A few weeks before the election, I did some volunteering for Fair Wisconsin. It seemed like a no-brainer. I moved here a couple years ago, thinking this was an open, tolerant state, and I wanted to help keep it that way by working to defeat the gay marriage ban.
Personally, I don't care who marries who, or how high their divorce rate is. I've been married for seven years, with the same woman for 15. As far as I can tell, no one else's marriage has affected mine, other than to make me glad I wasn't in theirs.
But as I walked from door to door, handing out fliers and urging people to vote no, I found my message was not really resonating... with myself. We had been instructed to tell voters that this measure went too far, that it was wrong because it might affect straight people too. We were to say, on the one hand, that the amendment was not necessary because same-sex marriage is already illegal, and, on the other hand, that it's terrible because it's going to hurt families.
It was a convoluted, uninspired, technocratic appeal with a whiff of desperation. Would this ban change everything, or nothing? If it was already illegal for gays to marry, what's the big deal about making it more illegal?
The strategy, as I understood it, was to go after voters in the middle - people who neither embraced gay marriage nor feared it would turn America into a giant Bangkok-esque red-light district. But the middle ground in moral issues is not solid footing, and can never win many converts.
Meanwhile, proponents of the ban were basking in the moral clarity of their message. Gay marriage was wrong. Period. This was easy to understand, package and sell. Even if I didn't agree, it was clear proponents believed what they were fighting for, and fought for it with passion. And as the philosopher Hegel once said, nothing great in the world can be accomplished without passion.
If you want to change hearts and minds, it takes more than ads, more than donations and more than a this-ban-might-not-be-such-a-great-idea approach. You have to have passion and clarity.
Doesn't the constitution give you the freedom to make any kind of family you want? Isn't denying rights to gay people simple bigotry, rooted in fear and ignorance? Do we want to write bigotry into the constitution, the way blacks and whites were once banned from marriage? Was there a shred of evidence that gay couples had done anything besides raise property values? Was the ban wrong, or what?
I walked on through the Madison neighborhoods, dutifully toeing the Fair Wisconsin line, though not really believing it, not really feeling it. I read the lines: "It goes too far." "It hurts families." And as I did, I could feel my feet sinking in the middle ground's sand.
But somewhere out there, I was sure, there must be a place we can stand firm and say this was just wrong, that it creates the wrong kind of society, that it is plain and simple hatred. And, in that place, we wouldn't worry that this clarity would offend someone, somewhere. And maybe someday, we'll find the courage and passion to claim that moral high ground for our own.