The Straight and Narrow


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, 21—bandmates in a group called Human Error—had 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 Massachusetts—make 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 issue—not the economy, not health care, not the war in Iraq—could 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 rally—mostly white, but with a significant black and Asian presence—spoke 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 not—at 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

That fear was invoked by speaker after speaker. “There’s a deep division in America,” said former presidential candidate and right-wing activist Gary Bauer, to ecstatic cheers. “The winner gets our children, and the right to tell them what to believe about life and death, and love and sex, and freedom and slavery. We have been losing this war. We have had to drink time and time again from a bitter cup because our opponents control the courts. I have had enough. On this I will not surrender. On this we will stand and fight.”

Among those cheering in approval were Adam and Jennifer Nester, both 29, from Charleston, West Virginia. The fresh-scrubbed couple sat next to a stroller under a tree bearing a sign that read, “First Comes Love, Then Comes Marriage, Then Comes Mommy and Daddy Pushing a Baby Carriage.” Adam dandled their five-month-old daughter, Lydia, on his knee; she was wearing a Bush-Cheney ’04 bib. “We don’t want to have to answer why does Susie have two mommies and why does Johnny have two daddies,” explained Adam as he handed the baby to his wife. “We don’t want her to ask why we didn’t stand up for the right thing.”

We finished talking and I started to walk away, but Adam called me back. “We want it known that we’re not here to bash homosexuals,” he said earnestly. He nodded with approval as I wrote his words in my notebook.

They were familiar words. “We are not gay-bashing. We are doing this because we love gays and we want them to have the best of life as well,” said Chuck Colson, Nixon’s chief counsel in the Watergate era and founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, said, “We are not here for purposes of hate.”

The nice woman from Pennsylvania said, “We feel very strongly that we do not hate homosexuals at all.” But she, like many others I spoke to, wondered whether gay people should have the right to raise children, because “acceptance would mean approval.” And she added, “We hate the act, maybe, of homosexuality.” Then she smiled.

Margi Wallo, of Sterling, Virginia, was smiling too. She beckoned to me when she saw me writing in my notebook. “We don’t get much publicity,” she said, and thanked me for showing up. Wallo had come with her elderly mother, who was in a wheelchair. Like many in attendance, she had heard about the rally through a Christian radio station.

Wallo kept her beatific smile beaming as I asked her whether she would be in favor of civil unions or other legal arrangements in lieu of same-sex marriage. “It’s all semantics,” she said sweetly. “It’s not the goal to have arrangements. It’s the goal to destroy America.” Gay people, she continued, “are just being used. It’s between God and Satan.”

Just then, Alan Chambers, a man who married a woman after years of living a gay “lifestyle,” was at the podium. “I feel sad for him, ” Wallo said, gazing at the Jumbotron where Chambers and his wife were smiling for all to see. “But he is set free. Gay people don’t want to admit that he’s set free.” She shook her head. “There’s just not open-mindedness there.”