Know thy neighbors

BY Tom Lang

January 30 2006 1:00 AM ET

My partner of 18
years, Alex, and I are both small-town antique dealers
from the north shore of Massachusetts. We were thrilled to
be married in our home state when same-sex marriage
became legal there in 2004.

It was shortly
after our one-year anniversary last June that I heard the
spokesman for the antigay Massachusetts Family Institute,
Kris Mineau, boasting on the radio about how his
organization would file a petition to constitutionally
ban same-sex marriage and how he expected to gather more
than double the 65,825 signatures needed to put the proposal
on the ballot. He cited “the groundswell of
support to stop same-sex marriages” in our
state. I guess it was the hubris this man exhibited that
prompted me to pick up the phone and call my secretary
of state’s office.

Now, I have done
my share of activism—writing letters, protesting at
the statehouse—but this was the first time that
I made a personal call to an elected official; I had
an idea and I needed to find out if it could work. I
spoke with the secretary’s chief legal adviser.
“Are the names and addresses of the signers of
any initiative petition public knowledge?” I
asked. “Yes, they are,” she replied. I then
explained that I was opposed to the marriage petition
and that I wanted to publicize the names on the
Internet. To my amazement, she actually suggested that as
someone in opposition it was my “job” to do
so.

KnowThyNeighbor.org was launched on September 7, the day
that state attorney general Tom Reilly approved the
filing of the antimarriage petition. While some gay
rights leaders approved, others did not. Surprisingly,
they asked me to shut down the site—they called it
silly and mean-spirited. But I stuck by my decision,
and it has benefited our community in ways I never
imagined.

In the beginning
our Web site was about listing the names of people who
signed the petition as a means to check for fraud. But it
ended up giving gay people and their families the
opportunity to, in a civil and respectful way, talk
with their neighbors, friends, and coworkers about why
this issue was important to them. In a way, I was giving
people what I wished I had been given many years
ago—a reason to speak up. I never was able to
come out to my parents or friends when I was younger. Both
of my parents died without ever knowing how much Alex
means to me.

So why has
KnowThyNeighbor.org been criticized by some in the LGBT
community? It’s simple. We’re still afraid to
tell our stories. We are outing the people who have
signed up to strip away our rights, but we are also
outing ourselves. We are placing our neighbors and coworkers
and others on the list in the uncomfortable position
of having to explain why they are signing up to take
our rights away. And we are forcing ourselves to
address this issue and speak out to those we know, in a
personal, meaningful way. If you were to view this
list of names and you saw your aunt and uncle, your
elementary school teacher, that waitress who was
always so friendly, your local policeman, your
friend’s parents, the husband of the woman who
works for you—how would that make you feel? What
would you do? What would you say? Massachusetts gays and
lesbians are asking themselves that very question. And
so am I.

Tags: Commentary

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