I will have to admit that I totally teared watching the tribute to Ted Kennedy at the Democratic National Convention on television tonight. I remembered when my Nana, after I ran for class treasurer in high school, said that I “scared my grandmotha” (in her Boston accent) and I better not go into politics because the Kennedy curse would have me killed. (What a way to scare a 14-year old, right? Don’t participate in your extracurricular activity, you’ll be killed! No wonder I have nightmares at night).
As my grandmother grew older and older, I appreciated her much more. She became HYSTERICAL. I couldn’t go more than five minutes without laughing when I was around her. After my grandfather died, she became this kick-boxing, bilingual, lean-mean-sassy-machine. While we didn’t agree upon everything toward the end of her life, when she suddenly became incredibly religious (and not in the good way), I loved her dearly. She was my Nana.
Before she passed, we got to finish our conversation about politics and about our heritage. Since it wasn’t often spoken about in our family, and I could sense there was some bitterness around the issue, I wanted to ask her about her previous comments she had made years before. “What did she mean about the Kennedy curse?” I asked myself. “Did she mean that I was actually related to the Kennedys?”
When we finally got to continue our conversation, en route to the last family reunion I got to spend with her, it was life-changing. She didn’t want to talk about it too much, but did hatch out the details for me. I found out that I am indeed very distantly related to the Kennedys (like 5th cousins or something like that). JFK’s grandmother (Mary Augusta Hickey) is my great (great-great-great-great) grandmother. In a practical sense, it’s like.. under 5-10% of shared DNA… but that didn’t matter to me.
Identifying deeply with my Irish roots, this was huge. As one of my friends Mary in college put it, “Some Irish Catholic people have a picture of JFK on the mantle, right next to Mother Mary!” Or as my sister would put it “Damn, he’s hot!”
All kidding aside, the meaning behind this new revelation had nothing to do with the fact that the family is famous. In fact, I’m pretty sure I could count on one hand the number of people I have told. After all, I don’t talk to them, I’ve never met them, and I don’t know them. At all. All of the meaning is held in my heart, and in my heart alone. On that day, my Nana solidified what I already knew, and what she told me she already knew… that fighting for what is right and what is just is inherent for me. It’s in my blood. It is who I am. When my Nana told me, in our last year together, the summer before my senior year of high school, that she knew I was stubborn “in a good way,” and that I had great things ahead of me in my life, it meant so much to me.
As I have grown up and become the man I am today, I have often pondered what both of my grandmothers would think of who I have become. My dad’s mom, my Grandma, without a doubt would love me in the truest sense of the word. I always knew that from my first memory of her, to when she passed when I was eight. From the first moment I remember with her, she looked at me as if I was perfect, flaws and all.
Throughout my transition, however, when I thought about my Nana, I got caught up. In some of the last memories I have with her, after she “found Jesus” (a very mean Jesus that I’m convinced was hiding in her pantry along with the salt-free/sugar-free life), she said some very unfriendly things about gay people. While my Nana’s beliefs towards the end of her life became a little … uncharacteristic of her usual self, I know in my heart that she would be proud of me today, because I stand up for what I believe in, even when it isn’t popular or favorable.
I believe in civil rights. I believe that is absurd that, in this election, we are fighting battles for women’s rights that we all assumed were already decided upon a solid 50 years ago. I believe in the equality of all people, regardless of religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, national origin, veteran status, etc.
Most importantly, I believe that human rights come first, above all other issues and all other things.
If you think women should be forced to undergo medically unnecessary procedures against their will that involve shoving a large wand up someone’s vagina, I’m sorry, but you won’t get my vote.
If you believe the love that I share with my partner is less than someone else’s, I’m sorry, but again, you won’t get my vote.
If you believe that healthcare is a privilege of the wealthy, and not an inalienable human right, once again, you won’t get my vote.
And if you believe that “freedom of religion” means “freedom of Christians to force their beliefs on others,” once again, you won’t get my vote.
My Nana knew that, and I felt her presence as I watched the the tribute to Ted Kennedy tonight. I was crying and laughing at the same time tonight when the DNC tribute to Ted Kennedy showed a debate between Romney and Kennedy from the early 1990s and Kennedy said, “I am pro-choice. Mitt Romney is multiple choice.” It is days like this that I take a moment and say, “Well Nana, I may not be a politician yet, but I am an advocate and an activist… What can I say? I stand up for what I believe in. It’s in my blood. You’re the one that told me that.”
“If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” Hillel the Elder, Pirkei Avot