PREscriptive statement.
Look again at the symptoms of macular degeneration: “You may not be able to recognize faces until people are close to you.” That sentence describes how legislators in Massachusetts who had never before supported equal marriage had their vision cleared and their minds changed when equal marriage was debated here. People came to them with stories about their queer sons, daughters, siblings, parents, grandparents, and neighbors. Queer people came to them with happy stories about family acceptance, finding love, building a family, as well as tragic stories of being shut out of hospitals, funerals, their own homes, or family photographs because they weren’t considered “next of kin.”
I’m willing to cut Obama a little slack for his macular degeneration on equal marriage because he’s a politician dealing with all the demons that are part of that particular lifestyle choice. He’s reminding people that he’s a Christian, not a Muslim. He’s trying to remain electable, and support for equal marriage is, for now, the third rail in U.S. political life – touch it and you die, especially if you have national political aspirations. Based on Obama’s stances on issues like repealing the Defense of Marriage Act and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, I think he’s trying to hew to what he knows is right: that queer folks deserve equal rights. Still, I believe he has planted his marriage flag in the Land Where Trolls Live Under the Beds. I also believe he knows it, given this passage from his book “The Audacity of Hope:”
“It is my obligation, not only as an elected official in a pluralistic society but also as a Christian, to remain open to the possibility that my unwillingness to support gay marriage is misguided…and that in years hence I may be seen as someone who was on the wrong side of history.”
Would that more of these separate-but-equal moderates such as Barack Obama would reacquaint themselves with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and not just because it’s one of the greatest treatises on civil rights ever written. Moderates should memorize huge swaths of this document because they were who King had in mind when he wrote it. Here’s one such passage that moderates of all stripes (political, environmental, religious, queer, etc.) should etch into their brains. To my mind, the statement below — indeed, the whole letter itself — can be easily expanded to address moderates of ALL colors and religious persuasions, not just the white Christian and Jewish moderates of King’s time. Indeed, the entire document might well be one of the more powerful treatments for the intellectual and ideological macular degeneration that plague our current cultural climate. The emphasis of the last two sentences is mine:
“…I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
I’ll leave you with this video that Lulu posted on my Facebook page the day of Judge Walker’s ruling. It’s a whole ‘nother way of making the same points as this post, but it lacks, among other things, the color and character of my Mammaw’s grace and grit.
And there’s this, because I just couldn’t resist: