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Reaching out to the middle

Reaching out to the middle


With a visit to Kansas, the Human Rights Campaign's new president jump-starts the group's cross-country tour into rural and suburban America. The hope is to change hearts and minds about GLBT equality

As I began my job as the president of the Human Rights Campaign, it became clear to me that if we're going to have success outside big cities and affluent suburbs, we'd have to get serious about going into rural and suburban America. And that means getting serious about developing a road map for changing hearts and minds of the people there.In planning a tour across America, I knew the heartland was the place to start. After 12 years at Emily's List, helping pro-choice women get elected in both red and blue states, I understand heartland victories are crucial to affecting meaningful change for all gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Americans.So we're launching what we're calling the "On the Road to Equality" tour in the middle of it all: Kansas, where a devastating anti-GLBT constitutional amendment passed on April 5.Seven days later, a small team from HRC and I headed out to Topeka and Lawrence and also Kansas City, Mo., to begin our work. I knew I wanted to talk with as many people as possible, and I knew that the most intimate and casual conversations would be the most significant.What I learned surprised me.In a small church basement in Topeka I met with a group of religious leaders who had joined together to fight the amendment battle. We talked a lot about the conflict between people's faith and support for GLBT equality, and we spent a lot of time on ways to reach out to more of the religious community.Most profound was their caution against relying solely on "scripture showdown": rebutting antigay Bible verse with contradictory Bible verse. Sure, we can point out that the Bible says it's wrong to mix cotton and silk or eat shellfish, but this debate is much more complex and is rooted in other aspects of peoples' fundamental beliefs. They convinced me that, to bring more people of faith on our side, we need to appeal to core values of fairness and decency, and work toward an understanding that faith is only part of the reason why voters supported the amendment here.At Aimee's Coffee House in Lawrence, I met with two lesbian moms who told me about a notebook stuffed with legal papers that they store on the kitchen shelf. They're ready to grab it in case the nonbiological mom has to race one of the kids to the hospital and gets stuck in the waiting room explaining to an unsympathetic nurse why the kids have two moms.I believe in my heart that we will turn this debate around when voters who flinch at the phrase "gay marriage" hear the stories of families like this couple's. When voters do, their fairness will shine through the veil of fear that's been dropped in front of them.I went to Missouri to visit Hallmark corporate headquarters in Kansas City, where it was reinforced for me that the workplace really is a microcosm of America. Hallmark has come a long way on policies that protect their GLBT employees. Still, some employees have fears. One woman told me that she hid in the closet for 34 years until she had a boss who supported her.And I learned that our straight allies, particularly our family members, are more willing than ever to do what it takes to support us, especially in the face of anti-GLBT legislation. This was really made clear when I sat down for coffee with the Dorman-Hager family of Shawnee, Kan. The dad, Mike, is a conservative Republican and mom, Kathy, is an independent. But when it comes to their gay 22-year-old son, Kevin, GLBT equality is a passionate cause. In fact, Kathy was the star of the TV ad that ran in opposition to the Kansas amendment.And Kevin's siblings, 21-year-old Mike and teenagers Jake and Jessica, speak eloquently about their support for Kevin. We know their generation is on our side, and where this fight goes is emblematic, to the entire family, of where America goes.Not only are these the stories we need to tell to America, but they're the ones we need to experience. And that's the hard work ahead for HRC and the entire GLBT community: to talk with more of our straight friends, coworkers, and family members about the challenges we face. When they understand the real challenges, they'll support us with their hearts, minds, and with their vote.I began this work in a small American town because it's clear to me that it's along these rolling hills and inside the family restaurants where we can make the biggest changes. I know the future is ours.

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Joe Solmonese