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WASHINGTON, D.C.They stood near the front of the crowd at the Mayday for Marriage rally on October 15. Just behind a contingent carrying massive wooden crosses were three kids in full punk regalia: T-shirts ripped, Doc Martens painted and scuffed, hair dyed and spiked. The older folks in attendance, most in the casual American uniform of sweatshirts and pleated khakis, carved a little moat of anxiety around the trio. Were they there to mock the tens of thousands of mostly fundamentalist Christians who had gathered on the Mall in Washington, D.C., to protest same-sex marriage? Were the kids going to scream out some foul-mouthed pro-gay slogans? Not a chance. Josie King, 22, Johnny Emenheiser, 20, and Brandon Runk, 21bandmates in a group called Human Errorhad come from York, Pennsylvania, for the same reason as everybody else: to decry the idea that marriage could ever be anything but the union between a man and a woman. "Marriage is the foundation of human culture," said King. She slouched in her black leather jacket and her fluorescent pink lipstick stained her teeth, but she spoke with confidence. "When you can say that two men or two women can raise children equally, that's basically degradation to all human beings."
King and her friends might have looked different from the other people, but they were speaking the same language. These were people who felt themselves to be under attack. In just the past two years, they've seen the Supreme Court throw out anti-sodomy laws; looked on as a federal judge overturned the partial-birth abortion ban; and seethed as gay people get married every day in Massachusettsmake that John Kerry's Massachusetts. In New York just last week, Comptroller Alan Hevesi ruled that gay couples who marry in Canada qualify for the state's pension plan. What infuriates this group is that nobody seems to care.
But the religious right is determined that on November 2, everyone in America hear its outrage. "We are a force to be reckoned with," roared Mayday for Marriage organizer Ken Hutcherson. "We have woken up, and we are not going back to sleep." Constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage are on the ballot in 11 states, including the closely contested electoral prizes of Ohio, Michigan, and Oregon. Such amendments won landslide approval in Missouri and Louisiana earlier this year (although the Louisiana measure was struck down in the first round of court challenges), and there's reason to believe that conservative passion for the issue could turn out Bush-Cheney voters in crushing numbers. In other words, the gay rights issuenot the economy, not health care, not the war in Iraqcould decide the election. And not just because Kerry clumsily name-checked Dick Cheney's lesbian daughter during the final presidential debate.
Again and again, people standing under grim skies at the Mayday rallymostly white, but with a significant black and Asian presencespoke of living in a climate of apocalyptic fear engendered by gay people. "Oh Lord, as you hold back your wrath at this country, may you be glorified," testified a gospel singer onstage. In such an atmosphere, it's not surprising that "social issues" would sway votes. For this constituency, it's a matter of eternal life or death.
"I used to vote my pocketbook," declared Don Brown, a 45-year-old Harley-riding Tennessean. Clad in leather chaps and vest, his eyes hidden by sunglasses, the barrel-chested Brown dismissed economic concerns. "Now I don't worry about my pocketbook. God made me a promise He's going to take care of me, and I believe Him. Now I'm just voting for what's moral."
"I'm voting for Bush," said a kindly middle-aged woman from Pennsylvania, who said she was "too cowardly" to give her name. "I don't like his corporate policies, but I believe in his family values."
"It's the social issues that matter to me," said Samara Mendoza, a 29-year-old D.C.-area resident. "I have a son, and when he goes to school I don't want him to be confused. I don't want it to be filtering into the schools."
Terry Maxwell, who was at the rally with two of his five children and his 11-year-old niece, agreed to speak to me only after asking if the Voice was a "homosexual paper" and being reassured that it was notat least not exclusively. Maxwell, 39, was gentle in manner and slightly built. But when he started talking about gay influence on children in the schools, he quickly became severe. "We fear for their generation," he said, gesturing at the three young girls holding signs in the light rain. "We fear what they might receive in the public schools. Once it's sanctioned by our government, of course it will be taught."
photo: Sarah Goodyear