Someday soon I’m going to get one of those “No H8″ pictures taken (partly because, damn, the photographer makes people look good!). But I have to admit, every time I get close, I start feeling skittish. I know a lot of our opponents do hate us — especially their leadership. You’d have to be a blind fool to deny it. I even started looking up the dates for the next photoshoot during the Prop 8 trial when William Tam took the stand.
I balk, though, at pushing H8 as a brutal generalization. Because some of our activists do push it that way. H8 is their first word to characterize opponents of same-sex marriage, and it can be their last word, too. I think it’s a word to be used sparingly, and only with great care. That caution may surprise people who’ve read my entries on Maggie Gallagher, Janice Shaw Crouse, Matt Barber, and others. But we do a disservice to ourselves, our cause, and even our opponents when we fling the word at every person who votes against us.
A few weeks ago I was canvassing for marriage equality, traveling the sidewalks of Pasadena armed with voter registration data and accompanied by a videographer who would tape the conversations if I could get permission. I walked up to a handsome front door ready to meet Jeanette and Ohannes, a very old married couple.
Jeanette answered the bell (an eight-tone melody), and no she didn’t want to be taped, but she would talk about gay marriage. Her husband came out to stand beside her, and they smiled at me. They oppose gay marriage. Why? Because a child needs a mother and a father. In fact, a child would be better living in an orphanage than with two same-sex parents.
Does that make you want to scream? Well, our trainers had taught us not to. And in the long, jaw-dropped pause that followed, they told me they had both grown up in a Lebanese orphanage established in the years after the Armenian genocide.
I wasn’t about to lecture these two people on the topic of foster care and parentless children (we’re not supposed to lecture people, anyway). Instead we had a warm and personal conversation about how they came together and built their life, and the beliefs that sustained them through many difficult years. They were fascinating and gentle and wrong, and at first I had no idea what to say.
The basic rule of canvassing is, When in doubt, just come out. So I told them I was gay and that I knew I would never build a life-long relationship like that with a woman. And Lord, Jeannette was helpful. “I understand,” she said. “I can see how a member of your own sex would understand you better, and I know it can be frustrating to live with a member of the opposite sex.”
The videographer told me later, “She really liked you. If you’d let her, she totally would have given you advice on how to get along with the ladies.”
Jeannette wasn’t filled with hate. She simply didn’t know much about gays — just enough, in fact, to be completely wrong about us. She had been lied to by others (and yes, lied to by those who do hate us). But I didn’t find hate on that doorstep. I’m sure if Will and I lived next door, we’d visit often for dinner and to hear stories from their extraordinary lives. I’m also sure we’d be welcome, and I suspect over time their gay-marriage views might evolve from “No” to “Who can say?”
But suppose I moved next door and told Jeannette and Ohannes, “You’re against gay marriage because you have a toxic hatred lodged deep in your hearts”? They’d think I was wrong. They’d know I was wrong. I would be wrong. And they’d have no reason to hear anything else I said.
How do we change the minds of these good and misled people, short of moving in next door and going over for dinner? I don’t have an answer, but here’s another story. Last year on a canvassing trip I met a middle-aged Asian immigrant who opposed gay marriage because they didn’t allow it in the country where she was born. The conversation seemed pointless, until I closed it with the question we’re supposed to ask no matter what.
“This will come up again on the ballot,” I said. “Could we count on your vote?”
That stunned me. “Really? Why is that?”
“Because I see people fighting for it and I see how important it is to you.”
For a moment I saw her support as a tiny plant pushing up through the cracks on a sidewalk. We want to let that thrive.