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

DANNY WIL­COX FRA­ZIER FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

DANNY WIL­COX FRA­ZIER FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

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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