I make phone calls to complete strangers all the time. It is literally my job. More often than not, these calls involve hard conversations.
Yet I was somehow unprepared for the vulnerability that came with participating in a phone bank for marriage equality—the way it twisted my insides, set me on edge, made me concerned that I might not be able to be as pleasant as required. I'd never done calls like this before, and I was learning that having to pick up a phone, ring a total stranger in some other part of the state, and sweetly ask him or her to treat you equally under the law is, first and foremost, disgusting.
Minority rights are not supposed to be put up for a popular vote. That's exactly what we're doing this fall, however, because opponents of same-sex marriage paid lots of money to force a referendum on whether our state legislature was doing the right thing earlier this year when it granted gay couples access to civil marriage rights—which, by the way, is nothing more and nothing less than what's currently offered to straight couples.
Before the calls came the training. I sat at a table stocked with computers and cell phones while calming experts from Washington United for Marriage's phone-banking team told us we were about to embark on an evening of "courageous conversations." We were advised that "you don't have to take abuse," cautioned not to get into biblical debates ("They're not so fruitful"), reminded that "smile when you dial" really does work, and assured that if "smile when you dial" doesn't happen to work in some cases, there's a backup plan: "bless and release."
Finished with my training, I picked up the phone.
On the other end of the line was Beverly in Kennewick, who, like others named in this piece, gave me permission to use her first name. She described her age as "older."
"I've always supported it," she told me of marriage equality, which was not what I was expecting. "Because I think when you have a partner and you're sick, they should be able to come visit you in the hospital. I think it's only fair."
Beverly was what we at the phone bank recorded as a "1"—definitely supportive, someone I didn't even have to pull out the prepared talking points for, someone to thank and to remind to vote "Approve."
My next call, generated by the campaign's computer system, delivered me to Phyllis, an 83-year-old woman living in Richland. Phyllis, too, turned out to be a backer of marriage equality. "One hundred percent," she told me. "People have a right to their own personal choices." I told Phyllis I was surprised to hear this from an 83-year-old woman in Richland. "You just don't know," she replied. "There's lots of us liberals out here. We may live in the sticks, but that doesn't mean we are the sticks."
My edginess was subsiding, and I was now starting to feel a sort of disappointment. Would I even get an opportunity for what's called a "persuasion," a call in which I was able to move someone's opinion?
My next calls went nowhere. A woman in Gig Harbor hung up on me. Then a man in Gig Harbor hung up on me. Then a woman in Neah Bay hung up on me, with a sound of disgust thrown in for good measure. Of course, it could have been worse. I'd heard horror stories of other phone-bank volunteers getting hit with rants about diseased homosexuals and such, and I saw people near me looking seriously frustrated at times by what they were hearing on the other end of the line.
Next up for me was Diedre, 48, from Algona, "by the SuperMall."
Diedre said she'll be voting to approve R-74, but that her husband won't be. "And it's not so much that he's anti-gay," she explained. "He just has the perception that some people want special rights, and I've been trying to stress that it's not special rights, it's the same rights."
"Are you having any effect on him?" I asked.
"Not really," she replied.
Diedre is also a Ron Paul backer who's opposed to big government and entitlement programs. Deidre also told me she's worked for the Social Security Administration for a decade.
"How do you reconcile that with your political beliefs?" I asked
"Good question," she replied. "I wrestle with that a lot."
This is America at dinnertime, I thought—heartening, depressing, lonely, perplexing.
"I'm going to have to have you call me back," said a woman in Federal Way, sounding breathless and slightly panicked. "There's a lot of stuff going on in my house right now."
One of my next calls was to a home in Lakewood. I was looking for an older man. His wife answered the phone and told me, "He died."
"I'm sorry to hear that," I said.
"He's in a better place," she countered. "I'm happy for him."
It was a recent death, and the woman sounded fragile, alone, in search of soothing connection.
We got to talking about R-74 and she told me, "I hope this passes."
I asked how long she'd been married to her husband.
"Thirty-nine years October 5," she replied. "That's tomorrow."
I recalled that just before I made my first call, the trainers had told us to think of someone we were doing this for, and I thought of my boyfriend—which made me think of how fortunate it is for one person to find another person, how fleeting that can be, how stupid and vicious it is for the state to make it harder for gay couples to legally affirm their commitments if they want to.
The woman continued, softly, with the clarity of recent death hanging about her words: "We were really lucky. We had a good marriage. I think everybody deserves to have that."
Maybe this isn't such an obscene exercise, I thought. Maybe this is how all political conversations should happen.
My last call was to a woman in Tacoma. She sounded older. She also sounded as if English might not be her first language.
She had a lot of questions about gay relationships. She wanted to know: When it's two men or two women, who plays the man and who plays the woman? Things like that. I explained, and eventually she asked me to give her the address for a website where she could go to learn more about same-sex marriage.
I spelled out the Washington United for Marriage web address for her about seven times, loudly, slowly, more loudly, more slowly, until finally she read it back to me correctly and got there. This wasn't exactly a solid "persuasion." Others at the phone bank had achieved those and told of them in the debrief afterward. A straight-married colleague of mine from work had achieved three, in fact. Which is huge—think of how hard it is to change a mind—and it points out just how effective phone-banking can be, how necessary it is for people who support gay rights to get themselves to a phone bank right now (they're everywhere—see the box on this page for how to find them). Especially if you're a straight supporter. This colleague of mine was definitely helped by the unique leverage that comes with talking about extending marriage rights from within a state-sanctioned heterosexual union.
Even my own final attempt at a "persuasion," though it wasn't totally successful, was something—one woman, somewhere in Tacoma, looking at a pro-equality webpage and telling me I could now mark her as a thing she hadn't been before: "undecided."
A longer version of this piece originally appeared on Slog.