By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 28, 2009
The nightmares of gay marriage supporters are the Pat Robertsons of the world. The James Dobsons, the John Hagees -- the people who specialize in whipping crowds into frothy frenzies, who say things like Katrina was caused by the gays.
The gay marriage supporters have not met Brian Brown. They should. He might be more worth knowing about.
Brown is the executive director of the National Organization for Marriage, the preeminent organization dedicated to preventing the legalization of same-sex marriage. For two years, Brown has been traveling across the country. He moved his wife and six kids to California, where NOM was instrumental in passing Proposition 8, the state constitutional amendment defining marriage as an institution only between a man and a woman. Before that, Connecticut, where his cause was hurt when the state Supreme Court legalized gay marriage.
It was NOM that Miss USA runner-up Carrie Prejean went to shortly after her infamous "opposite marriage" pageant answer. "Gathering Storm," the much-YouTubed announcement in which actors discussed how gay marriage would negatively affect their freedom of religion? That was NOM.
Now NOM is moving its national headquarters to Washington.
The thing about the John Hagees and the Pat Robertsons is that some people consider them "fringe." And when they speechify, the people they're most persuasive with are the ones who already believe them.
But this country is not made up of people in the far wings, right or left. This country is made up of a movable middle, reasonable people looking for reasonable arguments to assure them that their feelings have a rational basis.
Brian Brown speaks to these people. He has a master's degree from Oxford, and completed course work for a doctorate in history from UCLA. He shoulders the accusations of bigotry; it's horrible when people say that your life's mission is actually just prejudice. He tries to help people see that opposing gay marriage does not make them bigots, that the argument should have nothing to do with hate or fear, and everything to do with history and tradition.
The reason Brian Brown is so effective is that he is pleasantly, ruthlessly sane.
* * *
"The Human Rights Campaign is massive," Brown says, referring to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender advocacy group.
Brown sits at the nearly empty desk in a nearly empty room -- the H Street NW office space NOM has sublet until the organization finds its own building and moves its staff down from Philadelphia. He is 35, red hair, solidly built, wearing a crisp blue shirt with a white collar. Instantly likable. He's a thoughtful talker, especially when discussing his "opposition," such as the HRC. "They were ahead of the curve but . . . I didn't see any reason why we couldn't do the same thing."
The same thing -- large, well-publicized, well-organized campaigns -- for different purposes. In the world of activism, what works for one side can work for the other. In the two years since its formation, NOM has become a leader in the fight against gay marriage, which Brown calls "the issue of the decade."
"Brian has been the foremost grass-roots leader who has been involved in the marriage debate," says Chuck Donovan, a senior vice president at the conservative Family Research Council. "He's one of the more effective leaders out there."
NOM's campaigns have had missteps. "Gathering Storm," with its melodramatic dialogue and fake lightning, prompted parodies as much as panic; one New York Times columnist called it " 'Village of the Damned' meets 'A Chorus Line' " for its instant camp value. Two Million for Marriage, the organization's push to rally online activists around the country, was similarly unfortunate: Apparently no one at NOM had realized that 2M4M, the hip-sounding tag they'd chosen for the initiative, is also the abbreviation favored by gay couples looking for a threesome.
Brown has been undaunted. Along with NOM President Maggie Gallagher, who lives in New York, he keeps putting out or starting up fires. He raises money. He organizes phone drives. He sits in the empty Washington digs and cheerfully takes conference calls about whom NOM should hire for an Iowa position ("I haven't had good luck with the Heritage job bank, but that doesn't mean anything"). He sends out regular e-mail updates to NOM's mailing list, conveying his excitement on the issues with exclamation points. Some pro-gay marriage activists then get hold of these e-mails and mock them.
But his more informed opponents know that scoffing is a response born of fear.
"You have to take them seriously," says Peter Montgomery, a senior fellow for the liberal People for the American Way. "They've raised a tremendous amount of money that they're funneling into various states. They're mostly responsible for putting the Maine veto on the bill."
Brown is confident that if people hear his message, they will believe it. "People already believe it," he says, "but the issue is so deep-seated that they've never had to create an argument for it. Now we have to give people the language to do that." Create talking points. Help them see.
On NOM's Web site, printable PDFs show visitors how to explain their position. "Why Marriage Matters" comes in versions for different religions: Protestant (Spanish and English), Catholic (Spanish and English) and Jewish.
Avoid the phrase "ban gay marriage," the talking points suggest, adding that opponents "know it causes us to lose about ten percentage points in polls. Don't use it. Say we're against 'redefining marriage' or in favor of 'marriage as the union of husband and wife' NEVER 'banning same-sex marriage.' " Bishop Harry Jackson, the Beltsville pastor who has been one of the most vocal gay marriage opponents in the area, sees a happy partnership between his followers and Brown's group. Jackson says Brown and NOM "have a sense of dignity about human beings. They simply believe that marriage between a man and a woman is the best for society. But they're not gay bashers."
"I believe," Brown says, "that there's a clear purpose to what I'm doing."
* * *
Is it possible, in 2009, to avoid the title of "gay basher" while dedicating your life to preventing a portion of the population from participating in a legal process allowed to other people? Does bashing require blows and slurs? Will those who oppose same-sex marriage eventually be put by their opponents into the same pile as people who think interracial marriage should be banned?
Brown worries about that, about being squeezed out of the debate.
"The racial bigot comparison is the most troubling part of the argument," Brown says. It's horrible, offensive, deliberately incendiary. He thinks it is "irrational," a word he uses often.
It is irrational when the opposition points to polls suggesting that most young people support gay marriage. "People mature," he says. Their views change.
It is irrational when people believe that the legalization of same-sex marriage is an inevitability: "We have the people. We have not had such an organized force" before, Brown says.
Brown is Catholic. He converted at Oxford, where he studied after a BA at Whittier College (he grew up surfing in California). He liked Catholicism's traditions of social justice and work for the poor. Along the way, he met Sue, also a devout Catholic. After UCLA he accepted a position with the Family Institute of Connecticut, and worked to prevent the distribution of condoms in schools. "People would ask, 'What does your husband do?' " Sue says. "It was embarrassing to say he worked on condoms. But it was nothing compared to this."
His faith is important to him, but in his arguments he is ever the PhD candidate, addressing questions and dismissing counterarguments with fascination.
"I have gay people who are friends and family," he says. "We can disagree on all sorts of things and still care about each other." And later, "Of course, I have to take their arguments seriously. This issue is important. Ideas have consequences."
He takes nothing personally. He means nothing personal. He is never accusatory or belittling. His arguments are based on his understandings of history, not on messages from God that gays caused Hurricane Katrina.
In short: The institution of marriage has always been between a man and a woman. Yes, there have been homosexual relationships. But no society that he knows of, in the history of the world, has ever condoned same-sex marriage. "Do they always agree on the number of partners? Do they always agree on the form of monogamy? No," Brown says, but they've all agreed on the gender issue. It's what's best for families, he says. It's the union that can biologically produce children, he says. It's all about the way things have always been done. He chose his new church, St. Catherine of Siena, because it still offers a Latin Mass. Other noted conservatives have been parishioners there; Antonin Scalia has worshiped at St. Catherine's.
"I think it's irrational that up until 10 years ago, all of these societies agreed with my position" on same-sex marriage, he says, and now suddenly that position is bigotry. "The opposition is trying to marginalize and suppress us," he says. "Usually, that happens with positions that are actually minorities. But we're the majority."
Does he ever think that what he sees as an abrupt historical shift is, perhaps, progress? Does it hurt his feelings when people accuse him of prejudice?
"I think," he says, "it's irrational."
* * *
When Brown came from California a few months ago, the family moved into a comfortable house in Great Falls, surrounded by trees. His children are precocious and sweet; his wife is gracious and funny.
Sue Brown had never really thought about same-sex marriage until she met Brian. "Obviously, I always realized there were gay people," she says one Friday morning, sitting in the still-sparsely furnished living room. "But I didn't think about them wanting to get married." And once she did: "Initially, I probably thought, well, what's the big deal if they do? What does it have to do with me?"
When she and Brian got engaged, she envisioned normal family life, both of them returning from their jobs -- she was a high school English teacher -- and having family dinner. Now, while he's crusading, she deals with home-schooling the older children and caring for the younger. It hasn't been easy.
"Connecticut was really hard," she says. In Connecticut, they lived on a street with two sets of lesbian parents. One summer a mutual acquaintance threw a neighborhood party. Brian wasn't invited at all, and Sue's invitation came with a note: "We know what Brian does. If your views are not the same, you can come to the party." Sue stayed home.
"I get how [gays and lesbians] feel," she says. "I get that."
She's pictured what it might be like to be on the other side of this debate. "I know many awesome women, and I've thought about what if I got together with one of them" and tried to raise a family.
She has thought through it. She supports her husband. "I can only go by my own experience, and I believe there's a huge difference in gender." The kids don't need Brian "walking in the door because he's another person. They need him because he's a man."
They haven't made a lot of friends here so far. He works endless hours and so does she. Sue starts off by telling people that he's the director of a nonprofit group. If they ask for more information, she tells them it's a nonprofit dedicated to preserving marriage. And then, of course, they ask her about his position on gay marriage. Whether he's for it or against it.
Brian has come into the room. He's late for a conference call and trying to get out the door.
"What time will you be home tonight?" Sue asks.
"Ahhhh . . . "
"Well . . . "
"Six. Just say it and do it. Six."
He doesn't quite agree, but he doesn't disagree, either. And then he's out the door, going off to quietly crusade for the hearts and minds of people who, like Brown, pride themselves on being rational, mainstream and sane.