I spent two evenings last week calling the top 25 individual donors to Preserve Marriage Washington, asking them to explain, in their own words, why they decided to commit money to the campaign to stop gay marriage.
Preserve Marriage Washington has been using a clever blitz of commercials about gay lifestyles being taught in school—combined with the reassuring message that voters can oppose gay marriage without being a bigot. That line of attack has been driven largely by the National Organization for Marriage, which contributed over $1 million to the effort. But what do the everyday folks who oppose marriage really believe? What are they afraid of? Do they believe they’re not bigots?
Larry McDonald Contribution to reject R-74: $12,000
Why did McDonald, a retired resident of Mercer Island, contribute such a large sum to Preserve Marriage Washington? “Marriage is marriage, between a man and woman,” he began in a boilerplate of circular logic. “The truth never changes. This is a redefinition of marriage.” He says that his belief is “Biblical and biological, also. Marriage has to do with creating a family, bringing forth children.”
What harm would there be to his marriage if R-74 were approved? “I’m not worried about my marriage,” he said. “I’m worried what the government would do.” What would the government do—is there harm? “Unlimited harm,” he says. Can he describe any examples? “No,” he said.
“I don’t have an issue with gay people,” McDonald went on. “It’s not based on bigotry.” I asked him why not.
“I would say I’m not going to get into that argument. Because what is discrimination on one side is not discrimination on the other side. And you really have to form your own conscience on that.”
Curtiss Wikstrom Contribution to reject R-74: $2,500
Curtiss Wikstrom, who lives on Orcas Island, describes himself as a live-and-let-live kinda guy. But if Washington voters legalize gay marriage, he intoned, they'll open the floodgates for persecution of Christians who are trying to to preserve their moral conscience. Also, gay sex is a problem.
“Penetration of the rectum is bad for them,” Wikstrom said. “It’s unhealthy… Some other things they do that are unhealthy, too... Of course I believe they're immoral. They are unhealthy.”
What’s unhealthy about gay people? “Well, if you don’t know, you need to study—I am not going convince you. I get along with those [gay people] I know fine, I just don’t approve of some of their behavior, and I believe I have a right to do that. I believe I have a right to disagree. I don’t have a lot of problems with people who disagree with me. But unfortunately, they are not going to leave me alone.”
The problem is that gay activists are controlling too much of the nation’s politics, he says. After years of being on the receiving end of discrimination, Wikstrom told me, “Now they are the ones in the drivers seat—they are the ones who are pushing their way around.” R-74 would still allow priests to deny services for same-sex weddings, of course, but he finds the law would impinge on him anyway. “It’s the same as the civil rights movement. I was with Lincoln and the end to slavery, but then it got to the point when they were taking freedom of association by forcing people to hire people based on certain criteria. I just don’t believe in involuntary associations. Those people involved in that movement, for redefining marriage in Washington, they are part of group of people destroying our liberties.”
Mary Ann Boulanger Contribution to reject R-74: $10,000
“I have a brother, two nieces, and a nephew who are gay,” said Mary Ann Boulanger, a retired Tacoman who—like everyone I talked to—believes marriage should be restricted to a man and woman. “I love them. They are part of my family.” But as Boulanger understands it, Washington's domestic partnership laws grant equal rights to gay couples already.
“I have read so many instances, that if they choose to get married and you refuse it, in masses—many people call it hate speech, it isn’t. But you can be accused of it. I just feel so strongly about it. I can’t tell you how strongly I feel.”
What would be the harm of approving Referendum 74? "Okay, you know, I believe that every child should have a mother and a father. I believe that is the ideal situation for children. I don’t want to see our textbooks and our children in our schools in the 2nd and 3rd grade believe that it is perfectly okay or natural. For one thing, they don’t have to be told anything, but we have to respect these people that they want families. But I would say that’s not the ideal. There are things like this you know very well that this is only the beginning.”
The beginning of what?
“I know too many cases of discrimination of people who donated to preserve marriage in California. I saw it first hand.” She did not elaborate. (For the record, courts have found that claims of harassment were unfounded.)
“Let’s put it this way: If it is approved, it is the beginning of putting marriage with gay and lesbian people on the same level as marriage between a man and a woman. God created woman for man, and also created marriage for the creation of children—and not only in your sexual pleasure... It is not because I don’t like them, it’s not because I resent them, not because I don’t think they are good enough, it is because marriage is between a man and a woman, and I don’t think it should be any other way.”
George Reece Contribution to reject R-74: $5,000
Why did George Reece—a developer for Murray Franklyn, the firm that built a controversial apartment building on Belmont and Pine—donate to the campaign? “Just my faith, a Christian. Just that I don’t think there is a reason to redefine what marriage is. Simple as that, nothing more.”
Reece is a man of few words. I asked him what the harm would be. “Long-term, there always are—any time you change the laws, you open the door for more interpretation. I think those are concerns that people should have.” He didn't elaborate.
Will R-74 be rejected? “I would hope so,” he said. Will gay marriage laws ever change in Washington? “I don’t think in my lifetime, no.”
Todd Harris Contribution to reject R-74: $1,000
Todd Harris is a plant scientist—he studies agronomy—and he homeschooled his children in rural Franklin County for the past 23 years. He wanted to know if I was gay, and he told me that being gay is a higher calling to be celibate.
But Harris began by explaining that gay people already, basically, have gay marriage rights. “Their existing law gave all the rights to those domestic partners as married couples. I don’t think that we have to redefine marriage to give same-sex couples the right of marriage.” I mentioned if the federal government overturns the Defense of Marriage Act, domestic partners would be denied hundreds of federal benefits of marriage. “I would say this," Harris replied. "It is a state’s rights issue, correct? That is why we have Referendum 74 in Washington. If they think they are losing rights based on some federal law, it is really irrelevant compared to the state law that is being proposed. If you believe in the Constitution, then states rights are precisely why we have states and they are different from federal law. It’s a state’s right issue.”
What negative impact does he fear?
"I do not know that, Dominic. I guess I am afraid for my children's sake that the norm—we know that political correctness begins to rule. If I am for traditional marriage, just look, I am castigated... I don’t want to be political. In the sense that I gave money to this, I am political. I believe traditional marriage and put money where my mouth is. But I support traditional marriage, and not knowing all the answers myself.”
“As a Christian, the harm is a redefinition of marriage that has been though time and millennium, and we should not do that. We should not change that definition, marriage is between one man and one woman, not between-same sex partners. Your next question would go to that harm. That harm is truly out there, Dominic.”
He asked, “Are you gay, Dominic?”
“I love you as a person," Harris said. "I just think that through the last 40 years, we have changed in society to let all the guards down, and this is not a good thing.”
Asked if he thought gay marriage was about sex, Harris said no. But he did say this: “Living a celibate life, many people are called to do that, and through that sacrifice they find fulfillment in their life.” Is being gay a call to celibacy? I asked. “I don’t think I can say that 100 percent across the board, but we are talking about a percentage that could be behavior and some who are born that way and they could be called to celibacy.” Are gay people more called to celibacy that straight people? “I think it is very likely, and they are not listening.”
“Do not take me out of context,” Harris asked. “I am not a hater. I believe that as long as they have domestic partnerships, and those folks who live that lifestyle, who live that way, as long as have all the rights, they don’t need to call it marriage. It is between a man and a woman, and to bring forth kids.”
Ray Aspiri Contribution to reject R-74: $12,000
Ray Aspiri said he has gay friends, thinks they make swell parents, and supports his gay neighbors' rights to domestic partnerships—but he draws the line at marriage for religious reasons. “I am supporting their right to be recognized and respected, and I advocate strongly that there be a certain civil services to provide for that union, but don’t call it marriage,” he said.
Aspiri lives on Vashon Island with his wife. They've also owned a condo for the last 18 years in downtown Seattle, where they attend Christ Our Hope, a progressive Catholic parish. Even there, marriage is a “sacrament” and he doesn’t want to change civil law for fear that it “would blend what has always been clear a definition [of marriage] in the mind of many faiths, Jewish, Muslims, Christian.” Despite the ostensible separation of church and state, he said, “One shouldn’t encroach on the other, but sometimes they do.”
Then how then would this law—which concerns only civil marriage and provides specific exemptions that protect churches from marring same-sex couples—encroach and harm his church?
Aspiri paused for a long time.
“I don’t have a good example, I guess, of how to best describe it—who it would harm or how it would harm." He reiterated marriage’s history as a religious institution between opposite sex couples. Would gay people change the church? “The church has been very open to people of all walks of life, so from that standpoint I’m not sure that it would change.”
“Based on my support of marriage doesn't make me bigoted since… Vashon Island has among the greatest proportions of same-sex couples in the country,” he said. “And they are dear friends, major contributors to the community, and they have adopted children.” He added: “I think you can’t live a life as a hypocrite; you need to be honest with your friends and your family.... And don’t we have to, as Christians, as disciples of Jesus, treat everyone with respect in dignity?”
Thomas and Mary Matthews Contribution to reject R-74: Over $110,000
The first time I called this number, it flipped to voice mail. I called back later and an automated voice kicked in: “The number you dialed is not accepting calls from this number.” Makes sense. I wrote about the Matthews couple back in June.
David Carpenter Contribution to reject R-74: $1,000
What’s the harm of legalizing gay marriage? “I really don’t know, but why go Brave New World when traditional marriage has worked for thousands of years?” said David Carptenter of Poulsbo. But beyond the specter of a dystopian hell that assigns fetuses to a life of espilonian servitude, he struggled to pinpoint a specific ramification of approving R-74. “I think there can be all sort of things depending on what the courts do, there could be all sorts of unforeseen consequences.”
And it’s not that he’s anti-gay, Carpenter explained. “We have relatives who are gay. My first cousin who is gay and is in a long term relationship—I see how that has gone, and it hasn’t gone real well for him. But I dearly love my cousin.” Has his cousin talked to him about R-74? “No, I really haven’t had conversations with him, because it is kind of divisive.”
A Few Thoughts
These people are not crazy. And they are not hateful, at least not outwardly. They simply can't quite explain why they believe what they believe—and all of them, in essence, admitted that they can't explain themselves using logic.
Across the board, these donors share a fear that legalizing same-sex marriage will lead to, something—something bad—but they’re not exactly sure what it is. Even after all that money they spent. When pressed, they couldn’t articulate a specific ramification of same-sex unions, and, for the most part, they were unwilling to speculate. It’s very different from say, opponents of legalizing pot, who are afraid drug abuse will spike. Or charter school opponents who fear test scores will go down. Lacking a concrete harm, the explanations sound a bit like religious conservative knee-jerk—“traditional marriage” is the sort of thing their church believes and it’s how they’re gonna vote. But it is also a sign of more message discipline. When I did a similar piece in 2009, when Referendum 71 was on the ballot and the same folks were trying to repeal a domestic-partnership law, the donors I spoke to slipped without segue into tirades about how gross gay people were. Their obsession was with, well, dirty butt sex and morality. And I got that this time, but much less. Maybe the donors are just as fixated on sodomy as ever, and they’ve just gotten better at shutting up about it. But after years of messages from NOM about traditional marriage, ads from anti-gay messaging wizard Frank Schubert, and the experience with R-71, the range of reasons to oppose gay marriage have been whittled down to a few, hard-to-argue-with talking points.
But the reason that they’re hard to argue with because they don’t really mean anything. They say, when pressed, that they are voting their religious morals. They don’t even argue a pretense of logic, so unless you can convince them to flee Christianity, you can’t get them to abandon their belief about gay rights.
Even the ads about teaching gay marriage in school and persecution aren’t being parroted by all of these folks when I ask. I'm not sure if they are more disciplined as a movement, or if, really, their disdain for gay people is actually ebbing. Who knows. But they are allergic to the idea that they're bigots; it creates a sort of cognitive dissonance. "Opponents of R-74 are not bigots and they are not hatemongers," said Harris, the agriculture scientist in Franklin County who donated $1,000. "If they are like me and they want traditional marriage, it is out of love."