What do you get when you put seven gay guys, two lesbians and one right-wing straight guy at the same table for lunch? Maybe more than expected.
What I got was sort of a combination of The O'Reilly Factor, public radio and a political makeover on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.
It didn't exactly take. Gay rights fits me like spiked hair. I'm still hopelessly out of style. But I did learn that some things go deeper than cosmetics.
The idea was proposed by gay activist David Herriman. "How would you like to meet some gay couples who are already 'married'?'' he asked one day over lunch, making air-quotes with his fingers.
As soon as I said yes, I began to regret it. "Great,'' I thought later. "Welcome to Have a Homophobe for Lunch Day. Bronson outnumbered in tag-team smackdown.''
I had nothing to worry about.
I met Beth Rauh and Lisa Campbell, "married'' for 10 years; Don Beck, "married'' for 26 years; Jim, Rick, Scott (who were not comfortable using last names); and George and Bill (likewise), who set the record at 37 years - which beats all the straight couples at my high school reunion combined.
They were all nice, polite, wealthy, intelligent and well-dressed people, who desperately want to remove those quote marks from their "marriage."
Their arguments sounded like all the favorable news stories about fashionable gay marriage: Gay marriage is a 21st-century version of freeing the slaves and giving women the vote. Gays are born that way and can't change. Gay marriage will stabilize society. It doesn't hurt anyone. It's unjust to deny a right that straights take for granted.
I argued that gay marriage would destabilize society, by undermining families. The unintended consequences could be devastating - especially for women and children - if marriage is remodeled to add a new bedroom for gays and anyone else who wants to move in.
But as we talked I realized that our arguments are like cars on two sides of a freeway: We speed past each other in opposite directions, and never get to the same place.
They set out to find justice and new individual rights, hoping we will all ride along and leave behind the way we have defined marriage for thousands of years.
I'm heading in a different direction, looking for the greater good. I unfold the whole map and wonder how many people will get lost when we redraw the boundaries on the state of matrimony.
It's a classic conflict of Me vs. We.
When Herriman served dilled salmon salad like a Matisse still life on a plate, I think we already knew our definitions of marriage came from entirely different menus. But by the time we had chocolate pie for dessert, George actually agreed with some of my points, and I admired the way he and Jim made theirs. Don came out of the closet - as a Republican. Beth and Bill acknowledged how much has changed for acceptance of gays. And I agreed that life as we know it will not be destroyed if Cincinnati repeals the Article 12 ban on gay rights.
Gay marriage, though, is another trip I don't think we should take.
In this political full moon, when everyone seems to have partisan rabies, it was refreshing to have a candid conversation without any yelling. Nobody dropped a "homophobia'' bomb or fired a "hate'' missile.
What I learned is not new or profound, only true: We may be people who disagree - but we're still people, not talking points.
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