The 53.7% Factor: Conversations on a Long Train Ride to a (Gay) Wedding

When I tell you I live in San Francisco, you may think being gay here is just a done deal.  And most of the time, you might be right: I don’t worry about who I am or whether I am or seem “out” to anyone else. My wonderful wife and child and I can simply exist.

Then I remember the irony of the train ride on the evening of Tuesday, November 4, 2008. A group of us took the F-Market train from the No On Prop 8 headquarters down to the democratic campaign headquarters at the St. Francis hotel, all decked out in our No On Prop 8 shirts, carrying No On Prop 8 signs and generally excited though uncertain about what was to be a long roller-coaster night of heartbreak ahead.

We were taunted on the train.  A group of kids were seething slurs at us, and the slurs were not at all pretty.  We were, basically, publicly humiliated.

It’s true so much has changed even just since then. Five years later we’ve not yet seen the repeal of Prop 8, but other states have managed to overcome the barrier to popular vote for the rights of gays and lesbians to marry.  We feel the tide turning.  But we still have a long ride ahead.

Last week we took the Amtrak Coast Starlight up to Seattle and back for Loret and Aimee’s beautiful wedding on Saturday, April 6.  The thing about these long rides on Amtrak trains is that you’re not just traveling – you’re dining, watching movies, squeezing through tight corridors, and generally hanging out with a bunch of people you don’t know.  For an entire day.

When you go into the dining car for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, unless you’re a party of four already, you’re placed together with others who fill the table.  Each time, you try to have conversations.

“Where did you get on the train?”
“Where are you headed?”
“Oh you’re going to a wedding – how wonderful!”
“Is your daughter going to be in the wedding?”
“Who’s getting married?”

Conversations with strangers are wonderful – even when one is badly slept and unshowered on a rocking train.  Conversations about our gay families though – even in 2013 – are still risky.  Here’s what it’s like:

“Who’s getting married?”

All in a split second, you consider the 2012 election result that approved same-sex marriage in the state to which the train is heading, stick the fact in your back pocket that 53.7% approved the marriage you’re going to witness, and by proxy your own marriage, and come up with the figure that roughly 1 in every two you meet, were they Washington voters and did they vote in this particular election, are going to be thusly supportive of the conversation you’re about to consider having.

And you try to evaluate: which one is this?

Not everybody gets this opportunity to have their relationship status a subject of national debate.  Usually this is considered a good thing – a matter of privacy – but we’re global citizens, sharing the same world, the same country, the same dining car table – and marriage is nothing if not about a societal conversation and recognition.

I don’t always succeed in taking the opportunity to represent who I am, even in the face of a 53.7% chance of being met with frank approval.

On the train, I failed at the first meal, with the couple from Imperial County in California.  Somewhere my mind made a judgment from within the context of the 2008 Prop 8 verdict of their home county, and I answered the dining questions vaguely, for which I felt like a deceptive and bad global traveler.

The rest of the conversations would go differently.  With the mom and her kid, who seemed almost mirror images of my daughter and me and were returning to their home city near Seattle — with them we talked freely, and I thanked them for approving R74 – even though I had no idea how they actually voted.  They reacted supportively – almost like this wedding thing is just a given.

Then there’s an entire other end of the spectrum.  My wife Leanne was practically jumped upon by a self-professed conservative Republican who wanted to apologize for his party and wish us well whatever the hell we wanted to do. Eventually for Leanne it became a matter of choice NOT to keep talking to this fine fellow — she had other things to do on the train, after all.

What a difference indeed the five years – the ten years – the knowing of one out of every two – makes. I should represent like every other person who is alive today can, but I get this extra chance – to represent in the face of a flying social issue.  I do try, and not always very well.

The flip-side of the 53.7% factor is the 46.3% factor.  For this good reason and many better ones, conversations on our journey, still risky, are more and more important, rewarding, and hopeful — every day.

The Human Transaction: Door-to-door; Click-by-click

In the fight for LGBT equality we are often told that voters have already — several times in fact — disapproved of this concept, and presumably we should therefore just give up and yield “to the will of the people,” or certainly at least shut up about it already. While I fundamentally disagree with this conclusion (not to mention with the idea of silencing a minority according to majority will), here is one small and powerful element of truth: To win votes, if people don’t know you, sometimes you need to go door-to-door.

While it may seem unfair to treat matters of civil rights like regional sales campaigns, I think it’s true that the heart of lasting and meaningful social change is in the profundity of the human transaction, person-to-person, in ordinary, daily life. In fact, hard-working folks such as those at EQCA have been redoubling just such a “Sinead’s Hand-like” door-to-door effort at gaining acceptance ever since Prop 8 passed. And of course few know about the importance of going door-to-door as well as the Mormon Church.

During the past few weeks at work I’ve been thinking a lot about the “door-to-door” element of diversity. My company (a giant global enterprise software company), has an annual celebration of Diversity Days during which it reaffirms the commitment that the key to success is in embracing the value of the rich diversity of its workforce. One of the featured talks during this year’s Diversity Days was about people working with disabilities. It was good to get a look at this form of diversity in our workforce, often only all-too-invisible in my experience. There is such unique “explosion of value” in any particular form of “disability” or diversity, as presenter Gary Karp cited, for example, with IBM “master of invention” (and deaf person) Dr. Dimitri Kanevsky.

The 2002 movie Door to Door about American salesman Bill Porter brought the humanness of the sales and disability diversity transaction to light: “He tries everything and even goes door-to-door:”

Though I’ve never really liked the concept of “salesman” and probably would be more likely to slam doors in his face, from the early days of the door-to-door salesman humans have engineered ways to make the seemingly heartless financial transaction seem more human. I love this example of Bill Porter because it shows how elements of acceptance and tolerance also come down to the great sales job.

In an age where we transact more and more online, this notion of going door-to-door seems at the very least, at first glance, ironic. I would venture to guess that many of us prefer shopping online not only because we can find things more easily from around the world, but exactly because we feel socially inept, and maybe it’s Scary to Actually Meet Real People.

But this is the very thing that makes all the difference. Not so long ago a man from a place called SaveEnergy Company visited our house and chatted with us about our family and our lives and learned what was important to us. It was a low-stress visit, hardly what seemed like a sales call, and we were not intending to contract for new windows that day, yet by the end of the day — of course you know how this story ends — we had contracted for the new windows.

In this case, money seemed to change hands among friends, at a friendlier, less lonely, human occasion. Were we tricked into transaction feeling like we were acting socially rather than financially? Does it matter if in the end the windows – and the experience – were good? Is it possible that many people choose online transactions specifically because they are afraid of feeling “tricked” to be human in exactly this way?

Nowadays we Yelp and Facebook and Twitter to find out what our peers and community think about local vendors and beyond and we regularly connect with friends we know to vet a business before we go. This is of course not new — it simply replicates the in-person experience of door-to-door salesmen or earlier bartering communities online.

Recently I did just this for a major purchase decision — a new (used) car with the help of car broker Bay Area Hand Picked Cars. I read the glowing Yelp reviews and transacted with this business, and in the end I had not only a new car but a new perspective. Now I don’t feel like I ever want to consider large sales transactions in any other way (here’s not looking at you, Target). I also feel like we have a friend in Ioanna Stergiades of Bay Area Hand Picked Cars who would go door-to-door for us, should the need ever arise.

The point is that today the online transaction is hardly less human than the in-person transaction, and becoming less and less so every day. The massive “in-the-moment” coexisting, casual status updates that lead to stronger connections, “accidental” business-to-friend conversions, and particularly my pals at my company who follow me on Twitter and then happen to see my live-Tweeting from the courtroom trial against Prop 8 — and then DON’T unfollow me: These are how the keys to humanity are played these days. Far away from the temporary online momentary monetary transactions we’ve come to presume, I submit even these tiny transactions alter us, little by little, every second of every day.

Back at Diversity Days at my company, I could not help comparing battles for LGBT civil rights with the battle for the rights of those with disabilities. The fact that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed in 1990 to prohibit discrimination on the basis of a disability — whereas 20 years later we still can’t pass a similar protection based on sexual orientation (ENDA) — was not lost on me. We may yet learn a lot from the patience and persistence of someone like Bill Porter, the true salesman, whether we interact online or offline.

We may think we go to the Web to avoid people, but we don’t. Every transaction we make, door-to-door, click-by-click, matters. Be maybe afraid, yet utterly human.

PS: End Don’t Ask Don’t Tell THIS WEEK — find out how.

Prop 8 ruling: When law goes viral

August 4, 2010; Castro at Market

August 4, 2010; Castro at Market

It was cold, foggy, and even a bit drizzly all day, but yesterday was a beautiful day in San Francisco. I paced around the Federal Building on Golden Gate Street awaiting Judge Vaughn Walker’s ruling in the Perry vs. Schwarzenegger case on the constitutionality of Prop 8. Judge Walker had announced the ruling would come down between 1 and 3pm on Wednesday, August 4, and it would be delivered via the court’s Web site as well as in hard-copy at the Clerk’s office in the Federal Building.

But as I waited in line, sometime after 1pm my Twitter stream told me that Jeremy at Good As You got to it first.

Members of mainstream media channels (Reuters, KCBS) were waiting with me in line and scrambled around a bit disbelieving when I read from the pages that Jeremy had posted onto Scribd. Scribd was quick to confirm that this document had become its most viral document ever posted.

Although it’s wise, as a rule, to not take anything for “true” at first glance on Twitter, I don’t think anyone can say as a result which “official” broadcast called the decision first. I have a collection of tweets and text messages, but no real “announcement.” Sometime after 2pm, a cardboard box arrived at the Federal Building, and the handful of us still left in line got our copies of the Prop 8 opinion, still warm from the copier. It’s a great thing to have and hold, but the City was already partying by then.

This is what “viral” looks like. PS: This is also what “beautiful” looks like.

The kryptonite that bought Prop 8

via creative commons license from courosa on flickr

via creative commons license from courosa on flickr

Freeze-frame in memory from my daughter’s infancy:

She’s rolling around on the floor several feet away. I’m talking with someone on the couch. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a tall lamp post begin to fall in a trajectory towards my daughter’s head. I leap up from the couch and my body flies horizontally, lingering in mid-air to barely intercept the lamp post before it makes contact with her head. Then everything returns to normal, I’m back on the couch, and we resume our conversation.

In fact, what was happening behind the scenes was that my body was transforming from mild-mannered “parent” into cape-clad superhero, faster than the speeding lamp post that threatened my child. Parents in particular are instinctually familiar with this state, but I have learned that these powers used in service of good are also highly vulnerable to purposeful deception when the safety of kids is involved.

In Behind the numbers of Prop. 8 today in the LA Times, David Fleischer takes us through the revealing study of just how effectively the awesome power of parental instincts was exploited to move a half a million parents to pass Prop 8 in California:

The Yes on 8 campaign targeted parents in its TV ads. “Mom! Guess what I learned in school today!” were the cheery-frightening first words of the supporters’ most-broadcast ad. They emerged from the mouth of a young girl who had supposedly just learned that she could marry a female when she grew up.

Among the array of untrue ideas that parents could easily take away: that impressionable kids would be indoctrinated; that they would learn about gay sex; that they would be more likely to become gay; and that they might choose to be gay. California voters, depending on where they lived in the state, were exposed to the Yes on 8 ads 20 to 40 times.

This deception is the kryptonite that bought Prop 8. It’s important to note that these parents are far from evil. They are not motivated by hatred, as Fleischer points out most crucially:

Another misconception was that those who voted for Proposition 8 were motivated by hate. This does not describe most of the 687,000 who changed their minds in the closing weeks. After all, they supported same-sex marriage before the opposition peeled them away. Yes, they turned out to be susceptible to an appeal based on anti-gay prejudice. But they were frightened by misinformation.

Although it is is not news to folks close to the campaign that we lost because of these school scare tactics, it’s good to see it validated in today’s report. Yet while the No On Prop 8 campaign reacted as if stunned by the explosion of kryptonite, and the other side knew all too well we didn’t have time after the ad-bombs to recoup in the dwindling days of the election, we’ve all had no excuse to not see this coming again. In fact, the exact same ads were used with success to beat gay marriage just last year in Maine.

The blame is not on the parents who are only doing what they are instinctually conditioned to do. Likewise, the solution lies not in further trickery and deception. To truly help parents continue to do what they do best is to expose these scare tactics for what they are, but sadly, the element of fear remains a top-seller in our world. I have asked myself how to neutralize this element every single day post Prop 8.

Fearing Harassment

The Supreme Court ruled today that the names of petition signers of Washington State’s Referendum 71 must be made public [Update: however, according to Courage Campaign, the ruling is complicated and whether R-71’s signatures themselves are to be released remains an open issue].  The referendum passed last fall, preserving domestic partnership rights and hence legal protections for gays, lesbians, and seniors.

Protect Marriage Washington had sought not only to fail this referendum, overturning domestic partnership and legal protections for gays and lesbians (and this isn’t even about marriage — this has been called the “everything but marriage” law), but also to keep the names of those who sought to do so private — apparently because of fear of retribution from “violent homofascists.”

Let’s get it straight, Protect Marriage, because you know this already but I’m not sure you want your signers to know this. Equating me to a violent homofascist is your attempt to continue to enjoy legal protections exactly while continuing to harass me. Don’t get me wrong, harassment is not OK – but just as it’s not OK for you to be harassed, you may not legally continue to do this to me.

Make no mistake: The real harm is where harassment of gays continues to enjoy legal protections.

I know this well. During the Prop 8 campaign, there was plenty of harassment on all sides to go around. Whereas the No On Prop 8 campaign officially sought to speak out against violence perpetrated on and by any side, however, the Yes On Prop 8 messaging, ignoring the real harms against LGBTs and supporters during the campaign, simply fanned the flames, in many cases equating gays with Hitler and categorizing us and bands of — well — violent homofascists:

And here’s the outcome of that (PDF).

While at the press conference after last week’s closing arguments in the federal trial against Prop 8, I had the opportunity to engage with a person working for Protect Marriage. He choked up when he told me of his inner conflicts, and that he saw how we (LGBTs) have been treated and it’s not OK.  He related that his colleagues at Protect Marriage had also received death threats. (An aside: read Karen Ocamb on the backstory on Prop 8 witnesses and fear of harassment in this case).

I’ll say it again. Harassment is not OK. But let’s be clear.  There is a solid history of real harm against folks like me and at the root of what most of us want is simply to live without that harm. I think most people, given the chance, understand this. So, Protect Marriage, try some honesty the next time, and make sure your petition signers know that overturning gay legal protections is akin to continuing to legally protect harassment against gay people, and if you sign for that, you stand by it publicly.

Fear of harassment is real.  You can feed it, or you can work against it every day of your life.  Make your choice today. I choose the latter.

Prop 8 Trial Closing Arguments: What really separates you from me?

Charles Cooper and Judge Vaughn Walker: view from the overflow2 room

Charles Cooper and Judge Vaughn Walker: view from the overflow2 room

My wife and I arrived at the Federal Building an hour before the closing arguments began at 10am, but by then we were already number 30 in a line waiting to get into the overflow room. We were told the overflow room was full and only press could reserve passes. By 10am, the line to get in looked to be 150 people at least – and luckily they had opened an additional two overflow rooms.

So we had plenty of time while standing in line to talk to people around us.  Though we were mostly too full of nerves to talk, we did meet one really nice guy behind us in line and talked about the trial, and about how my wife and I wish we could just invite the people who don’t want us to marry over for cocktails so we could really talk to each other and see how we are alike and how we are different. He told us he’d also be honored to have us over to visit him and his wife.

We finally all got in to overflow room nr. 2 and Leanne and I tweeted the entire way till the trial concluded at 4pm.  (There were brief breaks — we rode the elevator UP with David Boies; we rode the elevator UP with Cleve Jones and Dustin Lance Black; we got to talk to the many great NCLR folks there… we felt starstruck).

Charles Cooper - speaking after intro from Andy Pugno (to his right) and before Ron Prentice (to his left)

Charles Cooper - speaking at press conference after intro from Andy Pugno (to his right) and before Ron Prentice (to his left)

There’s obviously much of record there and much to say about what Olson and Cooper and Walker said during the trial — and there’ll be much written elsewhere, now and for a long while to come — but to me the most amazing thing happened after the trial so I want to write this now.

Thanks to Marriage Equality USA’s Molly Mckay, we got into the press conference right after the trial. We immediately met the smiling man we had shared the “nr. 30” spot in line with before the trial, and he gave us a big hug.  I then asked him what his interest was in being there — “I work at the California Family Council and with Ron Prentice at Protect Marriage,” he said.  To my other side was Kate Kendell, tireless and amazing director of NCLR, and to this side was “the enemy.” And we were already friends.  It was an amazing and bizarre moment.

Olson: "Our clients - they're not plaintiffs, they're human beings who stand for everyone"

Olson: "Our clients - they're not plaintiffs, they're human beings who stand for everyone"

As I listened to “his side” talk at the press conference about the wrongs people like us were doing to people like my daughter, I kept receiving pictures on my cell phone of my daughter, who was at that moment twirling with a friend in the playground in the brilliant light. And he and my wife and I kept talking about our families, and re-extended the invitations to visit. We shared pictures of beautiful family. I thought about the truly thin line that separates “our side” from “their side” and what in the end we are really fighting for.  I felt like the future is a bright light toward which we run, and one day none of this will matter anymore.  We’ll be beyond.

When shall we learn what should be clear as day

We cannot choose what we are free to love

W.H. Auden

Return of the Sun



We went to the Morrison Planetarium the other day, where despite Whoopie Goldberg’s reassuring voice, I felt the usual claustrophobia at the limitlessness of space and yet the finity of our Sun. My daughter was scared most of the time, but we’re not exactly sure why.

It’s my birthday tomorrow and I’ve been wondering what my daughter, and generations to come, will find (and make) of these digital scribblings then of the past. My domain will have expired, and likely my WordPress blog underneath it too. Will there even be domains anymore? What of the Internet itself? All those pictures on Flickr? And What of Facebook? Will my Twitter archive be available?  What about those picture books we’ve printed from Flickr and the blogs we’ve turned into Blurb books? Seems like the newer things are, the shorter they last.  Will there be no hard-bound dusty spined volumes in our girl’s future? Perhaps nothing but an old Google cache — maybe even accessible by some odd unforeseen device such as a private air, space, and time machine… There’s a thought.

It’s odd to know that something entirely new – something inconceivable at present – will then exist to provide the history and context.  As we stand over the brink of one year and look into another, I marvel at how it is that sometimes we can’t really know — and sometimes we know better only in retrospect.

And on that note… I feel it’s impossible to wrap up the year 2009 on its last day, but after the passage of time I begin feel a little clearer about that other old year, 2008.

That was the year we lost Prop 8; we got married, and we also got banned from marrying.  It was the fuel for the worst of days in which I wish we never got up and fought so that people could be so legally ugly to us, and call us psychotic and worse, hurt us, and blame us right here in our homes.  It was perhaps the set-up that led to Question 1 in Maine, confusion in New York and New Jersey and elsewhere, and most profoundly atop much hard work, strife and sadness within the LGBT organizations while “Protect Marriage” rubs its hands in mean glee.

And then I shake my head and I see it there — a brief glimpse of the future, in the light by the sea where we got married.  I see the light in our family and in our friends’ eyes. I see the light in the field across which my daughter runs, stretching towards the brightness of the moving sun, and I know we’re never going to pack it all up and go home, because we LIVE HERE, in this warmth of love and kindness, together with our friends and family, in the light by the sea.  No longer is it the year of failure and loss, but it continues to be the year meanness loses and kindness follows the sun, as day follows night, every single moment of every single day.

I asked my daughter if she learned anything new after our visit to the stars of the Morrisson Planetarium. “I learned that the Sun is a star,” she said wonderously. Twinkle twinkle, little star. To my wife and child and family and friends and community: All the best wishes as one year switches to the next.  You light up my life.

And we begin again.