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Our myths and stereotypes: busted!

by Linda Ketner

Fifty-six of us from 15 organizations worked 377 hours talking to people about the Unconstitutional Amendment at the South Carolina State Fair. “Woah,” you might say. “Was that your target audience for a sense of fairness?” Of course it wouldn’t appear to be. It would appear to be more of a masochistic exercise in futility; but, South Carolina Equality Coalition — led by Ed Madden — did it anyway and it was a mind-boggling success.

Of the 1041 voters who completed our survey at the booth, 74 percent are likely to vote against the amendment!

We’re not talking the well-educated-white-woman-NPR-listener-74 percent that demographers say are sympathetic to our plight! We’re talking about largely working class South Carolinians, probably conservative religiously and politically. So what happened?

What happened is that we told the truth, listened, found points of agreement and they heard us and responded. It went something like this. “Hi. Do you know about the Amendment to the state Constitution that’s coming up next year?” (and they didn’t) “Could I tell you a little about it?” (and they say “yes” usually).

“ Well, you’ve probably heard about the marriage amendments all over the country, but this South Carolina amendment goes much further. It not only denies same-sex couples the right to marry, it denies civil unions, domestic partnerships and any form of legal recognition for couples or their children at all. And, we think that’s plain wrong, overkill and un-American so we’re urging you to vote No! What do you think?” Segue to our survey.

Even those who adamantly believed marriage should be between a man and a woman were committing to voting no. Why? Because it is just plain wrong, overkill and un-American.

We also found that:
• People are warm and gracious when you’re warm and gracious.
• Others will listen when you listen.
• Giving free stuff at a booth helps (we gave away ugly rainbow colored wristbands that I’m pretty sure were made out of animal by-products with sayings like “Courage,” “Strength,” “Love” and even “Best Friends.” Hey, it was too late to get a custom order when they told us they’d let us have a fair booth!
• We can win this and any other amendment if, and only if, we’re willing to talk with people…listen to people…and tell our truth.

Rev. Candace Chellew-Hodges, a MCC minister in Columbia reported the following from her work at the fair:” I would say that 99 percent of our conversations through the night were extremely positive. I learned in the four hours that I worked not to judge a book by its cover — ever. One grizzled man in well-worn blue jeans and a T-shirt almost ran up to the booth, grabbed a few of the free rainbow bracelets we were giving away and asked, ‘May I have these?’

‘ Sure,’ I said, ‘but you have to hear my pitch.’
He smiled broadly, ‘I don’t have to hear your pitch, two of my family members are gay and I’ll vote against anything that hurts them.’ I wanted to hug him.

What occurred to me during our night at the fair was the absolute importance for gay and lesbian people in this state to come out — to their bosses, their families, their pastors and their friends. A majority of the positive comments we heard were from people who either had family members or friends who were gay.

ACT UP’s old slogan came to mind — “silence equals death” — in South Carolina silence from our community could well mean the death of equality for our relationships. What I learned is that South Carolinians, when given a chance to understand our lives, will overwhelmingly support our rights. But they’ll only get to know us if we come out and speak up.”

Candace is right — but there’s one more very important lesson…and it’s about stereotypes. They have ’em; we have ’em; and…straight and gay, we are all more complex and richer than anyone operating from stereotypes ever imagined.--------------------------------------------
Don’t judge a book by it’s cover
by Rev. Candace Chellew-Hodges

My partner Wanda and I volunteered our time recently to talk with people at the state fair about the upcoming amendment to the S.C. constitution that would discriminate against same-sex couples. I had my reservations about volunteering for the South Carolina Equality Coalition booth but within our first 15 minutes we had at least four positive interactions with people.

I would say that 99 percent of our conversations through the night were extremely positive. I learned in those four hours not to judge book by its cover — ever. One grizzled man in well-worn blue jeans and a T-shirt almost ran up to the booth, grabbed a few of the free rainbow bracelets we were giving away and asked, “May I have these?”

“ Sure,” I said, “but you have to hear my pitch.”
He smiled broadly, “I don’t have to hear your pitch, two of my family members are gay and I’ll vote against anything that hurts them.” I wanted to hug him.

Then, two African-American sisters poked through the bracelets and chatted with me. One was the mother of a 26-year-old lesbian — the other the adoring aunt. “I don’t want my daughter to face any discrimination,” the mom told me — the aunt emphatically agreed.

One white couple with the appropriate 2.5 children stopped to chat and thought the amendment was a terrible idea — they said they’d certainly vote no.

A man with a military haircut stopped by with his three kids and wife in tow and was adamant about voting against the amendment. He was angry over Westboro Baptist Church leader Fred Phelps and his recent protests of the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq. Phelps is the Topeka, Kan., minister known for his protests of gay and lesbian events. This man was all for fairness — for us and for soldiers.
What occurred to me during our night at the fair was the absolute importance for gay and lesbian people in this state to come out — to their bosses, their families, their pastors and their friends. A majority of the positive comments we heard were from people who either had family members or friends who were gay.

ACT UP’s old slogan came to mind — “silence equals death” — in South Carolina silence from our community could well mean the death of equality for our relationships. What I learned is that South Carolinians, when given a chance to understand our lives will overwhelmingly support our rights. But they’ll only get to know us if we come out and speak up.


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