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 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.”
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 election, 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 same-sex 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.
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 University in Des Moines.
“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 Des Moines 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.
“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.”