The kid in the audience -- he seems a kid to me, just 20 years old -- asks me a question:
"You say gay marriage will lead to the use of the law to repress traditional faiths including Christianity. But I was raised in a Southern Baptist family. When I came out, I lost my sister. What is wrong with the idea that religions will be pressured to be less anti-gay?"
I have my speech tonight. I can explain why every human culture across millennia has recognized marriage as the union of male and female. These unions are unique. They create life and connect children to their mother and father. When I point this out, typically half the audience gets it. The other half stares blankly: How will gay marriage change anything? Why do you care?
I am in Boulder, Colo., invited to debate the impressive Jonathan Rauch. But I don't really want to debate; I don't want to score points. I want something rare and precious. I want to achieve disagreement -- to understand one another better.
This is the opposite of what legal eagles Ted Olson and Davis Boies are doing in the Proposition 8 trial, naturally. They are seeking to win -- to void the votes of 7 million Californians and overturn Prop 8, making gay marriage the law of the land in all 50 states. The stakes are high. And the argument they will be asking the Supreme Court to endorse is this: Only bigotry, hatred and unreason explains why anyone cares about the idea that to make a marriage you need a husband and a wife -- religious views of marriage are just anti-gay bigotry.
Can we do better than that?
I hunger, as so many of us do, for some way to connect across our differences.
So the question from this gay kid -- this clean-cut collegian who I'll call "Phil" -- hits me like a ton of bricks. What can I say to Phil? I just pointed out the ways that "marriage equality" will lead to the repression of traditional religious faiths by government. And here he is asking me: Why is that a bad thing?
I remember another debate at Harvard Law School, when a Harvard law student asked me how gay marriage would affect me. I pointed out all the ways the law intervenes to repress racism, and how "marriage equality" will lead to the same legal stigmatization, affecting rights from licensing to school accreditation to potentially tax-exempt status. I saw her eyes at first widen with surprise. She had never thought about it. And then I saw her turn on a dime and tell me to my face, "Yes, that's how the law should treat bigots like you." Gay marriage has consequences.
But tonight, this is a different kid in a different state. And behind his question, he makes clear, is a world of suffering -- a family torn apart by the deepest moral and religious disagreement.
And the first thing I want to tell him is: I'm sorry for your pain. I'm sorry for your sister's pain, too. Family to me is the place where love is an obligation. Your family are the people you didn't choose to love. But you still do.
Can we build a world where people like Phil and people like me will both be OK? Where people who disagree about the meaning and purpose of human sexuality can somehow not only tolerate but love one another?
I don't know. In Europe and Canada it is becoming increasingly clear that gay rights requires the repression of Christianity and other traditional faith communities. Can we find a better solution?
America usually has. Being honest with one another, being unafraid to say what we think, is the first, fragile step.