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SCOT LEHIGH

Signs of war at the State House

IT WAS ONE small but moving moment in a day of large, loud passions.

 

I was wandering through the throng of demonstrators lining Beacon Street in front of the State House. Out there you were reminded yet again just what a cultural chasm separates proponents of gay marriage from the conservative religious faithful who oppose expanding marriage to include same-sex couples.

But there was one sign that seemed so aggressively obnoxious you couldn't help wondering what motivation could possibly lead someone to hold it aloft. The word GAY was printed vertically, with this horizontal query: "Got AIDS Yet?"

What it expressed was not a principle or even an opinion, really, but rather a taunt of appalling ugliness. So I asked Erick Camo why he would carry that message knowing it would be such an affront to others.

"Because what they are doing is a sin," he replied. But couldn't he find a more civil way to express his sentiments than by taunting homosexuals about a tragic disease? Camo said he didn't have to speak to me and walked away.

Which was when Dave Galbraith, a 28-year-old religious student who had been standing next to him, spoke up. He, too, opposed gay marriage, Galbraith said, but he had shuddered at the sign Camo was holding.

"It is very offensive," Galbraith said. "I asked him to take down his sign. To be mocking AIDS that way, that is the thing that burns me up."

Galbraith wanted to make a simple point. Although he and other religious demonstrators were against gay marriage, they also rejected Camo's poisonous sentiments. There are many, he said, "who are not motivated by hate."

Point taken, David -- and thank you for your important act of decency in objecting to Camo's spiteful sign.

I only wish I had seen more of that kind of decency yesterday.

I had the same question about motivation for Ruben Israel, who had traveled here from Los Angeles to parade in a sandwich board telling gays that "God abhors you" and that the "Wages of sin is Death" and who taunted gay men as "Sodomites" and "abominations."

"This is what I do," Israel explained to me. "We are protesting sin."

Couldn't he express his disagreement in a more decent way?

"I say you need to be blunt," he said. "My job is to be as blunt as their sin."

Nearby, Rick Reynolds and John Mirthes, a couple for 26 years, could attest firsthand to that bluntness. "He said we were going to die," said Reynolds. "He said we were going to get AIDS." (I later watched Ruben tell others the same thing.)

Mirthes, like Galbraith, wanted to make a simple point: He and his partner weren't really so different from anyone else. And they, like heterosexual couples, had made contributions to the nation and to the state. "I am a Vietnam-era veteran," Mirthes said. "We own a small business. We pay our taxes."

A moment later, up walked a man who identified himself as "Pastor Leonard" from Lawrence. He expressed his opposition to same-sex marriage but professed his love for the gay men standing nearby.

When Robert Vetrick, one of those men, accused him of hypocrisy, the putative pastor responded: "Would I be standing here with a sign like this if I didn't love you?" Now, perhaps I'm not versed enough in religious matters to judge, but given that the sign in question read "Homosexuals are possessed by demons," I can understand how Vetrick might have formed a different impression.

I asked a number of people what it was about gay marriage they found so threatening. Svetlana Surzhukov, who had come to Boston with a youth group from the Church of the New Covenant in Chicopee, gave me her reason. If same-sex marriage is allowed, she said, her church would be forced to marry gay couples.

Now, Surzhukov is only 16, and certainly she can be forgiven for not being fully informed on the issue. But it is worth repeating that the right in question here is that of civil, not religious, marriage; granting that right would not compel churches to marry homosexuals.

As I made my way back to the State House, a puckish placard caught my eye: "If gay and lesbian people are allowed to have equal rights, then everyone will want them."

"My son is gay," explained Nancy Cherico of Weymouth. "I would like him to have equal rights."

After a morning with some of the conservative faithful, what can one say but this: Amen.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is lehigh@globe.com.

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