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[Note: The following rush transcript may not be a perfect reproduction of the above audio —ed.]
One of the most frustrating things about today’s political rhetoric is the entrenched nature of those who argue any side of an issue. Political leaders and the media provide a bounty of messages to support a position, and it is profoundly easy to consume only opinions one already agrees with.
There are times that it feels as if we are at a permanent stalemate regarding some of the biggest issues facing our society and our nation.
That is precisely why I was fascinated to read, early last month, that a respected, successful strategist and activist for a prominent issue dared to grapple with his own conscience and, despite a good deal of fear and concern, publicly distance himself from the work he had been doing.
The activist is Louis J. Marinelli, and the issue is marriage equality.
In the summer of 2010, it was impossible not to see headlines about the Summer of Marriage Tour, as powerful messages opposing same-gender marriage proliferated online and with a physical traveling bus tour.
When so much of today’s activism is spoken of in terms of war and battle, with a faceless enemy determined to destroy all that’s good, how does one come to see opponents as individual human beings, people of value and worth, deserving of respect and consideration, of empathy and even support?
I am very grateful that Louis Marinelli is with us now, he is in Europe… Louis, welcome to State of Belief Radio!
Thank you for welcoming me on the show.
Your story is so compelling for me, and I’m sure it is for many of our listeners, because it involves issues of separation of church and state, of individual liberties, and equal rights in the eyes of the law, beyond the specifics of your particular journey.
Can you summarize for us the work that you were doing, and what led to your change of heart?
Yes, sure, of course I can.
The work that I was doing over the course of the past 4 or 5 years or so was to promote the agenda that marriage is the union of a man and a woman only, and that anything contrary to that definition was invalid, basically. And more so over the course of the past year or so, I was working directly with the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) in promoting this agenda, and specifically the way that I opted to do that was by organizing a summer bus tour, which we conducted last year. And the objective of that summer bus tour was to go around to the states where this is a hot-button issue, and where the issue is alive, and promote the agenda that NOM supports: that marriage is between a man and a woman only, and that we are opposed to same-sex marriage.
What happened that made you begin to rethink your position on that?
Well, it’s pretty simple, really. The time that I spent working on this so adamantly was time, basically, in front of a computer screen, or in an office. But going out on the summer tour that I helped organize, I actually was out in the street and I saw the counter-protesters who obviously support marriage equality, and it was one of the first times that I had the opportunity to meet these people face-to-face and not through a computer screen. That’s what made it more of a personal, human issue for me, and that’s what directly led to my turnaround.
I’m not surprised at your answer, but I wanted to get to that, because I think that one of the insights that comes from your experience, and, I have to say, Louis, from my experience as well, in changing my mind about people who are in the GLBT community, is that it’s not so much a flash of a new idea or insight as it is an interchange with persons that helped you discover that these, too, are people who love and live like everybody else.
Exactly. Because I completely understood, I guess, the premise of what they believed in. I understood their talking points, I understood their case, but I chose not to accept it because I didn’t see how it was a real issue that was directly affecting real people, and real families, and real lives. And when I went on the summer tour, and I was able to see these people face-to-face, I came to realize that my work was directly and negatively affecting these people in real ways. And that’s what led to my change of heart. Not necessarily, like you said, some kind of a new understanding of the issue; it was more of an understanding of the people that my work was directly and negatively impacting.
Anybody who has changed his or her mind on an important issue, I think, would agree that that’s difficult. And then admitting a change of mind and change of heart is also difficult, especially if you’re doing public work. You don’t want to disappoint friends and supporters, you’ve invested a lot of time and effort in the cause that you’re working for… How deeply ingrained in you was the belief that marriage needed defending by you?
Well, I was deeply motivated, but there’s a significant difference between my motivation and say, for example, the motivation that Brian Brown or the other staff members of NOM have. And that is, that I wasn’t motivated by any kind of faith. I wasn’t opposed to same-sex marriage primarily because it was against biblical teachings or anything like that. I was simply opposed to it because I didn’t think it was the right thing. It was just a conclusion that I made on my own when I examined the issue for the first time, maybe 5 or 6, 7 years ago, and I didn’t like it. I didn’t think it was a good move for society, a good policy. And at that point in time, I was a very, kind of, a black-and-white person: this is good, this is not good; this is the way it is, this is the way it isn’t. And so, that’s when I came to the conclusion that marriage is between a man and a woman, that’s the way it is, it has a purpose, and marriage between two people of the same sex is not, it’s not what it is. And it’s a very clear-cut issue.
And the thing that’s changed now is that there is gray area. There are different things that need to be taken into consideration, and one of those is that gays and lesbians are entitled to the civil rights that everyone else is entitled to, and entitled to being treated equally as citizens.
Louis, what was it like, to, as you’ve described, suddenly begin seeing members of the LGBT community as individual people who do deserve rights and respect? I know that protesters showed up, critics showed up—that didn’t sway you. A lot of your work was in social media; I’m sure there was a constant stream of stories and appeals that you were exposed to… What broke through to you from all of that?
Well, I did encounter a lot of the personal stories through the social media networks that I built. But that was, like I mentioned earlier, that was through a computer screen; it didn’t really have a personal touch to it. It kind of came across to me as some kind of a talking point, or something that was pre-planned in order to try to pull on your heart a little bit, try to make an emotional decision…
And the way that my decision-making process largely runs is basically: I don’t want to make a decision based on an emotional feeling. I think that decisions should be made logically and through some kind of a mental process. And that’s the way to make a better decision, instead of making a spontaneous decision because of how you feel at the moment.
And so, when they were on the social media networks and talking about how a ban on same-sex marriage affected them in a negative way, it kind of came across to me as: they’re specifically trying to make you feel bad, in order to turn [you] against your convictions, in order to support their cause. So I was directly turned off by that.
But then when I went out on the summer tour and I saw people face to face—it wasn’t right away, but after several stops—these people… basically, it started to set in, and I started to catch on that this was something real. And as a direct result, I started to hear some of the things that we would be talking about behind the scenes, and I would be opposing that, or start… not opposing that overtly, but I would start to question some of the things that we were saying or doing, and saying, “Well, wait a minute, that’s not really the right thing to do.”
Louis, I find that a lot of people think that if a person confronts long-held beliefs, and then changes some of those beliefs, that indicates a weak person. I don’t believe that, and obviously I don’t think you do either. What do you say to a person who says, “Well, you’re just wishy-washy about this”?
Well, I would say to them that it takes a weak person to just listen to what you’re told, or to follow the lead and do what others do, or to buy in to some of the rhetoric that organizations like the National Organization for Marriage spew out every day—that is indicative of a person who hasn’t made up their own mind, who hasn’t examined the issue independently and come to an independent conclusion.
Because I’m of the belief that if you do look at this particular issue, with an open mind, and you examine it independently, then there’s no way that could come out on the side of, that they—that gays and lesbians—don’t have the right to civil marriage. And so, if you’re going to oppose that, then the only reason for doing that is because you’re listening [to] and following what others are doing, or what others are saying; and you’re basically just a pawn in the advancement of their religious cause. So that’s basically the way I would respond to that.
You know, I don’t want to be judgmental about anybody; but I’ve come to think that someone who never changes their mind must be nearly dead in some way!
Well, yeah, people change their minds all the time, it’s an evolving process, and I think that it’s healthy. Some things, you’re not going to change your mind on, and those are universal truths.
I want to make clear, Louis, that we’re talking today to you not so much because you’ve now come out in support of marriage equality—and, in fact, in December you expressed your support for the repeal of “Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell”—but for me, the most significant part of your story is how you were able to think for yourself, have the courage to disagree with people who had supported you, who respected you, and looked to you as a leader. Because I can respect views that are different from mine what’s maddening and, I think, paralyzing for our public discourse today is the large number of people who cling to beliefs without ever examining them; with no reason or reflection. And so that brings me to ask you: What hope does your experience offer for improving this kind of gridlock of thinking in our society?
Well, that’s a good question, and it’s a real issue for our society. It’s something that I talk about a lot when I’m over here in Europe. America is a very polarized country, and the people are not very willing to look at people on the other side of the aisle, or the other side of the issue. They have a position that they believe in, and that’s the truth for them.
In terms of what I have done, I mean, I don’t want to make it seem like I’m gonna start some kind of a revolution in American politics, but… what I’ve basically done was for myself. I wanted to do this for myself because this was the right thing to do, and I believe that it’s compatible with my conservative political beliefs, and that’s based on Constitutional values. And when I came to change my mind about same-sex marriage, I came to understand that this is a Constitutional issue and every citizen is deserving of being treated equally.
Louis, when you first announced your decision, you wrote about being afraid of the reaction of friends and family. How has that played out?
Well, my friends and family have largely been supportive. In fact, my family has been only supportive. There have been a couple of so-called friends that have de-friended me on Facebook, for example, but you know, the way I see it is, if they’re going to do that then they’re not truly your friend, because a friend is going to stand with you—he’s not going to be your friend based on how you feel on a particular issue.
My best friend—he’s a liberal Democrat, and I’m a conservative Republican. And we’re friends, to this day, from high school. Even though we hold completely opposite views on many issues, we’re friends, because we know that our friendship isn’t based upon a mutual understanding or agreement on political issues. And that’s not the way it should be for any friendship. So the people that I lost on Facebook or in communication here and there because of my change of heart—I wouldn’t consider them to be real friends.
My family has been with me, and there’s been no issues on that front whatsoever. And I would say that it would be the same for almost anybody. If you’re going to lose a friend because you changed your point of view on a political issue, then that’s not really someone you want to have in your list of friends anyway.
I always thought that I’d rather be rejected for who I am than accepted for who I’m not. And I think you must have come to something like that… I wonder, and I’m not trying to play psychologist here, but how do you feel about yourself? I mean, I ask you how your family felt and how your friends felt… How do you feel about yourself, and what you did?
Well, I feel relieved, actually, because all that work that I put into opposing marriage equality for so long… it was kind of like this burden on my shoulders. That’s what I wanted to do all the time. Basically, it stopped me from living my life. I was too busy worrying about what other people were doing, worried about how others were living their lives, that I stopped living my personal life. And now that I’ve come out to support marriage equality, you know, I really have, like, this burden taken off my shoulders. And it’s a sense of relief. And I can now start focusing on what I want to do, and living my life; and everyone else is living their lives, and that’s the way it should be. So I definitely feel good about that, when it comes to me, personally.
What are you doing now?
Well now, I’m living in Europe, like you mentioned earlier, and I’m just about three weeks or so from coming home, finally, after a couple years of living here. Taking my girlfriend with me for the summer, and we’re going to be starting a new life somewhere in the United States. Not sure exactly where we’re going to set up shop, but we’re looking at all the options. It’s pretty much an open field; see what happens and play it by ear, and hope for the best.
We’re not going to give any Chamber of Commerces your address, because they might want to talk with you. Listen, I’ve got one other question: let’s say you run into someone on the street, or have a seat by someone on the plane, and they say: “You know, I’ve always believed that…,” and they tell you what they believe. “It’s what I grew up with.” Maybe, “I’ve even been involved in activism. But I’m having doubts, and I really am afraid of what might happen if I look at those doubts too closely. Do you have advice for me?”
Well, I would say that it would be important to find a circle of people that you can trust, and talk to them about it, and let them in on it before you “come out” with a large announcement like that, or a large change of heart if you’re going to do it publicly or openly. And by doing that—and that’s what I did, personally—by doing that, it allows you to get used to it yourself; get used to that position. Because, for me, it was difficult at first even to say, “I support marriage equality,” because I’d been so opposed to it—it was kind of like I was embarrassed even to say it!
But when I was able to confide in my mother and some close friends of mine, and I was able to talk about it and explain my feelings, and talk to them about how I felt, and why I felt that way… you know, I did it a couple of times, and eventually it started to become something that I was able to accept myself. And then, once I was able to accept that myself, I understood that it was a genuine feeling; and then I was able to move from there and come to the conclusion that I did have a change of heart and why I had the change of heart; and I was gonna come out and tell people, and then, hopefully, move on to change other hearts—for the better.
Louis J. Marinelli was an organizer and leader in the campaign to oppose marriage equality… He made waves by publicly declaring a change of heart, and I hope that his experience and insights have been as valuable for you as they have been for me. Louis, I hope someday I have an opportunity to shake your hand, because I can tell you that I respect and admire not only your ability to change your mind, but to say to the public your mind has changed, and to offer words of wisdom about that change that can be of help to other people. Thank you for joining us on State of Belief Radio.
Thank you for having me—and I think we’ll have that opportunity. I’m coming back this summer, and I’m hoping to go on a series of public events in support of marriage equality—particularly to those sites around the country that I visited last year during the tour. And I want to go to these sites again, and this time stand up for marriage equality, not against it. And one of those stops was Washington, DC, and so I hope to make it to the Capitol this summer. I’ll also be in New York City on June 11th, I’m going to have an event there as well. So I do intend to be actively involved, and hopefully we’ll have a chance to meet.
I will look forward to us meeting, and thank you again for doing this great interview today.