Louis Marinelli, National Organization for Marriage Defector, on Leaving the "Dark Side"

It was a pretty big a deal when Louis Marinelli came out for marriage equality just a few months ago on Jeremy Hooper's blog Good As You. Marinelli, 25, had been a die-hard anti-gay marriage activist, and though not exactly famous, he's probably the most significant contemporary operative to switch sides.

Marinelli had been living in Russia for several years teaching English when he returned to the states last summer to take part in the National Organization for Marriage's "One Man One Woman Summer for Marriage" tour. He drove the vehicle that transported Maggie Gallagher and Brian Brown across the country, but he was no mere grunt. He was also NOM's digital guru, managing their social media and running the online battles in their war against marriage equality.

But at one point during the tour, Marinelli encountered some actual gay and lesbian human beings who, in person, planted the seeds of change in his heart. When they were no longer pixels, but rather flesh in front of him with their families, Marinelli said he could see them as people.

Again this summer, Marinelli has returned from Russia to head across America on a tour. This time, though, it's on the Summer Marriage Equality Tour, which he's launching to convince other conservatives why they should join him in supporting marriage equality. We chatted with Marinelli in Bryant Park about his 180 degree change, his Star Wars metaphors, and how he thinks other conservatives can be flipped.

You just returned from Russia. When you were last in the United States, you were on the other side of the marriage debate.

That's right.

What does that feel like now, coming back after having gone through this transformation?

It feels like a weight off of your shoulders. When I came here last, I came with an agenda, with a purpose to do something. I didn't realize at the time that it would be so hurtful. Now, this time I come with the intent to help people, and it's a good feeling.

On the phone, intellectually, I believed you when you told me you'd gone through this transformation. But, it was still hard to accept, you know? This type of transformation occurs so infrequently.

Yeah, I know.

When you look back on how you came to this country last summer, how do you feel about who you were then? Do you feel like you were a different person?

Well, have you seen Star Wars?

Yes.

The thing I equate it to, and maybe this sounds trival,­ but it's like when they talk about releasing the anger, and the hate, and just letting yourself be a more relaxed person. If you move from the Imperial side to the right side, you know ,­ leaving the "dark side" behind, that's the way I look at it now. It may be kind of funny to people who read this, but I'm a Star Wars fan and that's the way that I feel. When Darth Vader throws the Emporer over the balcony [in Return of the Jedi], that feeling he must have hahad -- that's what I have, and I hope that I can throw the Emporer over the balcony, metaphorically speaking.

Does that mean you have to throw Maggie Gallagher or Brian Brown over the balcony?

(Laughing) Figuratively speaking, of course.

As you live with this new perspective, where do you think that anger came from ?

I know that it came from when I'd watch the news, and I'd see some of the things that gay marriage supporters would do, and I saw it as an attack on my culture, on my society. I'm still a traditional person. I don't like it when groups of people get really aggressive with someone. And I saw that the gay community could get really in your face over civil rights, and push it down your throat and force everyone to accept it.

When I was against [marriage equality], I was mostly involved online at first. I'd be involved on an internet site, and [some gay rights advocates] would come to the page and spam the page, and sometimes post naked pictures to the page. And that was the only face I had of the gay community. And so, I'd work all these hours trying to delete their material, from people who were in your face and unwilling to be civil, and I thought, "That's what I'm up against."

And that's why going on the tour was so important. I wasn't on the computer anymore. I was on the street and seeing people as real human beings with their families. I saw couples together, and the children they were with, and I saw that this was a real life situation and a much bigger picture than I'd been thinking about.

Do you feel that after this change of heart that there are any specific people you feel guilty towards, considering the way you treated them? Or do you feel any remorse?

I don't know of anybody specifically that I targeted. Some of the things I said about the gay community as a whole, I retracted those on Jeremy Hooper's website.

Are you still a registered Republican?

I am.

What advice would you give to people who are in this fight right now about how to effectively change the hearts and minds of people who are against marriage equality?

I'd tell them not to be aggressive and in your face. I think what changed me the most was when we were in Atlanta, and the counter protestors were across the street. We had our rally and we had a guest singer, and the counter protestors held hands and sang along with our guest singer. They were so loud, and happy, and full of smiles. And it showed me that they're families.They're just out here having a good time, even though we're out here working against their rights! That's not something I can hate. That's not something I can work against.

Also, if you want marriage equality in this country, in states that are not liberal, you have to accept Republican support: people who are pro-life, or against Obama, or against Obamacare. We can come together on this issue, because it¹s a constitutional issue, and conservatives love the constitution.

Louis Marinelli is currently planning the Summer Marriage Equality Tour, which launches August 14 in San Diego, California.

sthrasher@villagevoice.com | @steven_thrasher


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