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.