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Monday, October 8, 2012

Hello, I'm Calling to Argue for My Rights

Posted by on Mon, Oct 8, 2012 at 6:00 AM

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.”

(Click here to volunteer for a Washington United for Marriage phone bank.)


Comments (46) RSS

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This is lovely. Thank you
Posted by bareboards on October 8, 2012 at 6:24 AM · Report this
Griffin 2
Damn it, I feel cheated. When doorknocking in Minnesota for Minnesota United, all I got were "faggots can burn in hell because THE BIBLE!!11!!" types and one bitter, divorced Ron Paulite who said he wasn't voting for marriage equality because he didn't think anyone should get married.

Yahtzee for you, Eli. Keep up the good work.
Posted by Griffin on October 8, 2012 at 6:55 AM · Report this
mkyorai 3
That was beautiful.

"I hope this passes." We all do, older woman from Lakewood. We all do.
Posted by mkyorai on October 8, 2012 at 6:57 AM · Report this
Cook 4
well, this just made me start crying in the middle of a classroom where i'm sitting waiting for the day to start. beautifully written.
Posted by Cook on October 8, 2012 at 7:11 AM · Report this
Matt from Denver 5
Another great piece, Eli. Thank you.
Posted by Matt from Denver on October 8, 2012 at 7:16 AM · Report this
MacCrocodile 6
I have a suggested edit. The title should read "Good Morning, Have You Cried Yet Today?"
Posted by MacCrocodile on October 8, 2012 at 7:21 AM · Report this
Terrific writing, terrific insights, and terrific writer. Thanks indeed.
Posted by capicola on October 8, 2012 at 7:25 AM · Report this
Thanks for doing this, Eli.
Posted by forbes on October 8, 2012 at 7:26 AM · Report this
The "aloneness" image is touching, as I feel it points to why a lot of folks in rural areas vote contrary to their own interests. They get access only to certain dialogues such as conservative talk radio or FOX, so to break into their typical discourse is amazing.
Thanks, Eli!
Posted by tabski on October 8, 2012 at 7:27 AM · Report this
Those who oppose marriage equality don't see us as a minority, or a group with any rights, or really anything other than deviants to be pitied at best and reviled at worst. They have no problem voting on our rights, because they don't see it as voting for or against our rights, they're voting for right and wrong, and they know we're wrong.

If we could get them to read this, and other things like it, and perhaps even meet a gay person at some point, we can change their minds. It's the only thing that works, otherwise we'll just keep voting on whether there's something wrong with being gay. There isn't. Simple as that.
Posted by ace9415 on October 8, 2012 at 7:28 AM · Report this
BearNecessity 11
Eli, thanks for doing this. I've been phone banking and canvassing, too. I canvassed Issaquah Salmon Days yesterday, where 99% of the people were at the very least civil. There's always one a$$hole though, and this one told me that I was "a faggot going to hell." I told him, "Y'know, if Jesus were here, he'd probably think you were a dick."

One of the methods we used if we engaged a reject-74 person in conversation was to try and get them to consider abstaining. By *not* voting on the proposition, they honor their beliefs and still "do no harm" to those who would be adversely affected by the referendum being rejected. The idea got at least two Reject 74 voters to think for a moment or two. Whether it sinks in or not, well... we'll see in a month.
Posted by BearNecessity on October 8, 2012 at 7:34 AM · Report this
bgk 12
This is my life every tuesday, thank you for writing it so eloquently.
Posted by bgk on October 8, 2012 at 7:35 AM · Report this
Pope Peabrain 13
Great work. Thanks.
Posted by Pope Peabrain on October 8, 2012 at 7:36 AM · Report this
Beautiful writing. Thank you Eli. And thanks for volunteering your time with the phone banks.
Posted by Marie on October 8, 2012 at 7:55 AM · Report this
Well done. I think you will persuade many to volunteer by taking the mystery out of phone banking and showing the worth of it.
Posted by SeattleBrad on October 8, 2012 at 7:58 AM · Report this
Good job, Eli, both with the phone bank and this writing. It made my gloomy Monday morning brighter.
Posted by Bugnroolet on October 8, 2012 at 8:06 AM · Report this
.......and I'm crying. Beautiful, and THANK YOU.
Posted by gnarly on October 8, 2012 at 8:13 AM · Report this
Maybe if you were actually a journalist it wouldn't be so hard.
Posted by Stranger'sWorstNightmare on October 8, 2012 at 8:39 AM · Report this
seandr 19
Fascinating read, Eli.
Posted by seandr on October 8, 2012 at 8:58 AM · Report this
Thank you, Eli.
Posted by happy renter on October 8, 2012 at 9:25 AM · Report this
This was my Wednesday, with a few "Don't you know the President is speaking right now?" thrown in there. I was very surprised by how willing people were to engage in conversation while on the phone. I had 2 persuasions during my time, and I'm going again tonight.
Posted by no_such_number on October 8, 2012 at 9:31 AM · Report this
This is great stuff. I like that your eyes were also opened a bit, and you learned not to make automatic assumptions based on a person's age or where they live (despite what Mudede would claim). As you learned, there are plenty of progressive older people and there are progressive people outside metropolitan Seattle.

Posted by bigyaz on October 8, 2012 at 9:40 AM · Report this
ScrawnyKayaker 23
Good to know that a quasi-random sample of voters outside Seattle turned up so much sanity. It's reassuring after my experience yesterday:

Driving back from Portland, we stopped for gas at the Texaco at the Highway 12/Morton exit. A white guy, probably late 60s, was badgering the be-turbaned man running the store with "is Mohammed going to save you?" Turban Guy was saying stuff like "it's not the same thing," so I guess he was trying unsuccessfully to make the idiot understand that not everyone who wears a turban is Moslem.

This was at 1 PM, and the idiot didn't seem drunk, so I assumed he was high on Faux Newz-salts and looking to show Allah that Gawd is bigger. I'd have joined the argument for recreational purposes, but I figured it's a near-certainty the guy was packing, so ganging up on him seemed like a bad idea, what with my daughter in the line of fire and all.

If you're going by there, take this little detour and give some respect to the guy behind the counter.
Posted by ScrawnyKayaker on October 8, 2012 at 9:43 AM · Report this
Granny Smith 24
Every now and then a nice work of professional journalism pops up to balance the odd mix of things on slog. This was that.
Posted by Granny Smith on October 8, 2012 at 9:54 AM · Report this
I'll be phonebanking on Wednesday.
Posted by Jin Seattle on October 8, 2012 at 9:57 AM · Report this
I've been phone-banking weekly since June and this is very much been my experience as well. Although, as a straight-ish woman, I think my calls get a bit of extra undeserved leverage. What has impressed me the most about the conversations is that in their most positive, that's really what they are; conversations. Even when we don't agree - it's a critical opportunity for civil discourse. For many, it may be the first intelligent, kind, and considerate discussion that they've had with someone who disagrees with them to their very soul but can still treat them kindly and respectfully.

WHEN we win, it will be because of these courageous, critical, and fierce conversations.

It isn't so scary to make the calls and the pizza is delicious. Join us.
Posted by amiable.willow on October 8, 2012 at 10:00 AM · Report this
Puty 27
What a great piece!

It's weird and great that people can still change their political and social opinions through conversations. It's sad that this is surprising. Horrible people and idiots have really lowered my expectations.
Posted by Puty on October 8, 2012 at 10:00 AM · Report this
Urgutha Forka 28
Very nice, Eli!

Also, a Ron Paul supporter who:
1) Opposes Big Government
2) Opposes entitlement programs, and
3) Works at the Social Security Administration(!)

That's fucking hilarious!
Posted by Urgutha Forka on October 8, 2012 at 10:05 AM · Report this
Great piece Eli. Thanks.
Posted by gnossos on October 8, 2012 at 10:48 AM · Report this
Karlheinz Arschbomber 30
Best writing I've ever seen on Slog. Thanks for this article. The reader gets a small part of your sympathetic approach to dealing with people totally unlike himself. And gets something out of it.

This piece was 1000 times more moving than the usual Gay Advocacy drumbeating that goes on at this site, especially by your main Professional Gay, who despite all the good things he's accomplished, just has crossed the self-defeating threshold of bleating shrillness too many times.

I have always voted for personal rights equality & I always will; and just bashing Old/Rural/Ignorant-Religious types because they are Not Like You is being just as bad as they are.
Posted by Karlheinz Arschbomber on October 8, 2012 at 11:01 AM · Report this
I haven't done my phonebanking yet, but I gotta ask- when confronted by super religious types, are phonebank operators told to emphasize the fact the Ref 74 also explicitly states that religious institutions won't be forced to marry gay couples? It might seem like toothless fluff to us, but to religious people who are anti-gay it could be a very real selling point. To that end, I honestly hope that in eastern Washington the Ref 74 commercials are geared more towards "protecting Church's rights on marriage"... because that's how this will be won.
Posted by UNPAID COMMENTER on October 8, 2012 at 11:09 AM · Report this
Beautiful read and well though out, Eli. However, please edit a little more next time before posting. Squamish is a town in rural British Columbia, having no effect on this issue whatsoever. Suquamish, however, is on the Suquamish Reservation, in Kitsap county. BTW, the Suquamish Tribe legalized Gay Marriage a few years back, long before the passing of the anything but marriage laws or R-74 had even come up. Little known fact.

I did enjoy reading this however. Growing up in a conservative family, and several generally homophobic areas of washington, including Gig Harbor, I can relate.

I did like the part about the woman in Lakewood and the Woman in Tacoma though. I too, hope she hadn't gotten some kind of advanced ballot, or maybe she was under the impression the county elections that already took place were the same as state level? either way, it's a scary thought. Next time, please make sure you have the geographical locations correct though.
Posted by NW_Rider_79 on October 8, 2012 at 11:13 AM · Report this
Beautiful read and well though out, Eli. However, please edit a little more next time before posting. Squamish is a town in rural British Columbia, having no effect on this issue whatsoever. Suquamish, however, is on the Suquamish Reservation, in Kitsap county. BTW, the Suquamish Tribe legalized Gay Marriage a few years back, long before the passing of the anything but marriage laws or R-74 had even come up. Little known fact.

I did enjoy reading this however. Growing up in a conservative family, and several generally homophobic areas of washington, including Gig Harbor, I can relate.

I did like the part about the woman in Lakewood and the Woman in Tacoma though. I too, hope she hadn't gotten some kind of advanced ballot, or maybe she was under the impression the county elections that already took place were the same as state level? either way, it's a scary thought. Next time, please make sure you have the geographical locations correct though.
Posted by NW_Rider_79 on October 8, 2012 at 11:15 AM · Report this
very bad homo 34
This gives me so much hope. Thanks to you and everyone who is putting in so much hard work.
Posted by very bad homo on October 8, 2012 at 11:43 AM · Report this
Theodore Gorath 35


While you are making great strides in forming a trollish point which people will actually be spurred to argue with, the statement did not really make much sense. Why would being a "real" reporter make dealing with such a situation easier?

Also, your statement in the midst of so much support just gets lost. People can also easily see the irony of a low-quality internet troll calling a pulitzer prize winner not a "real"' journalist.

People are still just laughing at you, not being enraged by you.
Posted by Theodore Gorath on October 8, 2012 at 11:44 AM · Report this
Eli Sanders 36
@32: Thanks. I'm pretty certain the Washington United for Marriage phone bank computer said "Squamish"—I remember double checking. But I'll change it to Suquamish, because you're right, there doesn't seem to be a Squamish in Washington State.
Posted by Eli Sanders on October 8, 2012 at 11:45 AM · Report this
Eli, you are welcome. Thanks for the good read. Also, for what it's worth-had you called my house @ 7:58 p.m., I may have been a bit frustrated as well. While that is not too late, it is pretty late for someone calling with political purposes.

Also, I was incorrect as to the dates the tribe legalized marriage on the reservation. It was actually only just last August. They had legalized Civil Unions before that, but the woman and her partner kept pestering them, and eventually the tribe gave in.
Posted by NW_Rider_79 on October 8, 2012 at 11:51 AM · Report this
kim in portland 38
Nice work, Eli.
Posted by kim in portland on October 8, 2012 at 12:27 PM · Report this
kid icarus 39
Another outstanding example of why that Pulitzer is so well deserved. Thank you for sharing this.
Posted by kid icarus on October 8, 2012 at 12:55 PM · Report this
I love Lakewood Lady. My heart aches for her and I wish I could give her a hug or bake her cookies or something. Damn, it's dusty in here...
Posted by ZT Goddess on October 8, 2012 at 1:38 PM · Report this
Eli - I had the same trepidation about calling - I was adding "I am a catholic volunteer....." - I found several people open to conversation and were more likely to rethink their position after the call. It was empowering to hear the support - those who were with us 100%. I would encourage all of us to share our stories - don't assume you know how friends and family view this ballot issue. If they are supportive - ask them to talk to a few friends. The numbers are still too close and the opposition will be starting their campaign next week. After 25 years with my partner - I want a legal marriage - we deserve that...
Posted by tipn on October 8, 2012 at 1:57 PM · Report this
DOUG. 42
Nice article (though "Washington State" is a university).
Posted by DOUG. on October 8, 2012 at 3:44 PM · Report this
A lovely piece and thanks so much for helping out the cause!
Posted by the shape on October 8, 2012 at 5:14 PM · Report this
Great writing. Thanks Eli
Posted by Barak on October 8, 2012 at 10:41 PM · Report this
Beautiful piece, made me cry. Thank you.
Posted by ElaineS on October 9, 2012 at 8:31 AM · Report this
Greg 46
Good stuff.
Posted by Greg on October 10, 2012 at 5:53 PM · Report this

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