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How the Crucifixion of Miss California Hurts the Marriage Equality Movement

06/13/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I'm going to channel a character from one of my favorite shows for a moment. As the Golden Girls' Sophia Petrillo might say, "Picture it..." Only instead of asking you all to picture Sicily, sometime, I'm going to ask you to "Picture it...Las Vegas, 1960." The Miss USA pageant is being held and beloved entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr. is one of the judges. When it is his turn to ask the finalists a question, he looks at the blond-haired, blue-eyed beauties and says, "Interracial unions are currently illegal in 31 states. Do you think those states are wrong in saying that you and I cannot marry?" The question -- and the beauty's fumbling answer causes outrage, embarrassment, and an uproar. But here's my question to you. Had this fictional incident actually happened, do you think it would have made anyone in the nation who was opposed to Davis's union with white Swedish actress May Britt anymore accepting? Do you think the exchange would have made those sitting at home who believed at the time that people like my parents were second class citizens, believe so any less? Most of all, do you think it would have made those people who are ultimately responsible for bringing about social change in this country -- good people who are often uneducated and undecided on an issue, before their consciences finally move them in the right direction -- embrace Davis's position any more?

The answer of course is a resounding no.

This brings me to the ongoing flap regarding Miss California USA Carrie Prejean. If Perez Hilton's goal was to shame Carrie Prejean, with his question at the Miss USA pageant, mission accomplished. But if his goal, and the goal of those who have piled on her since then, is to ultimately win greater support for marriage equality, that mission is failing.

As someone who grew up in a church in which I was taught to believe that being gay was somehow wrong, before growing into an adult who was proud to be included in my close gay friend's wedding, I have been blown away by how misguided, and ineffective -- no matter how well-intentioned -- some of the prominent supporters of the marriage equality movement have been.

Watching the three-ring circus that has been the fallout from Hilton's grilling of Prejean, I have been amazed at how gleeful a number of liberal writers, bloggers, outlets and activists seem at their "gotcha!" moment. It is the same joy that many often have when a conservative gets caught with his hand in the cookie jar -- and the cookie jar happens to be a woman he is not married to, or a man he is not married to, (or a minor he is not married to.) There is just one catch that makes this situation different, actually a few of them. Number one Miss California wasn't running for office. Heck, she wasn't even running for Miss America. The fact that there is no talent portion in the Miss USA pageant and no academic scholarship (save for some acting classes) tells you all you need to know about the role their intellect is meant to play in the pageant (and probably their long-term careers). Who knows? Ms. Prejean may see affirmative action in higher education (which I support) as unfair, along with un-opposite marriage, but I never would have asked her if she does because frankly, who cares what she thinks about affirmative action, opposite marriage or anything else except maybe eating disorders? But the main difference between Carrie Prejean and some scandal-plagued politician is the scandal that liberals have tried to create out of her answer is not a scandal in the eyes of the half of Americans who agree with what she said, (as inarticulate as it may have been), including the president.

The reaction to her remarks -- even on this very site -- remind me of a pivotal moment in the McCain campaign. It was the moment when John McCain, with the support of his three closest male advisors, all talked among themselves and decided that the most strategic way to get the female vote in play was to draft Sarah Palin for the ticket. Instead of reaching out and engaging a bunch of women (besides Cindy McCain), through polling or otherwise, these men took it upon themselves to decide that they knew the best way to reach an audience that they weren't a part of but really needed.

They failed miserably.

This is precisely what the marriage equality movement is in danger of becoming -- a movement in which those who know they are right on the issue become so paralyzed by emotion and frustration that they end up talking in an ideological echo chamber with those who already agree with them, and end up talking AT, or worse attacking, those who just aren't there yet -- but may very well get there someday.

But you won't get them there any faster by calling them "bitch."

This echo chamber first became apparent to me several months ago, when I met someone who worked with Mildred Loving, the plaintiff in the landmark Loving v. Virginia case that struck down anti-miscegenation laws paving the way for interracial marriages. When Loving, was first contacted not too long before her death last year, and was asked if she would lend her support to the marriage equality movement, she eventually agreed, spurred in large part by one of the people who reached out to her, a fellow black woman, who like Loving was a practicing Christian who had also struggled at first to reconcile her faith and her ultimate belief in rights for all. But what struck me most about the story is that Loving had, allegedly, never been contacted prior to that moment even for a conversation, by anyone else in the equality movement -- EVER, a fact that boggles my mind to this day. Because just as we saw with the Civil Rights Movement, laws can only change so much. Real societal change happens on a personal and cultural level. When people get to know one another, like one another and love one another, it becomes harder to discriminate against each other. But for this to truly happen, you have to meet people where they are, not simply expect them to be where you are already, and ridicule them if they are not.

As of yesterday, New York state is THISclose to becoming the next in the land to legalize gay marriage. Do you know what ultimately moved one of the Republican Assemblywomen who had previously been opposed, to reconsider? It was not the shaming of Carrie Prejean. It was a lesbian couple that lives on her street.

As Melissa Etheridge wrote so eloquently on this very site about the Rick Warren inauguration fallout, "They don't hate us, they fear change. Maybe in our anger, as we consider marches and boycotts, perhaps we can consider stretching out our hands. Maybe instead of marching on his church, we can show up en masse and volunteer for one of the many organizations affiliated with his church that work for HIV/AIDS causes all around the world. Maybe if they get to know us, they wont fear us."

She is right.

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