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Jive talking
Close encounters of the worst kind in the Big Easy

I HAD A MOMENT of confusion last week as I packed for a trip to New Orleans to debate the issue of same-sex marriage. I would be taking the side in favor of same-sex marriage (even though I didn’t really have much of an emotional stake in the issue); my opponent would be a right-wing evangelical Protestant. The debate would be held at Loyola University, a liberal Jesuit school in the most conservative diocese in one of America’s most famous sex-and-party cities. I wasn’t sure if I should pack Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, my Bible, my leather chaps, my party drugs, or all of the above.

Actually, I felt confusion the minute I agreed to participate in the debate, a month earlier. The invitation came via e-mail from a student representing the Loyola Society for Civic Engagement, a campus organization that promotes civilized debate about important political issues. The student told me her group found my name on the Internet and that everyone thought I had the right background and qualifications for their purposes. I called her and we had a great chat about the issues raised in the same-sex-marriage debate. But I realized after I hung up that I was unsure which side I was expected to argue. It goes without saying that I’m in favor of equality under the law. But a few months earlier I had written an essay, available on the Web, that voiced reservations about the GLBT movement’s singular focus on the issue of marriage (see "Over the Rainbow," News and Features, August 1, 2003). Was I expected to take the pro-gay-marriage side, or the anti?

This original bout of perplexity was cleared up a few days later, when I received a follow-up e-mail letting me know that my opponent would be Judge Darrell White, co-director of the Louisiana Family Forum, the local chapter of Focus on the Family and a major force in conservative religious politics in Louisiana. If it hadn’t been clear before, it was now: I had signed on to the "Same-Sex Marriage Now!" bandwagon.

Despite some initial reservations, I was determined to do my best. Not only in arguing the pro-gay side, but — perhaps more important — in keeping my undoubtedly prejudicial views of Southern Protestant conservatism at bay. (Views which, to be honest, owed at least as much to my liberal Catholic upbringing as to my status as a Northerner.) I had a chance to practice being polite when I met Judge White at the pre-debate dinner (quesadillas served with a very gay-dinner-party mango-and-avocado chutney). He struck me as a pleasant, alert, intelligent-sounding man who possessed classic Southern gentility and charm. We chatted briefly — delicately assessing one another, I assumed — and then dined with our respective student constituencies. I considered our introduction a success. Not only did I not call him a homophobe, I didn’t even want to. Little did I know, however, that despite the judge’s Louisiana bonhomie, he had no intention of being polite or putting aside preconceived notions on stage. Indeed, after dinner I learned firsthand a very hard lesson: that concepts of "civility" and "civic engagement" do not have fixed definitions, that they carry different meanings for Louisiana Family Forum members, say, and Gay Liberation Front veterans like myself.

THE FORMAT FOR our discussion was classic high-school debating team. We would be discussing the question "Should Same-Sex Marriage Be Made Legal in the United States?" Since I was taking the affirmative position, I would go first with 15 minutes to make my case; White would follow with 15 minutes to argue why same-sex marriage should not be made legal. We would each be given five minutes to respond. Then there would be two sets of student responses — pro and con — followed by questions from the audience for the judge and me. After years of gay political meetings where everyone yelled at one another, of political rallies where opposing sides chanted ugly sentiments in unison, this format seemed, well, very adult.

I delivered my speech. It was sturdy but lithe, a point-by-point argument (replete with humorous asides, of course). I contended that while people may disagree over the religious status of same-sex marriage, civil marriage was simply a legal contract issued by the government that, under constitutional law, had to be available to same-sex as well as opposite-sex couples. Most important, it would not destroy heterosexual marriage and family, but grant financial and legal benefits to a whole new set of family units that could only work to the general good of society. Rather than arguing as a "gay activist," I made my case as an advocate for social and economic justice. "Gay marriage would not just help gay men and lesbians," I argued, "but would benefit all society by bringing stability and health to more families." Actually, as I later said in my response to the judge, I believe that familial stability and health would be advanced more effectively with universal health care, a $15-an-hour minimum wage, and federal funding for parents who stay home to care for children.

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Issue Date: March 26 - April 1, 2004
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