By David Cobb
(This article originally appeared at revcobb.blogspot.com on October 2, 2012)
I worked the phones tonight at Minnesotans United for All Families, calling voters to start conversations about their opinions on the upcoming marriage amendment vote. A yes writes marriage as only between a man and a woman into the state Constitution. A no leaves room for more conversation while we work for greater equality.
Two competing feelings struck me hard. The first was just how far we have to go before all loving families are recognized. The second was admiration spilling over into awe at the energy and commitment of people who have more at stake than I do and yet are willing to set aside the combativeness of argument for the far more risky danger of genuine conversation.
But underneath it all, there was a third feeling, harder to identify. Not quite melancholy, but somewhere between sadness and hope.
You really don’t know how it’s going to go. The terrible, blank wall of a phone call to a stranger is a daunting divide to cross. But it matters. So, time and again, you pick up the phone.
“Hi, is this Mary? Great! My name’s David and I’m a volunteer with Minnesotans United for All Families calling to talk with you about your opinion on marriage …”
Mentally and emotionally, you throw yourself into the breach.
“If you had to vote today, would you vote yes and change the Constitution, no and leave the Constitution the same, or are you still thinking about it?”
That call with “Mary” tonight just won’t let me go. Like so many, her voice isn't heard in the horse-race reporting that passes for election-year journalism. She isn’t a hard-liner, yes or no. She’s still thinking about it, torn but probably leaning toward a yes vote. Sure, she has gay friends. One was in her wedding. Her husband later stood up with two of their close lesbian friends at theirs. But she just can’t bring herself to call what their friends have “marriage.”
“Is it so awful,” she asked, “that I want full equality for them and for their daughter who I love, but I don’t want them calling it marriage?”
She wants equal rights for all. She wants the benefits that go to children in married families to go to children of same-sex couples. But she feels we’ve lost so much, there’s so much change swirling around out of control in our culture, that something has to stay stable. “Can’t we just call it something else?” she asks.
“You mean separate but equal?” I ask. “No,” she sighs, “that would be wrong. I’m just torn.” “So a yes vote will make your life feel more stable?” I ask “Yes, well … no. Oh, this is so hard.”
I’m sad that she feels life has become so hectic and uncertain. She feels something eroding, but she doesn’t know what. As she kept saying, she’s torn. Maybe a yes vote, even if it hurts her friends, will keep things whole. Surely they would understand.
Most “leaning yes” people I talk to aren’t hard-line, right-wingers with an ideological ax to grind, for fear the heavenly temple will fall if a single brick is removed. Most “leaning no” folks aren’t radical anti-religious leftists salivating at the thought of anarchy. Few of us fit the stereotype.
It’s not ideological warfare we wage but day-to-day navigation of relationships with friends, neighbors, lovers, and even with our own parents and kids. And we want what Mary wants. We want a sense that our lives are whole.
As we talked, I heard a caller next to me deep in conversation with another voter. “Yes, I’m sixty, and my partner and I have been together 40 years… oh, that’s longer than your marriage? Yes, well, I just hope we can get legally married before we both turn 90… Go to Iowa? No,” he laughed. “What would we tell my mother? Yes, Minnesota. It’s home.”
There’s the humor I’ve been looking for, and it’s not cynical, not sarcastic, but gentle, hopeful, knowing, a reminder that underneath it all we’re talking about the deepest good we can find within ourselves and offer to another. It’s not about a definition. It's not even about rights. It's even more inalienable.
“So you’ll vote no?” I hear him say. “Great. Thank you.” because he knows what I also know inside. We’re talking about something larger than any law or constitution, something that can’t be legislated or judged, but something we need society to honor and protect no matter where it is found and regardless of gender, race, and sexual orientation. We’re talking about love.
“Thanks for your time tonight, Mary” I hear myself say. “I hear that you’re still undecided. I also hear that in your heart you want one thing and in your head you want another. That’s honest. I hope between now and the election you’ll talk with those friends your husband stood up for and ask them to share with you what their marriage means to them. They might be waiting for you to ask, and it might help you feel less torn… You will? Great. It’s been good talking with you.” And I mean it. “Have a good night.”