03/28/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Tom Hanks, Sean Penn and Prop. 8

As actors Sean Penn and Tom Hanks have recently demonstrated, emotions are still running very hot when it comes to Proposition 8 and gay marriage. At the Academy Awards, Penn just said that traditional marriage voters should "sit and reflect and anticipate their great shame and the shame in their grandchildren's eyes..." Hanks recently called Mormons who supported Prop. 8 "Un-American" before later apologizing.

Because of circumstances mostly beyond my control, I have never quacked with the vast majority of ducks. As an American who grew up in abject poverty and was homeless a number of times as a child, I got to experience forgotten and shunned parts of our nation in ways most in Washington never will.

As a conservative, I've always tried to give some of the forgotten a louder voice. Sometimes, that voice has offended some of my fellow conservatives. Sometimes liberals. I have honestly never cared. Ironically, one of the gifts of crushing poverty -- if you have the judgment to identify it -- is the freedom to ignore the naysayers and to not worry about pleasing them to move up the corporate or government ladder. When you have literally lived in a car or a refrigerator box, there is very little these people can threaten you with that doesn't make you laugh out loud.

Today, my wife insists I plant myself into the shoes of others way too often and mentally torture myself in the process. I disagree. With empathy comes understanding. With understanding, come solutions.

Because of Prop. 8 in California, "traditional" marriage is continually inserting itself squarely into the national dialog. For many of my fellow conservatives, being gay means choosing an abhorrent or unnatural lifestyle. I strongly disagree.

Thankfully, we live in a country where it's our right to believe or not believe in God and to honor that belief or difference of opinion in our own way. I happen to believe in God. I also happen to believe that God does not favor one religion over another, and that we are all God's children. Straight, gay, black, white, or brown. It does not matter. We are all entitled to the exact same human rights. Rights that must be protected.

My opinion has always been that we are either born gay or straight. We are just hard wired that way. Because of where I've come from, my only criterion in judging people over the years has been, is he or she a good person. That's it.

When I was a low level writer in the Reagan White House, Melissa Etheridge had just put out her first album. I walked past a record store, saw her face on the cover and instantly thought, "Wow. What a beautiful woman."

Years later, after learning she was a lesbian, watching her heroic battle with health issues, and reading about what a dedicated parent and partner she is, I think she is more beautiful than ever and a wonderful role model for all who aspire to lead a productive, meaningful, and loving life. Who cares about her sexual orientation. As a child of God, is she a good person? That's all that should matter. Period.

My years in Washington have also taught me a sadder truth. That being that often times, special interests and ideology are the enemies of honest disagreement and civility. Proposition 8 (the "traditional" marriage initiative that passed in the Golden state by a 52 to 48 percent margin) has clearly reinforced that truth.

As one who believes that real solutions and understanding can only come from the common bond of human dignity, empathy, and a shared respect for diverse opinion, I'm troubled that a vocal minority of activists in favor of gay marriage (some obviously from Hollywood) have chosen to vilify fellow citizens who believe in traditional marriage. With that name-calling in mind, I recently sat down with my lesbian niece and her partner and was told point blank that "these people are not the face of gay america and calmer and more reasoned voices need to come forward to represent our community in this debate."

Agreed. As one who forms my own opinions, I don't need a church or government to tell me who I can love or consider my life-partner. Do I think children would gain more being raised in a "traditional" mother and father household? In theory, yes. There is much to be gained from understanding the male and female perspective. That said, I truly believe that same-sex partners can be just as good or better parents than "traditional" moms and dads. It comes down to the ethics and character of the individual.

I have long thought Tom Hanks is a reasoned and needed voice in Hollywood and the national dialog. On this issue, he shot from the hip, missed and cleared the record.

For me, Sean Penn is anything but a reasoned voice. As one who is married into a wonderful Jewish-Venezuelan family, I've always been disturbed that Penn's uninformed ideology allows him to be used as a propaganda tool by Venezuelan Strongman Hugo Chavez.

The same Chavez that is inciting anti-Semitism across South America, just had his thugs desecrate a Synagogue in Caracas, and whose supporters, as quoted in a Washington Post editorial, want to "publicly challenge every Jew that you find in the street, shopping center or park...and called for a boycott of Jewish-owned businesses and seizures of Jewish owned property." While Penn continues to name-call those in this country who disagree with him, maybe he can take the time to explain his friendship with Hugo Chavez.

In the meantime, the gay marriage debate cries out for civil dialog and understanding. Two conditions that President Obama says are desperately needed across the board in Washington. The same President Obama who is on record against gay marriage.