Ethan: So, I thought we could write this week’s column a little differently. Off camera (and out-of-print) you told me that you plan to vote in favor of making same-sex marriage legal in Maine. This is a very courageous position that I am sure is causing you some grief among your friends. And since everyone already knows that I support marriage equality (I am on the board of Equality Maine and the Anti-Defamation League), I thought it would be interesting to dedicate this column to explaining your evolution on the issue. So, for this week, I will act merely as moderator. So, first and foremost, you are indeed voting yes, correct? Can you explain why?
Phil: Yes, I am. Actually it’s not complicated. The U.S. Constitution endows us with rights, among which is liberty. It’s not the government’s role to tell anyone who they can or cannot devote themselves to. As a Republican, it’s even clearer that taking personal responsibility for pursuing happiness is up to you (whether you’re talking about who you love or supporting yourself).
Ethan: Why do you think so many in your party have trouble agreeing with your philosophy?
Phil: Actually, most Republicans agree that what one does in private should be private. What riles some is when the power of government is used to redefine what many believe are centuries-old spiritual, religious and cultural facts. However, most people are supportive of “civil unions” and honoring religious convictions. But what’s interesting is that this referendum in effect supports both those things. The differences arise when the word marriage replaces union. Am I missing something?
Ethan: Nope. “Marriage” carries legal importance and credibility, and that’s why it is so important for everyone to have the right to use the term. I know you have had some history with the issue of gay rights. I believe when you were first elected to the state Senate you said you did not support employment and housing non-discrimination for gays and lesbians, but then you switched. What happened?
Phil: Like most lessons in life, a willingness to listen and try to understand someone else’s point of view can make all the difference. Here’s the simplified version. I’m left handed and living in a right-handed world — think zippers, scissors, school desks — which can be challenging. My uninformed view was that left-handed people don’t have special rights, so why should gays and lesbians? I know this is way over simplified, but hopefully you get the point. Over the course of my own personal education on this issue, I finally understood that if someone denied me housing or employment, I could assert my rights, but if I was gay and denied a job I couldn’t. Once I got that distinction, I made it right by sponsoring the bill to fix the problem.
Ethan: Your evolution seems much more intellectual than it is for most. Most seem to evolve on gay rights based on a personal relationship — a relative coming out to them, a friend introducing their partner, a personal story of someone not being able to visit their loved one in the hospital. Yours seems very matter of fact and logical. Are you just being a stoic Yankee by refusing to show emotion on this issue, or is this honestly where your evolution begins and ends?
Phil: Beneath the stoicism you ascribe to me are many deeply personal and meaningful moments. Let me share one. When my daughter was going to university in Boston, I took her and one of her roommates to dinner. It was a wonderful evening. We talked about academics, life in Boston, my service in the Maine Senate and more. On the stroll back to their apartment her roommate asked me why Republicans were against giving gay and lesbian people basic rights. Envision that moment when she told me she was a lesbian, and I told her that I co-sponsored the bill to end discrimination. She was visibly touched and apologized for labeling me as the media has labeled all Republicans on this subject. If I ever run for president I know I’ll get at least two votes in Massachusetts!
Ethan: I expect you’ll have many more if you continue to be so open-minded. But what’s it like to take a position so at odds with your party? When I was in the Senate, I once took a position against my party and the governor when I refused to support a budget that borrowed money to pay our bills. It was tough to be chastised by my own people. Can you talk a little about what it’s like for you to take a position that appears to be supported by only 17 percent of Republicans?
Phil: Despite the labels many affix to the Republican Party, I know firsthand we have a big tent. Sure, there are some who will read this and will react to attract the media, but just as many will praise me, and I’m guessing that won’t be reported. The rest of my party will respect my opinion, even if they don’t agree. To be sure, there are many in your party who adamantly disagree with our position, too.
Ethan: That is true, but it is far fewer. Only 21 percent of Democrats oppose equal marriage, according to a recent poll. Before we end, do you have anything to say to those Republicans reading this that might perhaps sway them to vote yes for marriage equality?
Phil: Well, I hope I just did. When it comes right down to it, understanding and tolerance welcomes in other points of view, and it’s in the space between them that we can all find common ground.
Ethan: Amen to that, Phil.