Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Hallucinating Arkansas and Our Big Fat Gay (Arkansas) Wedding: A Response to Those Who Have Asked, Why Arkansas?

Allen Ginsburg, "Howl"

I didn't wake up one morning and say to myself, "I think I'll try being a homosexual today." Truly, I didn't. That's not how it happens.

I'm always amazed at folks who think that people choose their sexual orientation, whether gay, straight, bisexual, or whatever else, in that cartoonish way. I'm amazed, because this assumption is so counterintuitive no matter what aspect of human experience we decide to put under the microscope.

Life itself just never happens that way. People make the decisions that life places in front of them. They don't usually control those decisions in the godlike way that the sexual-orientation-as-rational-choice crowd imagine they do.

Here's how real life happens: you put one foot in front of another. Because you have to do so, if you expect to walk. And then you walk. And you keep walking — foot following lead of foot as long as you continue your walk.

This is how life happens for the vast majority of us, because it's how walking — how moving forward — happens for most of us. We don't spend a lot of time contemplating feet and paths and kinetic diagrams that instruct us in how to move our feet properly.

We just walk. Where the path in front of us takes us. With the feet that do the walking if we lift them up and put them down again, one after the other.

People (including a few of you in comments here in the past day or so) have asked, Why Arkansas? When the option for you and Steve to marry had opened in other states, why did you wait for it to open in your home state, knowing as you waited how very unlikely any opening was to arrive soon?

These are good questions, and I honestly can't answer them in the why-did-you-choose-to-be-gay-this-morning way, because, just as with being gay, our "decision" to marry in Arkansas this week was far more a matter of foot, foot, than it was a matter of sitting down and looking at our options and then making a sober rational judgment about when and where to marry.

We definitely had talked in the past several years about other places. Steve's home state is Minnesota, and we had thought of going there and marrying after same-sex marriage was legalized in Minnesota. And, of course, there's Iowa on the way to Minnesota (if you're driving north from Arkansas), or New Mexico to the west, or California, where we have many good friends who had invited us to come out to their beautiful state to marry.

But, somehow, our feet hadn't placed themselves in any one of those paths when the surprising, incredible opportunity to marry right in our own state opened up last week and we chose to take advantage of it (path opens unexpectedly, feet follow opening) at the beginning of this week. And now I'm very glad we waited — glad for all kinds of reasons.

There's first of all the — I'll call it the testimonial advantage — of choosing to marry where we live. I'm a big believer in doing it here and not there: giving food to the hungry neighbor next door first, before sending the boxes of canned goods halfway around the planet. 

I'm a believer in joining together my ordinary, everyday life and the witness we all give simply by living in the everyday — by putting one foot after another and walking in the path that has been set before our own feet in some unique pattern. I believe that the lived witness, the witness of the ordinary and everyday, is the most powerful witness of all, because it makes of our mundane, enfleshed lives a word.

And that word has more power the more what we proclaim by our words, by our statements of faith, is enfleshed in our own lived experience.

So there's that. 

There's also the fact that we're here, after all, and not there. Certainly, the A-list kind of gay folks in places like Arkansas had, many of them, already chosen to marry in other places before the option to marry opened up here in Arkansas. Many of those folks, people with connections to circles of power and influence, have had their marriages outside the state fêted in the local media, big splashy articles celebrating Arkansas's big splashy (and totally non-existent!) tolerance for the gays, even when all of us knew that their marriages elsewhere had no legal standing in the state of Arkansas.

And when we also all knew, if we thought about it much, that many of us did not have the option to go someplace far away and glamorous to marry. Because many of us have jobs that don't allow us time off from work. Many of us who are living "ordinary" coupled gay and lesbian lives around the poor state of Arkansas don't have the economic resources to go elsewhere to marry. 

A lot of us have children to take care of, and those children's needs come before trips and expensive weddings. And a lot of us will never find ourselves fêted by our local newspapers or picked up as poster children in national campaigns for gay rights because we are nobodies. And not very attractive ones, to boot, when looked at via the optic of the beautiful people who are the movers and shakers of our world.

Willy nilly, it's those folks among whom Steve and I belong, and with whom we lined up to wait patiently in the misting rain on Monday morning — not the A-list gays who move in circles of power and influence, and who are embarrassed by overweight, mouthy, elderly loser types like William D. Lindsey, and, truth be told, by many of the other "losers" standing patiently, joyfully in line to marry on Monday. (I'm not making this up. I know what the A-listers say about some of the folks who were in those lines, because I've heard their words about those "losers" with my own ears.)

We're here and not there, because life gave us this choice and not a range of fabulous other options. We're here because life told foot to walk here and not there.

I did not choose Arkansas as my place of birth, and if I had had my druthers, probably would not have chosen it, because, well, it's Arkansas, for goodness's sake. Pick a list, and we're at or near the bottom of it: education, salaries, wealth, access to health care. The only lists we're at the top of are the bad lists, things like divorce rates or rates of violent assaults. (Oh, and rates of churched people who believe in Godthebiblethedevilandburninghell — and I'll leave it to you to decide whether that particular list is a good or bad one.)

I'll tell you a secret: there's a reason Allen Ginsburg wrote about hallucinating Arkansas. It's because we're the kind of place that's just there to hallucinate. We're easy to hallucinate. The New Jerusalem Arkansas is not. To be away a few days, as we were last week, and come home, is to return to that inevitable itchy question: here? We live here? Where the lack of education, of the kind of plain couth that comes with a modicum of breeding and education, is so omnipresent and so palpable everywhere, that returning here is like walking into a Fellini movie suddenly come to life, one of those movies in which the crazy people are so mixed with the sane that you begin to wonder who decides what's crazy and sane in the first place? 

We live here, where ignorance is not something to hide or to remedy, but to put on prideful display? We live here where ignorance is prouder of itself the bigger and grosser it becomes, and the more bibles it has crammed into both hands?

That's Arkansas. We're one of those just-there kinds of places that most people are happy to be from, but not to live in. The kind whose sweet gift to the poets of the world is to make it easy for the poets to hallucinate us. 

Steve and I are, willy nilly, here and not somewhere else. We're here because I was born here and raised here and because, when my mother struggled with dementia at the end of her life, a path opened for our feet that made it impossible to walk anyplace other than here. And having come back here to continue providing care for my mother, not knowing how long her life would be, we chose to put down roots here by buying a house, getting jobs, forming the kind of connections you form when you live a while in a place, and especially one to which you already have family ties.

Those roots and connections and dwindling family ties, not to mention the house and the one job that now supports us both, keep us here. It becomes harder to uproot as one grows older, unless one is among the bright and beautiful with things like options and ponderous bank accounts. 

We're not those folks. We're here.

And it seems somehow right and fitting that it's here we married. Because, as I say in an email to a friend in San Francisco this morning,

One of the particularly impressive things about the experience on Monday was seeing couples from everywhere in the state flocking here to get married, when their own local courthouses are refusing to issue marriage licenses to them. Many had babies, and they were from all walks of life and various racial backgrounds.  
This was a reminder to me of how, in places like Arkansas, many gay people live in tiny hamlets dominated by right-wing evangelical churches, and have no legal protection from discrimination, though they and their partners are contributing in so many ways to the life of the community. Letting such couples have the right to marry is a big step toward protecting them and their children from discrimination, and recognizing their many contributions to the life of even conservative Southern states like Arkansas. 
And now Idaho, a Mormon state, has fallen to the movement to reproduce Sodom and Gomorrah in America's green and pleasant land, the city God placed on a hill to teach the nations! Where will this all end? It looks as if Virginia is poised now, too, to move on the same path. 
An advantage of having Arkansas in the lead is that this embarrasses states that had thought they were more educated and progressive! Perhaps this is what Mr. Obama's phrase "leading from behind" has been about all along—putting places like Arkansas temporarily in the lead to shame everyone else!

That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

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