I often have conversations with strangers, despite what I taught our children when they were young and much to their embarrassment now that they are grown. Why should I not? We are, above all, fellow human beings and naturally curious about one another. Every one of us has a story. And the generosity of simply listening is a gift whose value cannot be overestimated.

Years ago, during a period when France suddenly required visas for all travelers, I stood in line on Fifth Avenue for hours, with hundreds of other Francophiles, waiting to gain the blessings of the French Embassy. The woman behind me and I exchanged just enough information to realize that we had a mutual acquaintance living in Hilton Head and, after getting our visas, continued our lively conversation through lunch, dining outdoors at a delightful restaurant on Madison Avenue. It was a bon voyage celebration to compensate for the idiocy of overzealous bureaucracy – but, beyond that, she was a woman at one of life’s crossroads who needed to be heard. My afternoon was free. Her secrets were safe with me. I was the perfect stranger to lend her an ear.

I have had dozens of surprisingly personal verbal exchanges with all sorts of people since we moved to California. The protective posturing and social sizing-up that comes with life in certain strata of the South, driven by religion and righteous conservatism, has been largely absent from my encounters here. I attribute that to the constant influx of new residents, the diversity of the California citizenry and a noticeable lack of tradition, a predictable paucity of the puritan ethic.

California, home to scandalous Hollywood, is thought to be progressive, even liberal—and frighteningly so–by most citizens of the other forty nine states. Isn’t this place a haven for misfits, the land of fruits and nuts, the home of kooky social experiments and surf’s-up-dude mentality?

Guided by that assumption and living with nothing to lose, I have felt no need to cloak my language or closet my opinions. As I go about my day, to the hair salon or dry cleaner, to the veterinarian or post office, I am free to chat with anyone about just about anything.

There is plenty to talk about. This state is in a mess. Out of funds and out of luck, it was recently called “ungovernable” by The New York Times, so it is not unusual to be greeted by someone anxious to promote his cause and, in doing so, request a small donation to keep the dream alive. Over the past few days I have been asked to contribute to: legalizing marijuana; building a recycling center; providing meals for the homeless; preserving the jobs of public school teachers.

Last week, outside Henry’s Market, which has become my favorite local grocery, I met a young man with a clipboard named David. He had a cause, yes, but also a compelling tale that chronicled a battle with his own personal Goliath. As a sympathizer for the little guy, I wanted to listen.

He was a grassroots educator hoping to decipher the devastating puzzle of Prop 8, the ballot proposition put forward in the November election by an organization called ProtectMarriage.

I was not invited to this table as a political commentator, some big mouth with an agenda, and my layman’s grasp of constitutional law won’t take me very far. But this talk with a stranger inspired a serious discussion of civil rights, the definition of marriage, and the use of semantics to crush perceived modern threats.

David wanted to believe that it was the power of a single word more than prejudice that kept tripping people up—that pesky word “marriage”—but I fear it is far more than that.

Proposition 8 changed the California constitution by restricting the definition of marriage to opposite-sex couples. It also eliminated the right to marry for same-sex couples, a right already established in California. In late May, the California Supreme Court ruled that Prop 8 was valid but could not be applied retroactively to the 18,000 gay marriages that had already taken place. The one dissenting justice commented that the proposition was an attempt to deny a fundamental right to a particular group of citizens and it violated the core intention of the equal protection clause of the California constitution. Federal suits have been filed recently, citing equal rights guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution.
It has been reported that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints contributed more than half of the donations received by ProtectMarriage and made up at least 80 percent of their door-to-door volunteers, urged into such activism by church leaders. If this is true, the Mormon Church worked overtime for the legal disenfranchisement of gay men and women and played a major role at the ballot box. By the results, it seems that California, like other so-called liberal bastions, is not as progressive as everyone thought.

Our Episcopal church in North Carolina, politically moderate with a highly educated congregation, was so roiled by openly gay Gene Robinson’s election as Bishop of New Hampshire in 2005 that members left by the dozens, attacking our innocent ministers and vilifying the vestry. Hell hath no fury like the holier-than-thou. Women, whose world history is all about being stripped of personal power and fighting for their own humanity, understand the nature of this particular beast.

And yet — churches are also where folks of all sorts have come together to fight for the rights of the disenfranchised,  from advocacy for the poor to the civil rights movement of the 1960’s to the June 2009 report from the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego on “Holiness in Relationships and the Blessing of Same-Sex Relationships.”

Whether it’s shame on the Mormons or redemption for the Episcopalians, my young stranger wanted legal validation of life with his partner, without the complications of pastoral activism and legislative shenanigans. Whatever happened to separation of church and state?

Robert and I were married in Brussels by an official at Hotel Communale d’Ixelles (our town hall) and then by John Lewis, the Archdeacon of Northern Europe and Rector of the Pro-Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, an Anglican church located just off Avenue de la Toison d’Or. As a clergyman, Reverend Lewis did not have the legal authority to marry us.

In Belgium, as in many countries, a civil ceremony is required for legal marriage, and a church wedding is the optional icing on the cake. The Belgians made gay marriage legal in 2003.  It seems that Europeans understand the American ideal envisioned by our founding fathers far better than many of our own citizens. Moral myopia is not what Mr. Jefferson et al. had in mind.

That young man David and I shared intimacies and arguments, yet civil discourse reigned. We wondered if perhaps the way for the U.S. to go is this: civil unions for everybody. We were strangers and fellows, united in our decided determination to be guaranteed equal rights under the law.

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