New tac­tic emerges in bat­tle over gay mar­riage: Love your en­emy

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY ROBERT SA­MUELS

ur­ban­dale, iowa— As this state’s most vis­i­ble cul­ture war­riors, Bob Van­der Plaats and Donna Red Wing have hurled in­sults at each other for years.

Van­der Plaats’s or­ga­ni­za­tion, The Fam­ily Leader, has de­rided same-sex mar­riages such as Red Wing’s as “un­nat­u­ral.” Red Wing, leader of the LGBT rights group One Iowa, has called Van­der Plaats “big­oted” and “cruel.”

But when they ran into each other on the day the Supreme Court de­clared that same-sex cou­ples could marry any­where in the coun­try, cross­ing paths be­tween du­el­ing in­ter­views at a lo­cal TV sta­tion stu­dio, they locked eyes. And then they hugged. The news re­porter mar­veled: “I just

Donna Red Wing and Bob Van­der Plaats are po­lit­i­cal foes but fast friends.

saw some­thing I never thought I’d see.”

As the dy­nam­ics shift breath­tak­ingly fast in the long-run­ning bat­tles over gay rights, some of the most hard­ened com­bat­ants are em­bark­ing on a sur­pris­ing new strat­egy: be­ing friends.

Both move­ments still find them­selves in a tug of war for po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence, with so­cial con­ser­va­tives seek­ing to make up lost ground and LGBT ad­vo­cates look­ing for broader ac­cep­tance in the so­cial and po­lit­i­cal realm. And in Iowa, both sides have de­ter­mined they can’t achieve their com­pet­ing goals with­out a lit­tle help from each other.

Gay rights op­po­nents, fear­ing they are in­creas­ingly viewed by many Amer­i­cans as mean and nar­row-minded, are try­ing to present them­selves as friendly peo­ple mo­ti­vated by the love of God, not ha­tred of a group. Or­ga­ni­za­tions such as Fo­cus on the Fam­ily have sought di­a­logues with gay rights ad­vo­cates to show a softer side.

Mean­while, LGBT rights ac­tivists are try­ing to avoid a po­lit­i­cal back­lash sim­i­lar to the di­vi­sive abor­tion de­bates that con­tinue to rage decades af­ter the Roe v.

Wade rul­ing. They are reach­ing out to those who op­posed them, to show a lit­tle grace of their own.

“We are win­ning,” Red Wing said, “but I started ask­ing my­self, ‘What kind of win­ners are we go­ing to be?’ We need to change hearts and minds. I’m tired of all the hate.” A mile in their shoes

In Iowa, where the courts le­gal­ized same-sex mar­riage in 2009, Red Wing and Van­der Plaats were early to ad­just to this new dy­namic. The two say they have formed a gen­uine friend­ship over cof­fee dates and phone calls that has fun­da­men­tally changed how their or­ga­ni­za­tions in­ter­act.

No more call­ing Van­der Plaats a “hater” or a “bigot,” Red Wing in­sisted at her group. Treat them with love, Van­der Plaats said he con­stantly re­minded his staff.

“There are times when I ask my­self, be­fore I put an idea out there, ‘How would Donna re­ceive this?’ Be­cause I love her,” Van­der Plaats said.

Then he added: “Not that I’m chang­ing my be­liefs.”

Van­der Plaats’s be­liefs hold pow­er­ful sway in the state and over na­tional pol­i­tics — largely be­cause as­pir­ing Repub­li­can pres­i­dents, ea­ger to court con­ser­va­tive par­tic­i­pants in Iowa’s first-in-the-na­tion cau­cuses, jockey for his sup­port ev­ery four years.

He led a suc­cess­ful cam­paign to re­move three state judges re­spon­si­ble for the 2009 Iowa gay mar­riage rul­ing, and he got three pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates in 2012 to sign a “mar­riage oath” stat­ing they would fight for the def­i­ni­tion of the in­sti­tu­tion as be­tween one man and one woman.

He en­dorsed Joni Ernst for Se­nate in 2014, Rick San­to­rum in the cau­cuses in 2012 and Mike Huck­abee in 2008. All won.

Van­der Plaats said re­cent losses have en­er­gized his fol­low­ers to fight harder than ever. And yet, as he looks to­ward the 2016 elec- tion, he ac­knowl­edged that cir­cum­stances have changed.

He said he was be­gin­ning to see a fray­ing in the re­solve of pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates on the right. He said he is get­ting the im­pres­sion that many of the can­di­dates are wor­ried that vo­cal op­po­si­tion to same-sex mar­riage would make them seem out of touch with the Amer­i­can main­stream. Some, he said, have even told him they were re­lieved by the court rul­ing be­cause “they be­lieve the is­sue will now go away.” But, he said, “We can’t let it get away.”

Although Van­der Plaats said he no longer asks can­di­dates to sign a mar­riage oath, he con­tin­ues to make clear to ev­ery can­di­date seek­ing his ad­vice that no­body can win his endorsement with­out a strong belief in the his­tor­i­cal def­i­ni­tion of mar­riage.

Mean­while, Red Wing has been meet­ing con­ser­va­tives in her state to glean ad­vice on how to per­suade those on the right to move on from the same-sex-mar­riage de­bate.

She had cof­fee and ap­ple dumplings last month with six con­ser­va­tives who have come around to the gay rights point of view, ask­ing them, “How can we get more con­ser­va­tives to see our side?” They cau­tioned her to take things slowly.

“How can you han­dle the feel­ing that peo­ple are just be­ing asked to ac­cept ev­ery­thing?” said Keith Uhl, a lawyer who helped run Ge­orge H.W. Bush’s 1988 cam­paign in Iowa. “First same­sex mar­riage. Then we have this trans­gen­der is­sue, which is another big hur­dle. Now we have white women who are claim­ing they are black! Se­ri­ously. It’s too much.”

Jeff An­gelo, a for­mer state sen­a­tor who was the lead spon­sor of a state con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment defin­ing mar­riage as be­tween “one man and one woman,” told Red Wing that “ev­ery­one’s wor­ried you’re just go­ing to force the is­sue upon them.”

The con­ser­va­tives said they saw the is­sue dif­fer­ently af­ter learn­ing of a fam­ily mem­ber or fel­low church­goer who had come out. Those in­ter­ac­tions, they said, meant so much more than any po­lit­i­cal en­gage­ment.

“It’s through re­la­tion­ships,” An­gelo said. “Quiet con­ver­sa­tions. Meet­ing peo­ple, and be­ing Iowan. That’s the only way.”

Red Wing nod­ded. Quiet con­ver­sa­tions. Be­ing Iowan. That’s pre­cisely how she be­gan her re­la­tion­ship with Van­der Plaats. An olive branch — and java

A long­time po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist, Red Wing moved to the state in 2012 from Colorado so she could marry her part­ner. Af­ter a good friend died, Red Wing de­cided she would try to honor that friend by mak­ing peace with her big­gest neme­sis. So she asked Van­der Plaats to cof­fee. She didn’t ex­pect him to say yes.

He did, and the two met at a cof­fee­house near Drake Univer sity in DesMoines.

“She was very Iowan,” Van­der Plaats re­called. She came right on time and bore gifts of cho­co­late and pome­gran­ate lip balm, which he still uses.

They agreed to have cof­fee again. Then again.

A colum­nist at the DesMoines Register wrote about their meet­ings, and soon, groups wanted to see the friend­ship for them­selves.

Late last month, with an­tic­i­pa­tion mount­ing over the im­pend­ing de­ci­sion by the Supreme Court, the two ap­peared to­gether at a lunch spon­sored by a lo­cal civic group.

Van­der Plaats saw the event, tak­ing place be­fore a heav­ily lib­eral au­di­ence, as an op­por­tu­nity. He be­lieved he could win over the group with his hu­mor and hu­man­ity and con­vince at­ten­dees that he was nei­ther scary nor vil­lain­ous.

He pre­pared some jokes. He came up with some ex­am­ples to help ex­plain how un­fair it was to ex­pect busi­nesses such as print shops or bak­eries to pro­vide ser­vices for same-sex wed­dings if the own­ers were morally op­posed to them.

Both Van­der Plaats and Red Wing ap­pre­ci­ated the odd­ity of the mo­ment, ban­ter­ing like talk show hosts.

“I ac­tu­ally like Bob Van­der Plaats,” Red Wing said.

“I love Donna,” Van­der Plaats said.

“If any Chris­tian says, ‘I can hate Donna,’ run from them,” he added. “So when Donna opened up this thing about would you like to have cof­fee, the only thing I felt bad about is I hadn’t ex­tended the in­vi­ta­tion first.”

It was a way of soft­en­ing what he said next: that de­spite his love for her and her part­ner, if he had the op­por­tu­nity years ago, he would not have at­tended their wed­ding.

“It would be disin­gen­u­ous,” he said. “But I would at­tend her fu­neral, and I think she would be at mine.”

By this point, Van­der Plaats was ready to try out some of his new lines. ‘We have a lot to talk about’

“What I’d ask you to do is lower the rain­bow flag for a sec­ond, and push the LGBT is­sue aside and ask your­self some real ques­tions now,” he told the group. “Does the gay print shop have an obli­ga­tion to print The Fam­ily Leader’s stuff ? Or do they have a right to say no?” Si­lence at first. Then Red Wing coun­tered: “I would ar­gue that if it’s a ser­vice of­fered to the public, they don’t have a right to say no.”

“That’s right,” some­one in the lunch shouted out, as most in the crowd shook their heads. Van­der Plaats’s first ex­am­ple failed to win over the room. He tried again. “A Jewish slaugh­ter­house pro­cesses only kosher meat, right? I’m a deer hunter, I shoot a deer and I want to have it pro­cessed. They won’t do it. Do I have a right to sue them out of busi­ness?”

“Ac­tu­ally,” Red Wing coun­tered, “they can process it in a kosher way.”

“She’s right,” some­one called out. Another fail­ure.

“And this is what makes our con­ver­sa­tions so hard,” Red Wing said as the event came to a close.

Red Wing said she still finds her­self hurt by some of her friends’ be­liefs, but she said she still saw some hope in those re­la­tion­ships. She pointed to Van­der Plaats’s de­ci­sion not to ask 2016 pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates to sign a mar­riage oath as an in­di­ca­tion of soft­en­ing, though Van­der Plaats ve­he­mently dis­putes this in­ter­pre­ta­tion.

They did not see each other again un­til the day of the Supreme Court’s his­toric rul­ing. Cel­e­bra­tions had bro­ken out in front of the Supreme Court and, in a few hours, the White House would be awash in the col­ors of the rain­bow.

At the TV stu­dio, Red Wing said she tried to make sure she didn’t gloat. Van­der Plaats wanted to make sure that he did not seem de­feated.

“We need to get to­gether some­time very soon,” Red Wing re­called say­ing. “We have a lot to talk about.”

“Yes, we do,” he replied. “Given the day you’ve just had, you’re buy­ing cof­fee this time.”

“We need to change hearts and minds. I’m tired of all the hate.”

Donna Red Wing, leader of the LGBT rights group One Iowa



Donna Red Wing, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of One Iowa, and Bob Van­der Plaats, pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive of The Fam­ily Leader, de­vel­oped a friend­ship over cof­fee de­spite their pro­found ide­o­log­i­cal dif­fer­ences on same-sex mar­riage. “I love her,” Van­der Plaats said of Red Wing. Then he added: “Not that I’m chang­ingmy be­liefs.”

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