News & Politics

Changing Hearts and Minds on Gay Marriage

Young activists are trying to reach out to conservative voters.
A famous Chinese proverb teaches that a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.

For Meg Sneed, a 25-year-old Arizona lesbian, journeys to change a thousand hearts begin with a single thought: There's power in sharing personal stories.

In 2006, she and other young activists in Soulforce, a gay-rights group devoted to the kind of peaceful confrontation practiced by Gandhi and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, traveled eight weeks by bus to evangelical colleges to share what it's like to be gay.

The next year, Sneed, who was fighting cancer, was weak from chemotherapy but walked 60 miles to help raise money for breast cancer research.

Now, with her home state set to vote on banning same-sex couples from marrying, Sneed is back on the move: Starting Aug. 8, she and other young Soulforce activists will walk 96 miles to the state capitol to share touching accounts of how the amendment would hurt real people.

She picked 96 miles for the six-day trek through egg-frying heat because that's the number of years gay Arizonans haven't had equal rights. (Arizona became a state in 1912.)

"Walking 96 miles," Sneed says of her bold adventure, "is nothing compared to a gay or lesbian person being told they can't see their partner in their dying moments at a hospital because they don't have full marriage rights."

At the same time as the blazing walk, other Soulforce activists will spread out to share their stories with Arizona's young Mormons and senior citizens, two large voting blocs that most gay-rights supporters would write off as unpersuadable. But Soulforce never writes anyone off.

"It is important to reach out and have those conversations, because until you get the dialogue started, you can't start change," Sneed says.

Besides Arizona, marriage measures will be on the ballot in California and Florida. The broad Florida proposal would ban any sort of legal recognition for couples, except male-female marriage. To pass, it must get 60 percent of the vote.

California, where same-sex couples have been marrying since June 16, is the first state where voters will be asked whether to take marriage rights away from gay couples.

Two years ago, Arizona became the first to defeat a ballot measure that included a gay marriage ban. But that sweeping proposal, similar to the one up now in Florida, would also have banned domestic partner protections, even for heterosexuals.

This year, Arizonans will be voting solely on gay marriage. That distinction hints at the challenges -- and opportunities -- ahead for activists determined to change hearts before Election Day.

Will voters in California or Arizona become the first to turn down an anti-gay amendment limited to marriage? California looks especially promising.

In Arizona, a Cronkite/Eight poll in February found voters supporting an amendment by 49-40 percent. A whopping 11 percent were undecided.

Sneed sees those poll numbers as an invitation to keep talking -- and walking.

"If you just say, 'their minds are not going to change,' then you are right, their minds are not going to change. But if you reach out to them, then there is a possibility."

Hearts are reached, the Arizona woman teaches, one step at a time.

Deb Price of The Detroit News writes the first nationally syndicated column on gay issues.
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