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Getting To Yes On Gay Marriage, One Voter At A Time

Rion Tucker is a canvasser for Equality Maine. The organization is working to get supporters to the polls on Election Day, to vote for a ballot initiative legalizing same-sex marriage.
Michael May for NPR
Rion Tucker is a canvasser for Equality Maine. The organization is working to get supporters to the polls on Election Day, to vote for a ballot initiative legalizing same-sex marriage.

Rion Tucker is covering a lot of ground in his home state of Maine these days. The 20-year-old is a canvasser for Equality Maine, and he's been knocking on lots of doors in an effort to make sure that voters in his state pass a ballot initiative in November legalizing same-sex marriage.

It's a tough sell to many in the small town of Dexter, Maine, where some 69 percent of voters in this town voted against same-sex marriage in 2009, part of a statewide majority who overturned a law allowing gays to marry. Dexter's population tends to be older, whiter and poorer than the rest of the country. Tucker canvassed here a couple of months ago and got a lot of doors slammed in his face. But he's back.

For the past two years, gay-marriage supporters have traversed this mostly rural state, knocking on around 300,000 doors, aiming to persuade voters one by one. Now they're in the final stretch, revisiting supporters they've identified, like Patricia Smith.

"I just support anyone that wants to get married and live together as a couple," Smith tells Tucker when he knocks on her door.

Tucker asks supporters to keep in mind actual couples who would be able to marry. He encourages them to put bumper stickers on their cars and vote early. Tucker's been canvassing for five months and believes that this kind of personal campaign can work anywhere.

"I know a lot of us want to go to the next place where it will be voted on, and the next place, and just keep doing it," Tucker says.

Tucker is a transgender man. He grew up nearby as a closeted lesbian and joined the Marines, until coming out as transgender about a year ago. Now he spends hours every day debating with Mainers whose concept of gender is considerably more traditional, like Dexter resident Douglas Brackett.

"What is it to be a woman, and what is it to be a man ... These days it's sometimes kinda hard to tell," Brackett tells Tucker.

Brackett says he will probably be voting no on same-sex marriage in November.

No One Wants To Talk About It

Most of the addresses in this neighborhood are not on Tucker's list, so he often walks for blocks to the next supporter's home — and even they can be skittish.

At one home that doubles as a gunsmith shop, a young man says he'll vote for the bill, but he keeps his voice low. He lives with his father who is vehemently opposed. Tucker offers him a bumper sticker. The man laughs and says, "That would be a great way to get my car set on fire."

The Rev. Seamus Griesbach, a priest at the St. John the Apostle Parish in Bangor, the biggest city in the county, says no one wants to talk about gay marriage. About a third of Mainers are Catholic. The last time the issue came to a vote, the Catholic Church in Maine raised money for TV ads and dedicated days to preaching on the issue from the pulpit. But Griesbach felt emotionally bruised by the political campaign.

Tucker of Equality Maine talks with a supporter in Dexter, Maine, who bought a bumper sticker.
/ Michael May for NPR
Michael May for NPR
Tucker of Equality Maine talks with a supporter in Dexter, Maine, who bought a bumper sticker.

"We have both perspectives in the church, and they're very inclined to really get pretty nasty," says Griesbach. "So I think the church said, wait a minute, we cannot allow the Gospel to be limited to some kind of slogan."

This time, the Catholic Church's strategy mirrors the other side's. Griesbach is focusing on one-on-one conversations. He says the most difficult encounters are with those who have a gay family member.

"I, first of all, say I'm sorry you are going through this. I know how brutal it is," Griesbach says. "The second piece is to try to help them understand how they can love their family member while at the same time not necessarily espousing all the lifestyle choices that their child or son or daughter or brother or sister is making."

One Voter At A Time

Back in Dexter, night has fallen, but Tucker is still out talking to folks. Winding his way back to his car, ready to call it a night, Tucker knocks on a door not on his list of supporters. Giovanni Sarino answers the door. He's got a bushy gray beard and wears a Vietnam veterans sweatshirt. He says he's definitely opposed to same-sex marriage.

Sarino says he believes marriage is between a man and a woman. Tucker asks Sarino to tell him more about it.

"That's tradition, since beginning of time. And the worst part is, I got nothing against people," Sarino says. "But the part about adoptions; kids being brought up in same-sex marriage really offends me in a great way."

But like so many people here, Sarino is willing to debate the issue with the stranger at the door. Tucker turns the conversation personal: He asks Sarino if he's ever been in love. Of course, Sarino says.

"It was beautiful, except [it was] a tragedy," Sarino tells Tucker. "My fiancee died, and I never wanted to get married again, and I've been by myself for a long time."

Tucker tells him that gay couples just want to commit to the ones they're with. Sarino says they are forcing the issue — that it's a private thing.

"I agree," Tucker tells him. "Well, if you weren't able to get married, if the state of Maine said you couldn't get married because of whatever the issue, maybe because you have dark hair, would you push the issue to be with someone you love?"

Pretty soon the two are chatting like old friends who disagree on an issue. Tucker prods Sarino into grappling with his own upbringing, his faith and what it means to be tolerant of others. Sarino recalls that he did know a lesbian couple raising kids.

"I hadn't heard a lot of negative things about them raising family," Sarino says, "which makes me think, let 'em have kids."

Tucker anticipates Sarino's last concern. He's Catholic and under the wrong impression that the measure would force churches to marry gay couples.

"Well they won't be in the state of Maine," Tucker assures Sarino. "This is a people's referendum, and we have it on our terms."

"All right," Sarino says. "I'm all for people having the right to love and care for the people that they're with."

"That's wonderful," Tucker tells him.

The gay-marriage campaign doesn't need to change the mind of everyone like Giovanni Sarino, but it will need to do better with rural voters then it did in 2009.

Religious leaders in the opposition are also confident; they've heard from people in the pews that they'll hold strong on traditional marriage. Of course, when Maine voters enter the ballot box on Nov. 6, they'll be there alone.

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Michael May
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