A gay marriage debate without fireworks or illumination

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A surprise television debate between opposing leaders in the race to amend the Tennessee Constitution to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman failed to progress the dialogue on the issue outside its uniformly polarized talking points.

Hosted by WTVF news anchorman Chris Clark and originally airing locally last Tuesday (October 24) on Comcast cable channel 50, the hour-long debate began and ended traditionally with two-minute long monologues from both campaign managers. Every moment in between, though, ran the gamut between haphazard sloganeering to off-camera congenial socializing.

State Senator David Fowler (R-Signal Mountain), president of the Family Action Council of Tennessee, opened the conversation highlighting that there will be unforeseen social, legal, and economic impacts to gay marriage.

Vote No on 1 Campaign Manager Randy Tarkington followed, concluding that “most of this campaign has been based on fear and I hope tonight we can talk about facts.”

(In a segment preceding this debate, Clark spoke with Brook Thompson, the coordinator of elections for the state of Tennessee, who explained for viewers what a “yes” vote or a “no” vote means. Yes, he said, means you approve the amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman.)

Not five minutes into the debate, Clark threw down the gauntlet. “The goal,” he said to Tarkington, “is to make this effort to change the law [to legalize gay marriage]. I mean, it’s not that easy to do it if it [the ban] is in the Constitution, right?”

Without an unequivocal yes or no, Tarkington answered the question, eventually suggesting, “When people really hear the facts and they get through the fear, then they’re supportive.”

The glaring omission from that moment was an example. What we needed (supporter or not) was at least one of those facts; walk us through someone overcoming that fear. I myself have heard some of these stories: tell us about the old lady in East Nashville who politely listened to the canvasser earlier this summer and then wholeheartedly endorsed the “vote no” campaign afterward. Something.

Not a lifetime politician, Randy Tarkington should not, of course, be held to the same performance standard as Fowler, who appeared a bit more comfortable that night. Neither man, though, can be blamed if he felt unease with the way the conversation unfolded. Both neither spoke necessarily to each other nor to the camera and, it appeared, any attempt to visually engage Clark was rebuffed, without explanation.

Clark sat on the far left side of the table, with Fowler in middle and Tarkington to the right, a seating plan that severely limited the very reason all were in attendance — for a debate. With this in mind, both Fowler and Tarkington found themselves possibly distracted, or maybe just surprised, to the extent that each eventually settled in to a routine of patiently, and very politely, waiting for his turn to delicately lay down his talking points.

Not surprising at this point, it was Clark—the assumed moderator—who most attempted to make the event more conversational. Fowler laid out the idea that children who grow up in gay households are more likely to later identify as gay. “And we know that can’t be genetic,” he said,” because they can’t have been produced strictly by a homosexual couple.”

“What would Newt Gingrich and Dick Cheney have to say to that?” Clark said immediately. “I’m not trying to advocate for anything but, I mean, if you could change people, surely people like Dick Cheney or Newt Gingrich would try to change their daughters to not be lesbians, wouldn’t you think?”

Overall, the debate was a reliable primer on the best arguments—or worst, depending on your view—for and against gay marriage. If ever this community creates a “coming out” package (the one we all joke about), a copy of this debate would be a valuable addition.

Point-blank, a surprise given the courtesy always afforded any debate of this issue, Clark asked Tarkington, “If the majority of Tennesseans don’t want gay marriage, why not go ahead and put it in the Constitution?”

Tarkington went personal with his response, a valid option (perhaps for any of these questions), explaining it a “very serious issue” that “my Constitution” would forever say he doesn’t have the same rights as everyone else. He said that Constitutions have always been used to enhance rights, so to use it to take away rights, to say “you’re less than,” is an affront to his citizenship.

As if on cue, and right out of the playbook, Fowler followed him with this: “Well, I would say marriage is not a right. You know, you get in the same argument with driver’s licenses. ‘Do I have a right to drive?’ No, you don’t.”

“When you look at the rights the Constitution protects,” he said, “they generally are those kinds of rights that we associate with being human beings, that, as our Declaration of Independence said, are those kinds of things endowed by a Creator. Marrying is not one of those things that you have a right to go do, so we’re not restricting anybody’s rights.”

Fowler began then to explain that, for him, this amendment is not about deciding whether “homosexuals” can be valuable members of society. He reiterated that he simply wants to protect the traditional definition of marriage.

Why, therefore, isn’t he on the defensive?

The one fundamental flaw of this entire program was that both men engaged, and acknowledged, each other so rarely. At this point, Tarkington could have jumped in—should have jumped in—and asked, “As an attorney, what roll do you think judges play in our society? If Loving versus Virginia hadn’t happened, do you think single-race couples, an overwhelming majority at the time, would’ve run to the polls to legislate interracial marriage?”

Of course, hindsight is 20/20 and, in our minds, we all would’ve won the debate hands down. And again, the seating arrangement and formal, then informal, tone of the so-called debate must have been startlingly off-putting.

After a commercial break, Clark brought up again an important, and as yet unanswered, question. “Isn’t that the goal of the gay and lesbian community,” he asked Tarkington, “to change that law [effectively banning same-sex marriage], and wouldn’t it be easier to leave the law the way it is? I’m not trying to imply any sinister motive here, but that’s just the fact, isn’t it?”

Again Tarkington dodged it and, in response, Fowler called him on it.

“All I’ve heard tonight is—we want these same rights, we want these same benefits, we’re being discriminated against, we want marriage equality,” Fowler said. “Yes, they want to have same-sex marriage in Tennessee. That’s the goal.”

Now on the ropes, Tarkington acknowledged it but, at that late point and with that build up, it seemed more an admission than a declaration. It was unfortunate, given especially that just this week Evan Wolfson, the executive director of the organization working to win marriage equality nationwide, Freedom to Marry, acknowledged this exact hesitation as one of the faults of each of the anti-amendment camps nationwide.

“So far,” Wolfson wrote, “too many of our state campaigns fail to offer the voting public real content and an authentic engagement. Too often they have not used the air time of an election battle to talk about gay people and marriage—the two things these ballot measures are most about—instead relying on generic appeals to fairness.”

Tarkington knows this and may be kicking himself now because of his tepid, seemingly reluctant, acknowledgment of gay people’s interest to legitimately marry. The confusion surrounding the verbiage of the amendment as well as the intricacies of the amendment process (a “yes” vote plus a non-vote for governor adds more weight to that single “yes” vote, for example) may have contributed to this simple point slipping Tarkington’s mind.

It emphasizes a point Wolfson makes in theory, one that perhaps does not stand up in practice.

We’re not asking people to vote for gay marriage. We’ve done nothing to bring this referendum upon us. Wolfson writes of the “short-term election efforts” and the “longer-term public education work” as if, over these past few months, the American (or Tennessee) public is capable of parsing this distinction. Losing the short-term election effort here by a huge margin could immediately extrapolate to a legislative ban on civil unions, or gay adoption. This isn’t a time to gamble on longer-term education, especially when some supporters are (wrongly) convinced a “yes” vote means you want gay marriage and some opponents believe their “no” (similarly) means they don’t want gay marriage.

At the end of the debate, Tarkington did manage a hands-down slam-dunk argument. The conversation had turned to children and, while Tarkington had earlier argued that the love of two parents is what matters, Fowler offered that there are no studies supporting either side of this debate as an explanation why society should still be concerned about granting marriage to gay people.

Chris Clark asked Tarkington, “What do you think about the points he [Fowler] makes, that we don’t know the effects on children right now, because it takes time to really learn that?”

“With children of same-sex couples,” Tarkington said, “they have grandparents, they have aunts and uncles, they have cousins, they have siblings, you know? It’s not like they’re in this world where they’re just exposed to their GAY parents! They are brought into an extended family. There are a lot of influences on their lives.”

“If you haven’t met children who’ve been raised in gay households,” he continued, “I suggest you do that. You’re gonna see wonderful, nurtured children and that’s what’s important. I think common sense tells us that’s what’s important.”

NewsChannel5+, Comcast channel 50 locally, will re-broadcast this debate on Saturday, Nov. 4, at 2:00 p.m.