Personal Voices: Knocking on Kentucky's Door

Human Rights

For a moment – as I pulled through sheets of rain onto Idle Hour Drive, a narrow street less than a mile from downtown Lexington, Ky. – I thought seriously about turning around. Suddenly, the idea of walking from house to house in a thunderstorm to ask strangers how they planned to vote on a pending anti-gay marriage amendment seemed, at best, ill-advised.

Sitting shotgun in the steamy car was my canvassing partner, Richard. Looking at the basic facts of our biographies, one might wonder why we – a straight boy who had only recently moved to Lexington and a lesbian from North Carolina – were there in the first place.

Richard and I were among a group of seventeen people who were spending that Saturday morning volunteering with the No on the Amendment campaign. Richard�s girlfriend was part of this group, as was my girlfriend and five other friends from Asheville, N.C. Scattered across the city, we were canvassing door-to-door in traditionally Democratic and �swing� neighborhoods and asking people to commit to voting against the amendment.

The proposed amendment in Kentucky isn�t just your average attempt to ban gay marriage. It outlaws gay marriage, civil unions and domestic partnerships, in a sweeping gesture that limits the rights not only of gays and lesbians, but also of straight people who are not in traditional marriages.

Its language sounds like a stilted press release from The Arlington Group, a troupe of Far Right Players that convened this past year because they felt that the proposed federal amendment did not go far enough in codifying their ideological belief that homosexuality is morally wrong.

This spring, when Bush announced his position on the federal amendment, he did so in part to appease The Arlington Group and to woo his evangelical base to the polls. His stance and the ensuing vote that rejected the amendment made it clear: the issue of gay marriage would play out in the states.

This fall, the question of whether Americans believe that gays and lesbians are entitled to equal rights is on the ballot in places such as Bend, Ore., Jackson, Miss., Akron, Ohio and, of course, Lexington, Ky. The answer to this question will be determined by the private choices that people, such as the residents of Idle Hour Drive, make at the voting booth.

But as I sat in my car that Saturday morning, I was not thinking about political analysis or ballot booths or George Bush. The rain was only getting heavier and there were flood warnings on the news. The long row of modest brick houses lining both sides of the street looked suddenly imposing.

Both my practical and radical friends had advised us against going to Kentucky, which is one of eleven remaining states with anti-gay marriage amendments on its ballot. (Missouri and Louisiana, the other amendment states, overwhelmingly passed their amendments in August and September respectively). My friends� arguments were beginning to sound compelling. The radicals had insisted that marriage was too assimilationist for us to be working on. The pragmatists had argued that it didn�t make sense to send human or financial resources out-of-state when we should be devoting all of our energy to swinging North Carolina, the newest member of the swing state club, for Kerry.

Luckily, Richard was more on task than I. As we sat in our plastic ponchos, rehearsing our scripts, it was clear that he knew what he was doing.

The content of the script we used sounds at first like the kind of cumbersome rhetoric that only a campaign season can produce:

Hello, Voter, we were to say. I�d like to talk with you about a Constitutional Amendment that�s on November�s ballot. It�s a discriminatory amendment that denies basic rights to committed gay and lesbian couples. We�re asking people to take a stand against it. Can we count on you to vote �no� against the amendment?
Every time I got to the phrase �denying basic rights to committed gay and lesbian couples,� I hesitated, and my stomach turned. I was having trouble with this phrase for a simple reason. Buried in its language was a question that couldn�t have been more basic: in looking at me, a stranger standing on the front stoop, would Voter X see an equal human being whose civil rights s/he would acknowledge and protect, or would s/he see someone who did not deserve equal rights and protection?

But you can only ask this question rhetorically for so long. Ten minutes later, I was drenched, had knocked on four doors, and talked to no one. Across the street, I could see Richard speaking to a woman on her front stoop and, I imagined, probably having a transformative conversation about civil rights.

I had better luck at the next door, which was answered by a sleepy woman in a brown terry cloth robe. An energetic lapdog squealed at her feet as the woman peered at me from behind thick glasses and listened politely to my spiel. When I asked if she planned to vote �no� against the amendment, she looked a bit unsettled. But she recovered quickly enough and explained that she needed to do a lot more research before she came to a conclusion on the issue. She wasn�t hostile though; nor was she dismissive. We happened to be talking about gay marriage but it seemed like it could have just as easily been any other civic issue: the environment, taxes, school funding.

I thanked the woman and coded her response as �undecided,� which meant that soon enough another volunteer from the campaign would be contacting her. The No on the Amendment campaign is using a strategy that involves trying to turn out as many likely �no� voters as possible by targeting strongly Democratic and �swing� neighborhoods in its canvassing efforts and media campaigns. When backed by sufficient human and financial recourses, this strategy has proven effective in defeating anti-gay marriage amendments.

The next door I knocked on was answered by a man in his twenties who, without a moment�s hesitation, explained that he thought the amendment was ridiculous and that both he and his girlfriend would be voting against it. After a few more houses and a few conversations in which comments ranged from �It�s not the government�s business what people do� to �Everyone deserves equal rights,� my nerves began to subside. The majority of interactions went something like this and even when it was clear folks supported the amendment, they were coolly polite.

Six months ago, I wouldn�t have imagined myself getting active around this issue at all. Gay marriage simply didn�t get me fired up. Compared to other issues, like the war or the upcoming election, it struck me as lukewarm and, well, domestic.

But when a proposed amendment surfaced in the North Carolina legislature this spring, I was jolted awake. North Carolina is my home; it is a place I can easily imagine raising a family in, spending my life in. But if this amendment was to pass, staying here would neither make sense feel safe.

Gays and lesbians are the last group of citizens who are actively being discriminated against in the laws. The moment at which equal rights and protection are extended to gays and lesbians will be historic not just for our community, but for our nation. It will mark a significant milestone in the evolution of the American democracy.

I believe that marriage is a basic right; so basic, in fact, that over the years no one bothered to name it as a core civil liberty that would be protected by the Constitution. The right has chosen an issue that will galvanize their base and that, seemingly, insinuates itself between the infrastructural cracks on the left. Radical queers don�t want to fight for gay marriage because it�s not radical enough. And the establishment on the left doesn�t want to either because they don�t recognize gay marriage as a bona fide civil rights issue or because they are scared that doing so will alienate the coveted swing vote.

About an hour into knocking on doorways, I walked up the narrow driveway of a modest, one story brick house. The man who lived there pushed open the screen door and stepped onto the porch, meeting my eyes with an even, dispassionate gaze. He was in his 60s and thin past the point of lean. When I asked how he was doing, he replied that he�d just gotten out of the hospital.

I launched into my routine and, as soon as I got to the phrase �gay and lesbian couples� the man looked at me sharply, his carriage more erect, his arm raised suddenly into the air in a gesture that looked as much like a gesticulation as it did the beginning of a swing. �I know exactly what I think about that issue,� he said, his voice rising. �Marriage is between one man and one woman,� he continued, extending first his index finger and then his middle finger. One man and one woman, he said again.

He stared at me then and there was a brief moment before I responded with the curt �thanks for your time� that we�d been advised to use. I didn�t look back as I walked down the driveway and proceeded onto the next house. It wasn�t until later that I could name more precisely what I had felt in that moment. It was an odd mix of fear, compassion, and a kind of quiet amazement at the scene that he and I had briefly composed, caught in the same still frame, standing less than a foot apart on the crumbling cement of his front stoop:

Me, in a cheap poncho, raising my rain-splattered clipboard slightly as his hand went up and him, a stranger whose name I can�t remember, the deep baritone of his voice rumbling as he sliced his hand back down through the muggy air to emphasize one man, one woman.

The work has as much to do with a moment like this as it does the conversation I had an hour later with a young mother. As we stood on her stoop, she corralled her four-year-old daughter and her two elderly dogs and she explained in a genuinely warm voice that she was a registered Republican who supported gay rights and would certainly be voting no against the amendment.

The rights at stake in the debate over gay marriage are those that play out in moments of both unrestrained joy and acute vulnerability, when we are all at our most resolutely human. Will a couple�s decision to marry be sanctioned not only by a community of family and friends but also by the state? If a couple�s child is hospitalized will both parents have the right to be with that child and make decisions about her care? When one partner dies, will the other partner receive the benefits he is entitled to? In these moments, no one should have to fight to be acknowledged as human. In these moments, life itself, the body itself, makes the case eloquently.

It is not sentimental to sketch these scenarios. When we talk about gay marriage, we are talking about whether gay couples and families will have basic rights in moments precisely like these. This year, thirteen states have already decided or will decide whether to actively restrict these rights. As we think about this issue, we need to think about the lives of the gays and lesbians who live in these states. It does not work to say that these individuals should simply move to more tolerant parts of the country. Many do not have the resources to and many choose to stay because these states � Arkansas, Kentucky, Georgia, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Ohio, Utah, Oregon, North Dakota, and Michigan – are their homes.

Kentucky has a real chance to beat this amendment and, in doing so, not just to protect the basic rights of its citizens but to send a message that there are states in the South � like North Carolina and South Carolina � where people won�t just watch discrimination be written into their constitutions.

Defeating these amendments can feel like another in a long series of reactive gestures, a predictable choreography that exhausts even conditioned bodies. But framed another way, it can also feel like the radical work of liberation.

In this moment, I believe that the national queer community has twin responsibilities: to celebrate with those who are able to get married in Massachusetts and select, far-sighted municipalities and to protect those among us who are most vulnerable in the amendment states. In doing so, we must be neither complacent in our joy nor paralyzed by our fear.

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