Dueling Protests on Gay Marriage

Steve Chapman

7/29/2010 12:01:00 AM - Steve Chapman

MADISON, Wis. -- Brian Brown, the president of the National Organization for Marriage, which opposes same-sex unions, has brought his 23-city bus tour here in hopes of drawing a crowd. He has succeeded, but not in the way you might expect.

On a warm weekday, with the university students mostly on vacation and the legislature in recess, the state Capitol grounds have a placid midsummer air. But with the appointed time of noon at hand, that is about to change.

As Brown stands at the foot of the Capitol, watching a few sympathizers gather around a lectern, a distant rumble intrudes on the quiet. Marching up State Street are 200 or 300 demonstrators, carrying signs and chanting slogans, all attracted by the chance to repudiate the NOM message as noisily as they can.

On first glance, this may look like a fine place to hold a rally on behalf of what NOM calls "traditional marriage." It's the seat of government in a socially conservative state whose voters voted by a 59 percent majority in 2006 to ban same-sex marriage and civil unions.

On second glance, though, it looks like the worst possible venue. Madison and the University of Wisconsin campus have long been famous as a hotbed of counterculture lifestyles and left-wing activism. Green Party candidates have been elected to several city and county offices. The same-sex marriage ban lost overwhelmingly here.

So why would NOM hold a rally where it is sure of being badly outnumbered by motivated and well-organized critics? Maybe because that's what it wanted. The Summer for Marriage Tour could have been called the Come Shout Us Down Tour.

The endeavor has managed to make opponents of gay marriage look like a brave, embattled minority, even though they constitute 53 percent of the public and have gotten their way in all but a few states. At today's rally, NOM supporters just number two or three dozen.

NOM's website (www.nationformarriage.org) focuses not on any outpouring of support for its cause, but on the protesters who have appeared at its rallies, including some it accuses of disruptive and intimidating tactics. "Watch the shocking video here!" it proclaims, linking to a clip from a somewhat raucous event that, in truth, falls short of shocking.

The organization specializes in a form of political jujitsu, leveraging its foes' weight against them. As chairman Maggie Gallagher tells me, "The counter-protests are holding down our physical numbers, but they're expanding our online activist community."

But the protesters, separated from the NOM group by police tape, are not deterred. They have lots of handmade signs -- notably "Jesus Had 2 Dads and He Turned Out OK, Right?" and "Traditional Marriage = 1 Divorced Man + 1 Divorced Woman." And they rarely flag in chanting "Hey, hey, ho, ho, homophobia's got to go" and "Take your hate out of our state."

The racket continues throughout the rally, which does not seem to surprise the NOM advocates. They spend much of their time denouncing their opponents for trying to shout them down -- which, given that NOM has loudspeakers and the protesters don't, is unlikely to happen.

Violence or bullying would make good footage for NOM, which has a videographer on hand, but the crowd of mostly young people is not in that sort of mood. Are they loud? Sure. Obnoxious? No doubt, if you're on the receiving end. Scary? Not a bit.

If they are going to storm the stage, they will have to trample over me on their way, and I detect no reason for worry. A couple of them even lean over the police tape asking for hugs from the NOM supporters. (They get a few takers.)

It's hard to get terribly outraged when a group that goes out of its way to be drowned out by its critics almost gets drowned out by its critics. But the people here to support "traditional marriage" can accurately claim that they have been impeded in their effort to communicate their views.

You see, NOM and its allies attest that after all, they don't want to deny the other side the right to speak. They just want to enjoy the same right.

To which the other side might reply: Hmm. Kind of like what we say about marriage.