Pine trees and rivers remind me of Nevada County in the Sierra Foothills of Northern California. This is where I lived when I first became active in the American marriage equality movement. During February 2005 Marriage Equality California (MECA) activists were hitting the roads for their annual "Get Engaged Tour," and as a result of this tour I stepped into the whirlwind atmosphere of the movement's front lines as the Nevada County Chapter Leader for MECA.
In the late spring of 2005, the core members of our Nevada County Chapter gathered at a local Unitarian Universalist church to train for an upcoming day of canvassing in support of CA Assemblyperson Mark Leno's AB 849*. Our trainer spent the afternoon teaching people who hadn't done this before how to "cut turf," and had them role play talking to the public about the issue of marriage equality and why we would like them to contact their legislators and urge them to vote in support of passing AB 849.
We snacked on cookies and fresh veggies, sipped coffee, water, and tea throughout the warm afternoon. I appreciated the folks who had turned out, as well as the young trainer's enthusiasm and ability to clarify the time-worn campaign tool of cutting turf. Dust motes floated through the air in the light streaming in from a stained window. The event was informal and intimate, in the way working for a shared cause can be.
One of the things we discussed at length was the social and political conservatism of the majority of our county's residents. Although the county was diverse class-wise and politically, the Republicans still held a clear majority in this overwhelmingly white semi-rural area. One of the places we would be canvassing was a mobile home park for seniors, and several of the people present were concerned about the reception we would receive there. Would this be a day of doors slammed in our faces or would we have the opportunity to actually engage and talk with people?
Our canvassing day dawned clear and hot. Gorgeous, but not the most comfortable for a day of walking door-to-door. The spirits of our small group seemed to be energetic and hopeful, which I found to be encouraging. At least our people weren't put off by their concerns, or cynicism in some cases, regarding our possible reception. After settling on times and a location to touch base with each other during the day, we split into pairs and headed off in different directions.
Thankfully, Nevada County is full of trees, even in town, so as the hours passed and we began to tire and wear down from thirst and the heat, there was usually somewhere on each block to catch a few moments in the shade. My buddy Steve and I eventually entered the mobile home park for seniors, each of us working one side of each block. At many houses nobody came to the door, even though it appeared someone was home. Other doors opened, but the people were curt and shut the door quickly after answering it. Every so often someone would politely hear us out, which gave us just enough encouragement to continue.
Late in the afternoon, I approached a neat white home fronted by flowers and ringed by pine trees in back. I was thankful that the front porch was shaded. After my knock the door was opened by an elderly woman, tall and slim, white hair permed and blued, dressed in a casual "duster," but holding herself with dignity. She greeted me courteously and I eased into my spiel. She listened carefully, and then announced that I needed to know she was a lifelong Republican who always voted. "And, you know where my party stands on this issue, don't you?" Yes, I did. She hesitated and then began to tell me about a movie she had seen on TV. The movie was If These Walls Could Talk 2.
She asked me if I was familiar with it, and I told her I was. She got a faraway look in her eyes and began to relay one of the scenes in the movie. In this scene, an older lesbian widow is sitting on a living room chair watching as her newly deceased partner's nephew and his wife go through her home, casually picking up and taking or tossing aside treasured items the lesbian couple had collected in their years together. As they do this, the man is telling the widow that he had considered allowing her to continue to live in the house as a rental tenant, but had decided to sell the property and that she would have to move. The widow, sitting in her home of decades, having just lost her love to an unexpected death, is being treated as a total stranger with no claim to her home and with absolutely no acknowledgement of her loss and the grief she is experiencing. It is a wrenching, emotionally powerful scene.
As she told me the story, the woman's eyes filled with tears and she brokenly tried to explain to me how that story, and that particular scene, had affected her. She whispered, "Nobody should have to go through that. Nobody!" Then she wiped at the tears on her face and firmly told me that she would, indeed, call her assemblyperson and senator and urge them both to vote in favor of AB 849. She patted my arm, and murmured, "Good luck, dear. I need to go lie down now."
I stumbled down the steps with tears in my own eyes. This one conversation made that hot day of canvassing worthwhile. This one conversation made all of our efforts in support of this particular marriage equality bill worthwhile. In fact, the memory of this one conversation sustained me through many low points during the ensuing decade of my work for marriage equality.
That dignified woman under the pines on that hot day in Nevada County, she embodied the changing of "hearts and minds" to me. She still does.
Excerpted from The People's Victory: Stories from the Front Lines in the Fight for Marriage Equality, the book tells the extraordinary stories of everyday volunteers doing the grassroots work to win marriage equality. Its stories are meant to inspire the next generation of activists to fight for their critical issues. The book is available to download (free in June) or order at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Google Play and more at marriageequality.org/book.