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 last Thursday evening—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.
Part of the problem was that the experience brought to the surface all the combustible fears and feelings that any gay person like me carries around, even in a tolerant place like Seattle. But there was something else, too, something that might seem intuitively obvious but experientially is a whole other thing. Having to pick up the phone, call a total stranger in some other part of the state, and sweetly ask him or her to treat you equally under the law is disgusting.
Yes, it’s a rather luxe way of asking for equality when compared to other things that have had to be done in the long history of our country’s civil rights struggles. Still: it’s disgusting.
Minority rights are not supposed to be put up for a popular vote. Period. That is exactly what’s happening with this fall’s Referendum 74, however, and to experience the weird politicking this creates is to be reminded of what a bizarre thing it is to decide to put minority rights up for a popular vote in the first place. (It’s also a reminder of how important it is to make this the last time we do such a thing in Washington State.)
Recall: In February, our state legislature, with support from Republicans and Democrats, legalized same-sex marriage. Governor Chris Gregoire enthusiastically signed the measure into law. Representative democracy worked. Eight months ago.
However, the new law is now on hold because opponents of same-sex marriage paid lots of money to gather enough signatures to put it up for a majority vote. Hence R-74, this fall’s exercise in asking all Washington State citizens to vote on whether gay couples in this state deserve access to civil marriage rights—which, by the way, is nothing more and nothing less than what's currently offered to straight couples.
One consequence of this referendum is that all over the state, many nights per week, trainings like the one I sat through last Thursday are taking place. Mine was held in a back room of a building on Pike Street. We sat at tables 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 also 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 and ready to bless and release, bless and release, probably all night long, I picked up the phone.
On the other end of the line was Beverly in Kennewick, who, like others named in this post, gave me permission to use her first name. She described her age as “older,” which is how I would have described Beverly’s age, too, based on her voice.
“I’ve always supported it,” she told me of marriage equality, which was not what I was steeling myself for. “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, remind to vote “Approve,” and release.
My next call, generated by the campaign’s computer system, delivered me to Phyllis, an 83-year-old woman living in Richland, another rural town in Eastern Washington.
“I’m sitting here watching president Obama,” Phyllis told me. The first presidential debate had been on the day before, and she was checking out a re-play. Phyllis, too, turned out to be a backer of marriage equality. “One hundred percent,” she told me. “You know, people have a right to their own personal choices. I believe that strongly. I shouldn’t be judging someone else on what they want to do, and they shouldn’t be judging me on what I want to do.”
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. I had been prepared for the unpleasant task of talking to people who don’t believe I deserve equal rights, but not having reached any right off the bat, 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 from opposition to support?
Not on my next calls. They 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. A woman in Aberdeen hung up on me in the middle of her apology for hanging up on me. “I’m sorry, I—” Click. I thought that was a little sneaky. Next an older man on Bainbridge Island told me, “I don’t understand you,” which seemed genuine. We tried for a moment to understand each other but soon parted ways.
Then, Ronald in Suquamish. I apologized for calling him during the dinner hour.
“Go ahead,” he replied. “I’m old, I like to talk.”
Ronald is 80. He told me that if I promised not to vote for Republicans “who are going to cut my Social Security,” he’d promise to vote to approve R-74.
But this wasn’t really a “persuasion” type of situation. Ronald had already come around to supporting marriage equality on his own. He’d met his first gay people while serving in the Navy, where he worked on submarines. “In fact, I got knocked on my butt by a lesbian in a bar in New York, in my uniform,” he told me. “I asked her girlfriend to dance. She let me have it. Knocked me right on my can.”
That didn’t exactly bring him around, but going to college at the University of Washington, where he met more gay people, did. “I just got matured,” he explained. He majored in engineering, worked as a manager at a factory that made the reflective glass beads that get mixed into highway striping paint, and then, eventually, became an old retired man in Suquamish who’s grateful to be called by a stranger on the phone on a Thursday evening.
“As long as they don’t bother me, I don’t see the problem at all,” Ronald said to me, speaking of the gays.
Next: Diedre, 48, from Algona.
“Where’s Algona?” I asked.
“By the supermall,” she replied. “By Auburn.”
Diedre told me 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, in addition to supporting gay rights, is a Ron Paul backer who won’t be voting for Obama and is generally opposed to big government and entitlement programs.
So I asked her where she works.
“The Social Security Administration.”
“How long have you done that?”
“About ten years.”
“How do you reconcile that with your political beliefs?”
“Good question. I wrestle with that a lot.”
This is America at dinner time, 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.”
“Listen,” said the next person I reached, a man in Federal Way. “I’m sorry. This is pretty late in the evening.”
The time was 7:58 p.m.
Next I called a home in Lakewood 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 5th,” 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'd 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. I hope it passes.”
If there's one thing a phone bank acquaints a person with, it's aloneness. So much of it. So many people out there who, if just presented with a friendly, unexpected voice on the other end of the phone, want to talk about everything. I thought: Maybe this isn’t such an obscene exercise. Maybe this is how all political conversations should happen. Just two voices talking over the telephone, in the evening, in those humbling hours during and right after dinner, when the October sun is down and the season is changing and a person who’s actually willing to pick up the line and talk is likely to be feeling lucky, open, generous, curious about what they don’t know, grateful for clarification and contact.
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. She told me she doesn’t think homosexual marriage is in line with nature, though she does support our state’s civil unions law (which is not what we have; we have a domestic partnership law). She told me not to worry, that she would definitely vote, that she’d received her ballot months ago (which, in fact, worried me, as general election ballots haven't even been mailed yet). Then she surprised me by telling me she was pulling out her Kindle—for whatever reason, I didn’t expect this woman to be operating a Kindle. She wanted me to give her the address for a web site 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, helped by the unique leverage that comes with talking about extending marriage rights from within a state-sanctioned, heterosexual union.
But this was still something, and not bad for one night—one woman, somewhere in Tacoma, holding her Kindle, looking at a pro-equality web page, and telling me I could now mark her as something she hadn’t been before: “undecided.”