The Unneeded Panic Room
by Stephen Measure
Michael was a dentist, a father of two, and a happy man married to a beautiful wife. He lit fireworks on the Fourth of July, swapped lost teeth under his kids’ pillows for loose change, and fried a mean turkey on Thanksgiving Day. He drove a small hybrid SUV, washed the dishes since his wife cooked, and enjoyed sci-fi marathons. All in all, he was a fairly ordinary man. He was religious, sure—Mormon to be exact—and that made him a bit peculiar, but what could be more ordinary than to be a bit peculiar? His opinions were average. Were they even his own? How could he know, when they matched so seamlessly with the rest of the crowd?
But then one day they didn’t. He was still a dentist, a father, a lucky husband. He still lit fireworks, traded teeth for cash, and fried turkeys. The SUV was still there, the dishes were still washed, the sci-fi shows still watched. So much was the same, yet so much was different. The world had shifted. The crowd had chosen a new opinion. It had stepped to one side, yet Michael didn’t follow. He stayed where he’d always been. Michael didn’t move.
Months earlier, Michael was wrapping up a grueling day in his dental office. As an introvert, he was often worn out by the interactions he had with people throughout the day, but today had been more stressful than most. One of his patients had had the unfortunate luck of meeting the metal bar of his trampoline. More specifically, his front teeth had had the unfortunate luck—all of them. Michael had taken a picture on his cell phone, which he intended to save for the day his daughter, Grizzy, ever asked to get a trampoline.
“Dad, I want a trampoline,” she would undoubtedly ask one day.
“Would you rather have a trampoline, or would you rather have your front teeth?” he would say, showing her the picture.
Then again, maybe I shouldn’t show Grizzy that picture, Michael thought, reminding himself about how anxious she had been lately. It was hard to understand how an eight-year-old could be so stressed. She worried about things that he didn’t even know needed to be worried about—and he himself was a worrier! So, no, maybe he wouldn’t be showing Grizzy that picture, not anytime soon anyway, not until she had gotten over whatever stage this was she was going through.
Michael sat at his desk in front of his computer and clicked on a hidden bookmark, bringing up a picture of some golf clubs he had been dreaming about. The price tag was fairly hefty, over a thousand dollars. But they’d almost gotten enough in their spare funds account for him to be able to swing it.
“Are you looking up your cruise again?” Rick called from his post at the front desk, seeing Michael sitting in front of his computer. Michael and his wife, Kate, were scheduled for a week-long cruise through the Caribbean next month.
“Something like that,” Michael answered, closing the web browser.
“Are you looking at those golf clubs again?” Rick asked. “You know Kate will never let you buy them.”
That might be true. Kate ruled the family budget with precision, always worrying about saving. Saving, saving, saving. There would be college for Grizzy, maybe a church mission, definitely a wedding. So much to save for. And they were already saving for Tank, too. He was only three, but Kate had already setup a fund she called his “Dental School Fund.” She seemed to think that since he was named after his father, he was destined to follow in his father’s footsteps. Michael, however, was skeptical. He thought it should be Tank’s “Circus School Fund” because Tank, who at three years old already weighed more than his eight-year-old sister, was destined to be the strong man in a circus sideshow. Tank wasn’t so much fat as he was just thick. Michael didn’t know where it came from. Kate still fussed over a bit of baby fat, but they were both otherwise fairly skinny. Grizzy was thin, too. So what had happened with Tank?
But life was about more than just saving for your kid’s future. Life was also about making your husband happy, or at least Michael was sure he could convince Kate of that fact, which would lead to his new golf clubs and perhaps a chance to go golfing later this month, or at least this year.
Michael’s cell phone buzzed with a new text message from Kate.
Oh, no, Michael thought, immediately worrying it was about Grizzy. She’d started getting fussy with her school lunch recently, claiming to be worried about it being poisonous or making her throw up or something. And she wasn’t eating enough at home to make up for it. Their thin girl was getting thinner. If only there were some way to transfer weight from brother to sister, Michael said to himself before calling his wife on his cell phone.
“What’s up?” he asked her.
Kate didn’t answer for a moment. It sounded like she was finishing a drink. At least she wasn’t crying, so the news wasn’t horrible.
“We’ve got a meeting with the stake president tonight,” she finally said after gulping down whatever she had been drinking.
“What? You’re kidding.”
“Nope. The stake executive secretary just called. They want us there at eight o’clock.”
“Both of us?”
You see, Mormons don’t have a paid clergy. Their local congregations, called wards, are led by a bishop and his counselors, all volunteers. Within the ward are the women’s organization, the Relief Society; the children’s organization, the Primary; and organizations for the men and for teenage boys and girls, Elders Quorum and Mutual. Each of these organizations are staffed by members in many different positions to keep things running. They’re all volunteer positions, or to put it a better way: they’re all volunteered positions. Mormons are asked to serve in a particular position, and they usually say yes. They serve there for a year or perhaps a few years, and then they are released and replaced by someone else, and they go on to another position. It was all rather routine for lifelong Mormons like Michael and Kate, who had cycled through countless positions: Sunday School teacher, Primary teacher, secretary of this and of that, but nothing big or truly demanding, and that is what had Michael worried. You see, a stake president is in charge of a handful of wards, referred to as a stake, and many of the big, demanding ward positions are assigned by him, callings like that of a bishop, or a bishop’s counselor, the type of callings that Michael most definitely did not want.
Michael worried over the problem all the way home and through dinner. He thought he had had it all worked out. Mormons are a conservative bunch. When going to church, they wear church clothes: dresses or skirts for women (although, yes, nice pants are fine, too), dress shirts and ties for the men. The dress shirts are usually white, and the men in ward leadership positions usually wear suits. So Michael had a good solution to avoid any of the demanding callings: he wore a blue dress shirt to church. It was ideal—he didn’t look too out of place, but he also didn’t look like a leader. And his strategy had carried him from Sunday School teacher to Primary teacher to Young Men’s adviser and around and around and around.
Some men seek high callings. Some women long to have their husbands thought of with such respect. But all of those people are crazy. Bishops spend ten to thirty hours a week caring for the needs of their ward, ten to thirty hours—if not more!—on top of their day jobs and their families and their hobbies. Hobbies, what are those? Anyone who wants to be a bishop is crazy. Anyone who wants to be a bishop’s wife is crazy. But Michael wasn’t crazy, so Michael wore his blue shirt and tie to church and everything was good and working just fine. So why in the world was the stake president calling him into his office tonight?
“Don’t they know I’m not leadership material?” he asked Kate as he washed the dishes.
“Anyone that talks to you knows that,” she said. “Maybe it’s not about a calling. Maybe it’s about something else.”
“Yeah, what else?”
“I don’t know.”
“We have a big ward. We have lots of active men. They shouldn’t need to dig into the second tier for someone like me.”
“Not all stake-issued callings are that horrible though. Don’t they call clerks and things like that? That wouldn’t be so bad.”
“Yeah,” Michael said. “I guess you’re right.” But he couldn’t get the image of the boy’s missing teeth from his mind. The metal bar of the trampoline was like a high-profile calling, and he had just lost his balance and was heading straight for it.
In desperation, Michael decided on a last-ditch plan. Maybe they just don’t realize how unqualified I am, he told himself. Maybe I just need to make it obvious how unsuited I am for a serious position. He decided that the best way to make this clear would be to show up in a T-shirt and jeans to the meeting that night. The stake president would undoubtedly be in a suit. If he had been inspired to give Michael a big calling, then perhaps having Michael show up in a T-shirt would inspire him to change his mind. Michael even considered wearing one of his paint shirts, but that would be pushing it too far. So he threw on one of his average T-shirts instead. Just a green shirt, no picture or anything. And he was feeling pretty good about himself and his chances until his wife walked in.
“You are not wearing that tonight,” she said.
“We’re meeting with the stake president! Show some respect. Put on your shirt and tie.”
Kate pulled a red-and-white striped church dress out of her closet. Michael griped as he took off his T-shirt. Then he had a brilliant idea.
“Hey,” he said. “How do you know the calling is for me? Maybe they’re going to give you a stake calling. Maybe they’ll call you as the stake Relief Society president. Or maybe something in the stake Primary presidency.”
Kate glared at him. Then she looked down at her dress and thought for a moment before putting it back in the closet and selecting a denim skirt and matching blouse to wear instead. Michael relented and switched to his blue dress shirt and church slacks. But I’m not wearing a tie! he insisted to himself. Michael and Kate were active, believing Mormons. They would accept any calling that was extended to them. But they also knew better than to invite trouble.
The car ride was a quiet one, both of them lost in their own worries about what this meeting could mean, and it didn’t get any better when they were ushered into the office of their stake president, President Hart, and greeted by him with his characteristic firm handshake. Michael always worried around President Hart. The man was tall and athletic, a lawyer with a presence that filled up the room. In addition, he was black, which always made Michael incredibly self-conscious whenever they spoke. Michael admired President Hart, but Michael had been raised in a small town in the middle of Idaho and had never spoken with a black man until he went to college. This lack of experience left him constantly worried that he might somehow say or do something offensive. And then he worried that his worrying might make it more likely that he might say or do something offensive. And on, and on, and on.
That wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. Michael was happy for Grizzy. The great thing about raising her in California was that her classmates had a good mix of physical characteristics. She would grow up seeing skin color the way that Michael saw hair color, as just one more physical characteristic in a long list of physical characteristics, none of them significant. That was the way it should be. But unfortunately for Michael, with his non-diverse upbringing, he didn’t think he would ever escape that panicky voice in the back of his head yelling: “Don’t do anything stupid!”
His constant worrying about causing offense only made the whole situation worse. He was already worried about what President Hart was going to ask of him, and now he was worried that he might do or say something stupid on top it. But, thankfully, President Hart was a natural leader. He seemed to sense the discomfort and worry that Michael felt, and he smoothed it out in their initial greetings as he asked about their children, asked about Michael’s work, and asked how they were doing in their ward.
See, this is what a leader is like, Michael said to himself. This is how I can never be. Michael was comfortable in his blue dress shirt without a tie. He wasn’t made for white shirts and suits. That was the realm of men like President Hart.
“I didn’t ask you here to extend any callings,” President Hart abruptly said.
And with those words, it felt like a weight had been lifted off of Michael’s chest. Kate, too, seemed relieved. President Hart laughed.
“You could have had your secretary tell us that when he made the appointment,” Kate said.
“I know. I could have,” President Hart said, and he smiled at them, a playful smile.
Michael chuckled. With all the time President Hart sacrifices to serve the stake, I guess I can’t begrudge him a little fun, Michael thought.
“So what can we do for you?” Michael asked. “Now that I know it’s not a new calling, I’m ready to agree to anything.”
“Nothing for me. Nothing even for the church really, not directly at least. I called you here to ask you to do something for the state. Have you heard much about Proposition 8?”
“Sure,” Michael said. He had heard about it. Who hadn’t? The California Supreme Court had decided that the law was whatever they said it was and had declared same-sex marriages legal. Proposition 8 was the chance for the citizens of California to slap the arrogant judges upside the head and tell them, “No, actually, that’s not what the law means.” It seemed like a decent enough idea, but it wasn’t something that Michael followed with that much interest. California was California. Sure, same-sex marriage didn’t make a whole lot of sense, but this was California. Tomorrow they might declare that blue must henceforth be called orange. Would that be a surprise at all?
“The leadership of the church is asking the members here to get involved, both with their time as well as with their wealth. This is a significant decision the state is about to make. We want to persuade California to make the right one.”
Michael was skeptical. “Does it really matter in the long run though?” he asked. “Won’t some other judges just throw out Proposition 8 like they throw out whatever other laws they don’t like?”
“Maybe. You’re right, they might do that. But they also might not. Not all judges have forgotten what it means to be part of the judiciary instead of the legislature. But even if they have forgotten and they choose to twist the law to overrule Proposition 8, think of what a victory for Proposition 8 would mean. When the people of California were given the chance to make their voices heard, they declared that marriage should remain what it has always been: the union of a man and a woman.”
Kate was fidgeting in her seat. Wait, Michael thought, is she going to cry?
“What’s wrong, Sister Keeler?” President Hart asked, following the Mormon custom of addressing members as “Brother” or “Sister” along with their last name.
“I just don’t see why . . . well . . . We don’t drink alcohol, but we don’t try to ban it either. Yes, homosexual relationships, I understand that they’re wrong. But people have free agency, right? Shouldn’t they have a choice? So why are we against same-sex marriage?”
President Hart sat back in his chair and clasped his hands together in front of him. “But no one is trying to ban same-sex relationships, Sister Keeler,” he said. “Can’t you see that that is why your comparison fails? We’re not trying to criminalize anything. We’re not trying to put people in jail. What we’re saying is that marriage should remain the union of a man and a woman. That’s all that this is about.”
“I just don’t see why it matters that much,” Kate replied. “Why can’t we just let them get same-sex married if that’s what they want to do? Because even if same-sex marriage is allowed, that doesn’t mean churches will have to change their doctrine and officiate them, that doesn’t mean teachers will encourage students to be same-sex married, that doesn’t mean people will be forced to help celebrate relationships they view as sinful—bakers aren’t going to be forced to bake same-sex wedding cakes, photographers aren’t going to be forced to take same-sex wedding pictures. None of those things are going to happen, so what does it hurt? We know right and wrong, but others disagree. Isn’t this just something that we can disagree about?”
President Hart leaned forward. “I understand what you’re saying,” he told Kate. “I really do. But what I want you to understand is that there is right and wrong, yes, but there is also helpful and harmful. Marriage is the bedrock of our society, Sister Keeler. God has decreed that. Nature has decreed that. And removing such a foundational aspect from marriage as its joint male and female characteristic will have an effect, both on society as well as religion.”
“But people are always comparing same-sex marriage to interracial marriage,” Kate blurted out. “And aren’t they a little right? Isn’t opposing same-sex marriage similar to opposing interracial marriage?”
Michael couldn’t believe Kate had brought up racism in front of President Hart. My wife is the bravest woman in the world! he said to himself, glancing at President Hart to see if he was upset by her remark.
But rather than act in any way annoyed or offended, President Hart just waved away her comment and settled back in his chair, his hands clasped together in front of him again. “That’s just marketing strategy,” he told her. “Everyone in our generation knows that opposing interracial marriage was bad, so if same-sex marriage proponents can tie the two together, then they win by default. But ask yourself this: Why did people oppose interracial marriage?”
“Because they were racists,” Michael said, putting just the right amount of extra stress on “they.”
“Right, which meant that they thought what about black people?”
“That they were less than them,” Michael answered, proud to be able to answer that question while looking President Hart in the eyes. “Different. Which was wrong of course.”
Then President Hart turned back to Kate, who had grown quiet. “Sister Keeler, you know someone who identifies as gay, don’t you? Is this what your concern is about?”
Kate blushed a little and looked at the floor, one of her legs folded tightly over the other. “Well, there’s a woman in our PTA. She’s really nice and she’s always so involved.”
“Okay. And do you think that she is less than you?”
“No, of course not. She’s great.”
President Hart paused for a moment. Then he asked, “But should she be having sex with a woman?”
Kate’s blush turned bright red. She wasn’t accustomed to hearing sex spoken of so bluntly in a church setting. “Well . . . no,” she said.
“Do you see the difference now? Do you see why opposition to interracial marriage and opposition to same-sex marriage are fundamentally different? Think about what you oppose—the behavior. That is where the difference lies. The link only comes from politics and marketing. But you know your own heart. You know why you should oppose same-sex marriage, and you know it has nothing to do with thinking less of anyone. It’s the action, not the person. That’s what it is. Ignore the marketing and the politics. You know your own heart. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Your friend in the PTA is not worth less than you, she’s worth just the same. She has her choice in how she will live her life, but you have a choice in whether or not society allows same-sex marriages. You get to look at the benefits, you get to look at the costs. You have a choice, the same as anyone else.”
Kate was silent for a moment. Then, still not looking at President Hart, she asked, “Do we have to support Proposition 8?”
“What do you mean?”
“Do we have to support Proposition 8, or does the church give us a choice?”
President Hart’s brows tightened. He obviously didn’t like the implications of the question. “You always have a choice, Sister Keeler, always. And the church is not going to ask you how you voted. But understand this: The leadership of the church is taking this issue very, very seriously and they want you to take it seriously as well. They are warning you that this is important. I understand what you hear in the media. I understand that you feel for your friends. But do you trust the guidance of the leaders of the church? They are warning you that this is important, Sister Keeler.”
Kate didn’t respond. Michael felt for her. She believed in the teachings of the church. She believed in its leaders. But she was being asked to take a very unpopular position, and she was so empathetic she couldn’t fail to feel pain for those who would be hurt by it. For Michael it wasn’t a big deal. He was allergic to people. Why would it matter if they ostracized him? But Kate enjoyed being around others. This was going to be a hard decision for her.
“Perhaps it would help if you explained more about how same-sex marriage is harmful?” Michael said to President Hart, hoping that that would help Kate feel more comfortable with what she was being asked to do. It was a no-brainer for Michael. Same-sex marriage made no sense to him. The only reason marriage had even been invented was to bind a man and a woman together, and the only reason why that mattered, for society anyway, was because society needed men and women to join together and have kids. A society would have to be suicidal to not prefer male-female unions over all other relationships, and what better way to prefer them than to have a specific relationship set up to recognize them, and what better relationship to use than the one that had always been used: marriage. Muck up that word and we’ll just have to create another. It all made perfect sense to Michael. So it wasn’t a big deal for him—although he was starting to get a little worried about what exactly President Hart was going to ask them to do—but he hoped that Kate could see the logic behind it as well. She rarely listened to Michael about politics, but perhaps she would listen to their stake president.
President Hart sighed. Michael wondered how many of these conversations he was having and how often he had to justify the church’s opposition to same-sex marriage to members who should already understand it.
“Okay, let’s look at it from the point of view of society,” President Hart said. “We need marriage. It’s critical to the survival of our nation. Because of this, it’s in our best interest to hold it up as the ideal and to keep it separate from all other relationships in terms of importance. We cannot create a co-equal relationship to marriage and then expect it to not diminish the importance and centrality of marriage in our society, and we cannot diminish the importance and centrality of marriage in our society without seriously harming society itself.”
Michael watched Kate’s reaction. She was listening to President Hart. Why doesn’t she ever listen to me about things like this? Michael wondered.
“Also, we worry so much about the government debts we are leaving behind for our children and our grandchildren,” President Hart said. “Shouldn’t we worry more about the impact our actions will have on them morally? The idea that holding up same-sex marriage as equally important to marriage will not affect the sexuality of some in the rising generation is pure blindness if not outright deceit. Why would we want to introduce a change that is sure to create problems in the lives of others? We don’t have to support same-sex marriage. We have a choice. Why would we want to support it, knowing that negative implications must come? We are not immutable rocks, forged from birth for a single path alone. If society starts holding up an alternate path and preaching that it is just as valid, some are going to be influenced to take that path who would not have done so without society’s encouragement and guidance. But I know this is an uncomfortable truth for many to consider, so we don’t need to discuss this particular reason any further. I think I’ve said enough about it.”
Michael, for one, was a little caught off guard by this train of thought. But Kate didn’t seem the least bit surprised by it.
“Those are some of the reasons why it is harmful to society,” President Hart continued, “but it is also harmful to society because it is harmful to religion, and religion is the core of society. Why is good good? What values should we hold? What manner of men and women should we be? These are questions that can only be answered through religious beliefs of some sort, and it is only formal religion which provides a parent with the means of successfully passing along their values to their children, to their grandchildren, and on and on.
“To understand why same-sex marriage is harmful to religion, consider what a society is saying when it legalizes it. First, consider this: Are same-sex marriages necessary? Imagine a world where same-sex attraction didn’t exist. Would same-sex marriage exist in that world? No, of course not—because same-sex marriage isn’t needed. It wasn’t needed in the past. It isn’t needed in the present. It won’t be needed in the future. The only reason why same-sex marriage is even a consideration is because some people want to be same-sex married. Now, someone playing devil’s advocate might ask: But what if normal attraction didn’t exist, wouldn’t marriage itself not be necessary in that world? To which I would answer: If normal attraction didn’t exist, then humans wouldn’t exist either. That’s the point. Normal attraction is needed, therefore marriage is needed. Same-sex marriage, however, is not.”
Kate was shuffling uncomfortably in her seat. Michael hoped she didn’t think that President Hart was saying that the people themselves were unneeded. It was a tricky point to make.
“Why, then, would a society choose to legalize same-sex marriage?” President Hart asked. “Some people want to be same-sex married, yes, but some people want lots of things and that doesn’t mean that we bend society to allow them. Why then would we legalize same-sex marriage? Here is the answer: We wouldn’t. We might, however, legalize gay marriage. And it is in the difference between same-sex marriage and gay marriage that the harm to religion can be found.”
“I don’t understand what you’re saying,” Kate said, a confused look on her face. “I thought same-sex marriage and gay marriage were the same thing.”
“Here is the question for you, Sister Keeler,” President Hart said. “Before California’s Supreme Court imposed their will over the law, was gay marriage legal?”
“Well, no; I thought that was the point of Proposition 8? To erase the ruling of the activist judges?”
“Actually, I’m not sure that you are right. Consider this: What does it mean to be gay? If being gay just means feeling same-sex attraction, then gay marriage has always been legal. When have we ever cared if a man feels same-sex attraction yet still chooses to marry a woman? Why in the world would that matter so long as his wife is not deceived and the man is committed to living faithfully to her? Why in the world would we care what attractions he has chosen to ignore?”
And how would we ever know? Michael thought. It’s not like people rush around disclosing their deepest struggles. And what if it isn’t even a deep struggle? What if it’s no more than a minor annoyance that’s simple for them to set aside? We’d never know.
“And what if being gay means that you engage in same-sex intimacy?” President Hart asked. “Again, do we block people from marrying who have made past mistakes in their lives? Of course not. And the sad fact is that some will choose to violate their commitment and continue acting in that way despite their marriage.”
“But that’s not what people mean when they talk about gay marriage,” Kate said.
“Exactly. And that’s what is so harmful to religion. They’re not talking about attraction. They’re not talking about action. They’re talking about both. Think about that. They’re saying that to be gay is both attraction and action. They’re combining the two together, making it seem like there is no separation at all. Can’t you see how dangerous it is when people refuse to acknowledge the separation? Religions preach against behavior, but now society is claiming that some types of behavior are actually classes of being, cutting the behavior off from any expectation that it can and should be resisted. Can’t you see what is happening? How can religion preach against sin when some people are sin? How can you preach against lying when lying is what some people are? How can you preach against stealing when stealing is what some people are? How can you preach against adultery when adultery is what some people are?”
Kate’s eyes opened a bit at this explanation. Michael felt a little jealous. Why couldn’t he be as persuasive?
“We’ve walked into a trap, Sister Keeler. And we can’t escape the trap because any attempt at reason is always met with ‘racism this’ or ‘racism that.’ You proved that yourself by your comparison of same-sex marriage and interracial marriage. We’re paralyzed by guilt for society’s past wrongs, so we cast off the very idea of sin lest it stain our hands with the accusation of bigotry. We’re trapped. We can’t preach against sin because people now are sin, so to preach against sin is to preach against people and to preach against people is just like what the racists did, and we don’t want to be horrible bigots like the racists, do we? Can’t you see, Sister Keeler? It’s a trap. It’s a cunning, well-laid trap.”
President Hart paused and looked up at the wall behind him. Michael turned to see what he was looking at. There were two pictures there. One was of the Savior, arms outstretched, standing amidst the clouds. The other was of the current First Presidency, the three men who led the Mormon church. Michael wasn’t sure which picture President Hart was looking at—perhaps both, perhaps neither.
Then President Hart continued. “Society might have lost all interest in God and in seeking His help against the wiles of the adversary, but that doesn’t mean that the adversary has lost any interest in us. He’s constantly weaving strong cords to bind us, and he can wait as long as he has to. He’s a devious bastard.”
Michael leaned forward in his chair, surprised by that final word. Did President Hart just say bastard? Hey, if he can say bastard, then I can say bastard! Michael looked sideways at his wife to catch her reaction. She was still looking at President Hart, but somehow she read Michael’s mind. She kicked his foot discretely.
Okay, fine, Michael thought, I guess I won’t say it in front of Kate. He thought what President Hart had said was great. Sure, it’s not the way he would have described it. He would have just said, “Listen, Kate, all this support for same-sex marriage is just crazy talk!” But that’s why President Hart was a stake president and Michael would never be. And Kate seemed to have been affected by his words. She was more calm now. Still upset, and Michael worried she still might cry, but there was a firmness to her now. She had been convinced to make a decision, and now she was going to stick with it no matter the cost.
“And that is why we are asking you to support Proposition 8,” President Hart continued. “Same-sex marriage is unnecessary and the argument for gay marriage is inherently dehumanizing. If people are sin, then people are not people. They’re just blobs of flesh following biological impulses, no initiative, no personal choice—no humanity at all. When judges declare there is no rational basis for marriage, they are declaring there is no rational reason to view a human as a human. When they declare that same-sex marriage must be allowed due to equal protection, they are declaring that we are not men and women with the agency to chart our own lives; instead we’re just a blurred combination of attraction and action, no self-determination, nothing more than preprogrammed robots. Is it any wonder that the religious, with our optimistic view of God’s children, reject such a debasing argument? We know better than that. You said it yourself, Sister Keeler: we have free agency. All of us do. We are not sin. We are not attraction. We are humans, men and women, sons and daughters of God.”
He paused and looked at the two of them.
“How can we help?” Kate asked, all doubt and worry vanished from her face.
President Hart smiled and nodded at her. I’ve got to learn how to do that, Michael said to himself. Maybe it’s the suit.
“The campaign will be an expensive one,” President Hart told them. “We’re asking those that can afford it to strongly consider donating in favor of Proposition 8.”
Money? Michael thought. I can do money. He had been worried that he would be asked to go door to door or something. For a man allergic to people, such a request would be like asking him to walk into the flames of Hell and to take a swim in a burning magma pool.
“Do you have a specific amount you expect from us?” Kate asked.
President Hart shook his head. “I’m going to leave that up to you. I just ask that you remember that this is one of the most significant campaigns you will have the opportunity to take part in. Please support it. Please be generous.”
And that was that. Kate was on board and Michael had never been off board. Driving home after the meeting, Michael considered President Hart’s explanation of the difference between same-sex marriage and gay marriage, and the more he thought about it, the more distinct the terms became in his mind. Same-sex marriage, while pointless and harmful, seemed as if its impact could be contained enough for the wise to work around. Gay marriage, on the other hand—with its baggage of being and the trap that creates—seemed catastrophic.
Kate was thinking through the discussion as well. She kept repeating how much she admired President Hart and how clear he made such a murky situation.
“Do you know anything about his kids?” she asked. “Does he have a son? He’d have to be a bit older of course. At least nine, nine to twelve. He’d have to be taller too, but President Hart is tall so I’m sure his sons would be—”
Michael almost swerved into oncoming traffic, “Grizzy is only eight years old!”
Kate gave Michael a soft punch in the arm and said, “Calm down. What does it hurt to think about who she might marry?”
“She’s only eight years old! I don’t want to imagine that! Ask me when she’s thirty or something.”
“Do you honestly want your daughter to be unmarried at thirty?”
“Fine, fine, but wait until she’s twenty at least. She’s eight. Eight!”
Kate dropped the subject, but she hummed to herself the rest of the way home, songs that to Michael all sounded vaguely like the soundtrack to a wedding reception.
Later that night, they sat together in front of their computer, trying to decide how much to donate to the cause. Michael thought they should sleep on it, but Kate insisted on doing it that night. Michael wondered if maybe she was worried she might lose her nerve if they waited until morning.
“I’m thinking $100,” Michael said, feeling immensely generous until Kate turned around and gave him one of her looks—not one of her good looks, one of her other looks.
“Michael,” she said, “we’re spending $5,000 on our cruise next month and you expect us to spend only $100 on this? Marriage is the foundation of society, Michael. I’m not going to have California mess it up just because we were too stingy to help when we could.”
It was their ten-year anniversary, and they were splurging beyond splurging for the cruise. Why couldn’t Proposition 8 have happened on one of our normal years where our vacation is camping with the kids? Michael said to himself, worried about what amount Kate might decide was appropriate.
“I think we should give at least ten percent of what we spend on the cruise,” Kate said.
“Ten percent? But that’s $500!”
“Right, $500 for each of us, making $1,000.” Kate typed in the amount and hit enter.
NO! Michael screamed inside, seeing the vision of his new golf clubs melting away. But Kate had already input the credit card info and submitted the donation.
President Hart, what have you done to me, President Hart? But, deprived of his golf clubs or not, Michael was proud of Kate for what she was doing. The money was hard for him, but money can always be re-earned and he had a feeling that this was going to end up costing Kate more than him in the end.
The weeks passed and before Michael knew it, they were on their cruise. With the large crowds on the cruise ship, Michael reached his limit for human contact quickly, but it was all worth it to sit on the balcony of their room, his arm around Kate, and stare at the deep blue of the open ocean with her, the waves rising and falling as far as the eye could see. The worries of the office and of politics were gone. He did worry a bit about Grizzy—Michael was the one who passed the worrying gene on to her in the first place—but he was happy to find her no worse upon their return than she had been before, or so he thought at first.
Then she stopped sleeping.
It started innocently enough. They had watched a movie and she had gotten scared by it. Lots of kids go through that. But Grizzy wouldn’t let go. Not every night, thankfully, but too often. It was like some sort of crazy cycle. She’d start getting scared at night and wouldn’t sleep without a lot of attention from Michael and Kate, and then she’d be fine for a few nights, making them think it was all over, but then it’d start up again.
Sometimes Kate brought Grizzy into bed to sleep with them, but Michael was always uncomfortable with that. Parent’s beds weren’t meant for kids to sleep in. Parent’s beds were meant for parents to sleep in and, on good nights, for parents to make new kids in. He was also a bit harsher than Kate, willing to let Grizzy cry herself to sleep alone in her room while Kate would rather hug her and comfort her and take her down on the couch to sleep together. We’re such softies in the twenty-first century! Michael told himself, imagining cave men sending their fearful daughters out of the cave to sleep in the dark with the saber-toothed tigers and woolly mammoths.
Then Grizzy’s hands started to crack.
They knew she was washing them more than she need to. But, hey, who likes germs anyway? Still, this was too much. Cracked hands was something that Michael had to deal with, not something that his eight-year old daughter should be going through. They looked online for help. They bought a couple books and started going through them. They even considered a therapist, maybe medication. But come on, Grizzy was just eight years old! That just seemed too drastic of a step.
One quiet evening, Kate was working through one of the worry exercises with Grizzy in the family room, Michael resting on his recliner and trying to forget the horrible breath his last patient had had. Then they both realized that the house was too quiet.
“Where’s Mikey?” Kate asked, referring to Tank.
If you want to name the kids, then you can birth them yourself! she had told Michael when he had said he wanted to name their daughter Grizelda in honor of a rescued princess from a forgotten video game he had played in his youth. So Grizzy’s name was Aspen and Tank’s name was Michael, but Michael figured that his participation in the whole birthing process deserved at least a token benefit, so he assigned them their nicknames. To Kate they were Aspen and Mikey, but to Michael they would forever be Grizzy and Tank.
“I don’t know,” Michael answered, trying to come up with some clever reply before realizing that a silent three-year old Tank was probably a bad thing, potentially a very bad thing.
He sprang up out of the chair and hurried to the front room, then the kitchen. No Tank.
“Panther, do you know where Tank is?” Michael asked their German shepherd, who was sleeping on the floor, her legs kicking as she dreamed of younger days. Panther had been Michael’s dog before he had married Kate, hence he got to name her. Old and ornery, she avoided the overly rambunctious Tank like the plague. If Panther was in the kitchen, then Tank was somewhere far away.
“Check the storage room,” Kate called to Michael.
“You mean the panic room?” Michael said.
“The storage room!”
It was a good suggestion. Tank always loved playing among the food storage containers in the panic room. Kate might call it a storage room, but it actually truly was a panic room. Michael didn’t know the story, but apparently one of the previous owners of their house had been somewhat paranoid, hence the panic room: a small room upstairs with no windows, with metal-reinforced walls and door and a steel crossbar that could be dropped into place, locking the world safely outside.
Tank loved to play in the panic room. Probably something to do with his XY chromosomes since Grizzy didn’t particularly like it much. Tank could often be found there, building forts among the food storage cans. Mormons are known for their food storage, and Michael and Kate had accumulated plenty. In decades past, Mormons stored multiple years’ worth of food. That was in the days of the Cold War and the, at times very plausible, threat of a nuclear winter. Today, Mormon food storage was meant for more short-term threats like natural disasters, terrorist strikes, or layoffs, which meant that only a few months of food were needed instead of multiple years. But beyond the banal worrying of tornadoes, hurricanes, or short-sighted executives, Michael was mindful of a more pressing problem: zombies.
“We don’t need a panic room,” Kate had told Michael when they had first moved into the house.
“But what about when the zombies attack? When that first zombie breaks through the door, you’re going to be happy you have a panic room to hide in.”
“Zombies aren’t real, Michael,” Kate said, an annoyed tone to her voice.
“Yet. They aren’t real—yet. But when they are, boy, is that panic room going to come in handy!”
“It’s not a panic room. It’s a storage room.”
“It’s a panic room.”
“But the zombies . . .”
The argument brought two thoughts to Michael’s mind. First, how in the world had he convinced Kate to marry him? Second, what good is a food cache in the midst of a zombie apocalypse if he didn’t have some means of protection as well? The answer was obvious: he needed a gun cache, too.
“We are not getting any guns,” Kate had told him.
“What? Do you expect me to fight off the zombies with my old golf clubs?”
“We are not getting any guns!”
“And when they come to eat our brains and make us as brainless as they are?”
Then Kate got quiet, her annoyed expression replaced by her clever one. Michael hated that expression. It meant the argument was already over.
“Fine,” Kate said, smiling prettily at him. “You can buy a gun, but first you have to take a gun safety course.”
And that was the end of it. Kate was no fool. Sure, Michael had to put up with people at church because church was church and church was important, and he had to put up with people at work because that paid the bills, but there was no way that Michael was going to choose to sit in a classroom full of people—honestly, how he managed to deal with his patients was anyone’s guess (perhaps their inability to talk during their dental checkups helped him cope)—so there was no way he was going to sit through a gun safety course. She had won without even having to tell him no. So, no guns, and his old golf clubs got stored in the panic room along with the food storage. Kate thought he had put them there because he never had time to play golf anyway, but Michael had another use in mind. He would have stored his new golf clubs there too, had things worked out differently, but they had not and it was just as well. He had no time for golf anyway, and an old club was just as good at bashing in zombie skulls as a new one.
“Tank, are you in there?” Michael called after he came up the stairs and turned the corner toward the panic room. “You know Mom doesn’t like you playing in there.”
He heard a giggle and the sound of moving cans. Yup, Tank was in there all right.
“What are you doing—” Michael asked, rounding the doorway and finding Tank standing on the top of a pile of condensed milk cans.
“Superman!” Tank called, swinging his arms and jumping off the cans.
“Tank!” Michael yelled, rushing forward and catching the boy, whose weight drove them both onto the floor. “What are you doing? You’ll break an arm doing that!”
“I was playing Superman,” Tank said. “Like yesterday.”
Yesterday? And then Michael remembered. They had stacked the couch pillows up and Michael had had Tank jump off the couch onto them. Kate had been annoyed, but Tank had laughed. What am I teaching my kids? Michael asked himself. I’m such a horrible father.
Of course, Tank’s arms were so thick the padding would probably prevent any damage. Tank was thick everywhere. Michael sometimes wondered if the thickness extended to the inside of Tank’s head, leaving very little space for a brain. He didn’t share this thought with Kate of course. Doing that would certainly cause her to switch into roommate mode, and Michael hated when Kate was in roommate mode.
But Tank didn’t break his arm that summer. And, although Grizzy didn’t get any better, at least she didn’t get any worse. The nation, however, went absolutely insane. The presidential election was like nothing Michael could remember. The craziness extended even into his own office. Rick especially was caught up in it, constantly talking about the election, about some speech, some saying. Eventually, Michael had to ban all talk of politics in his office in order to preserve his sanity.
After one particularly long day, Michael came home and flopped onto his recliner. Rick had been so enthused about the latest speech that he couldn’t stop talking about it, ban or no ban, and it seemed like every patient who sat down in the dental chair had not brushed for weeks. Now, sitting there in his recliner, Michael could still hear the blathering bouncing around in his ears and he could still smell the stench swirling around in his nostrils. He needed to distract himself somehow but didn’t have the energy to do anything productive. I’ll just watch TV, he decided. But he’d have to wait a bit before anything worthwhile came on. The sci-fi movies didn’t start until later. Right now it would only be lame reality shows.
Panther rubbed her nose on his leg until he started petting her head.
You’re getting old, girl, Michael thought, sad to see all the gray on her face. How is it that your breath smells better than my patients’? Should I tell them to start eating dog food? Is that the secret?
Why in the world did I choose to become a dentist? Michael asked himself, as he often did. But it paid great, and the schedule wasn’t bad, so who was he to complain about it?
Of course, the schedule would be better if I could work from home, Michael thought. Hey, this is the twenty-first century! Shouldn’t someone have invented remote-controlled robots for this by now? I could sit in my recliner here at home and remotely clean people’s teeth via robot. Why isn’t that possible? Why hasn’t someone invented that yet?
Kate was reading a book to Tank, who didn’t seem to be listening very well. Grizzy was in the kitchen doing her homework.
“Kate, I think Grizzy should be a robotics engineer,” Michael told her.
Kate looked up from her book. “She’s only eight. And why not Mikey? He likes robots.”
Tank in fact was playing with a robot right then, a plastic action figure, which he repeatedly bashed into the carpet, his thick arm raising and lowering the toy again and again and again, his thick, thick arm. Michael looked at Tank’s head.
“Kate, I think Grizzy should be a robotics engineer,” Michael repeated.
From time to time over the weeks that passed, church members were asked to rally in favor of Proposition 8, but Michael always found some excuse to keep his family away. He supported the initiative of course, but the thought of standing on some street corner and waving a sign nearly gave him a panic attack. He figured he was doing the movement a favor by staying away. They didn’t want their crowd of smiling faces spoiled by his sour expression.
Then Election Day finally came, and the Democrats got their historic moment and California got its Proposition 8. Kate refused to tell Michael which presidential candidate she had voted for, which meant her vote had probably canceled his own, but she did tell him she had voted for Proposition 8, and he had too, and they had given some money to help it along, and it had won, and now it was over.
Except it wasn’t.
The backlash started as soon as everyone realized that Proposition 8 had won. Anger was the word of the day. Activists marched in the street, yelling at people, yelling at churches, yelling at whoever or whatever they could blame for not getting their way.
Like most, Michael kept his head down. The anger was unpleasant, and it was easiest to just avoid it. But that often proved impossible, and two words started popping up in the media whenever people spoke about same-sex marriage: “marriage equality.” What a misleading pile of marketing fluff, Michael thought the first time he heard it. Not that its inaccuracy was out of place compared to other political slogans—“pro-choice” is not in favor of all choices, “pro-life” is not in favor of all life—but the insincerity of the words still bothered him. Same-sex marriage activists were marching underneath a banner of “marriage equality” when equality wasn’t what they were actually seeking—they were seeking same-sex marriage, not equality, just same-sex marriage. It made Michael wish he could halt their speeches, look them in the eye, and ask: “If person A wants to marry person B, will you always say yes?”
The honest answer, of course, would be “No.” The activists weren’t idiots. They knew that for marriage to mean anything, it needed guidelines. The only difference was with same-sex marriage: they wanted to allow it, but Michael didn’t. So the conflict was about same-sex marriage, not about “marriage equality,” and the insincerity and outright bias of the media was beginning to drive Michael nuts.
Kate was having an even harder time than Michael. She felt for those that sought a same-sex marriage. She longed for a resolution. And she was thankful for the privacy of the voting booth, thankful that as the rage flew all around her, she was able to stay quiet and safe.
But safety was short-lived. This wasn’t a simple political disagreement, like an argument about taxes, where both sides thought the other side was wrong but both sides still allowed the other side to remain human. The advocates for same-sex marriage were demonizing their opponents. Any that opposed same-sex marriage didn’t simply oppose it; they were anti-gay, they were homophobes, they were bigots, they were haters who wanted to take the rights of loving citizens away. And it wasn’t right for such horrible bigots to sleep peacefully in their beds or to work successfully in their careers. It wasn’t right that any of those horrible bigots should walk free after they had committed the unpardonable sin of standing against “marriage equality.”
And there were too many that still opposed same-sex marriage. All of them needed to learn that that opinion would not be tolerated. Examples needed to be made. And so the list of all the donors of Proposition 8 was released, and the names were shared far and wide, anonymous websites gleefully posting the personal details of the potential targets, newspapers helpfully making the list easy for activists to search.
The impact reached Michael the very next day. Coming into his office that morning, he was surprised to see the front desk vacant.
“Where’s Rick?” he asked the rest of his staff.
All of them seemed to look in different directions.
“Where’s Rick? Is he sick today?”
“Rick quit,” someone finally replied.
“What do you mean he quit? No two weeks’ notice? Not even a good-bye?”
More silence. Then finally someone told Michael, “Didn’t you know that Rick is gay?”
“What?” Michael said. “Uh . . . no, I didn’t.” He never paid attention to the personal lives of his staff. Not the best quality in a boss, but at least he wasn’t nosy.
“He’s been living with his boyfriend for two years. They were hoping to be same-sex married.”
I thought he lived with his mother, Michael said to himself, surprised at how little he actually knew his staff.
It wasn’t just Michael, either. A man who worked at a theater was forced to resign; a restaurant was being picketed. Other examples were being made as well. “What did they expect?” voices replied. “They paid to steal the rights away from others!”
The next strike was against Kate, who came home from a PTA meeting one night, her cheeks wet with tears.
“What’s wrong?” Michael asked as he shut the dishwasher and turned it on.
Kate set her purse down. “Well, at least I’ll have more free nights,” she managed to say before bursting into tears and burying her face in her hands as she sank into a seat at the table.
Michael considered asking what she meant, but he thought he already knew: Proposition 8 donors were apparently not welcome in the PTA anymore.
The next strike was a message on Michael’s dental office door. He arrived one morning to find the word “BIGOT!” written in black marker. At least they didn’t throw a rock through my window, he thought as he taped a magazine page over the slur on the door. The page showed a picture of a sunny beach, a happy couple lounging on their towels as they looked out at the sunset. Michael’s anniversary cruise seemed like so long ago.
Then the phone calls started. Michael had hired a sweet old lady named Gretchen to manage the front desk, but she couldn’t handle the abuse. Michael reported the harassment to the police, but the officer taking his report didn’t appear very interested.
“You’ve got to understand,” the officer told him. “When you donate to such an emotionally charged issue, you’re going to end up the target of angry activists.”
Michael was shocked by the response. “So basically the bullies win?” he said.
“Sorry, man, but it is what it is. I don’t make the rules,” the officer replied.
The response disheartened Michael. It seemed as if the officer was telling him it was all his fault. Michael understood common sense. He understood that it needed to be used in order to avoid trouble because life wasn’t perfect and it was best to avoid trouble if you could. You don’t walk down dark alleys alone at night, not if you don’t want to be robbed. Michael understood that. But was that what society had become? Was participating in the political process now as dangerous as walking down a dark alley? How had we fallen so far?
And the calls didn’t stop, so Gretchen eventually had to quit. She offered two weeks’ notice but Michael didn’t take it. He could see how the abuse was wearing on her. She hadn’t asked for this, and it would be easier for her to work somewhere else, to work for someone who wasn’t being targeted. And that was the point, wasn’t it? Everyone needed to see how much pain they would feel if they supported the wrong side of this issue. Everyone needed to learn their lesson.
For Gretchen’s replacement, Michael hired an ex-marine named John, who had dodged bullets in Afghanistan and Iraq and was unfazed by the threat of mean phone calls. But John was no Rick. Rick had had a presence about him, a positivity—almost a hyperness—that filled the office whenever he was there, cheering up the rest of the staff. Michael missed Rick and the fun conversations they used to have. Rick had had an honest interest in Michael and in Michael’s life. It made Michael feel guilty now to know he had never bothered to learn anything about Rick in return.
“So, John,” he said one afternoon as the day was wrapping up. “You aren’t married, are you?”
“No,” John said, looking up from a magazine he was reading.
“Any significant other?”
Michael looked at John, who stared back blankly.
“Anything interesting I should know about you?” Michael asked.
Michael retreated to his office and sat down in front of his computer. The website bookmark was still there for the golf clubs he had wanted to buy what seemed like a lifetime ago. They didn’t even appeal to him now. He clicked through articles on a few websites, wasting the time before he would head for home, when he came across a political ad for same-sex marriage. Some sort of actress—Michael couldn’t remember her name—dressed simply but fashionably with a piece of duct tape covering her mouth and a slogan on her cheek. Michael had seen the ad before but it had been a different celebrity that time. He wondered if this actress cared more about the cause or about being known as a supporter of the cause. With the pretty and the popular, you never really could be sure. And what was written on her cheek? Was it an attempt to justify same-sex marriage? Was it a positive message explaining why same-sex marriage was necessary and good? No. The message was “No Hate.”
Hate. Opposition to same-sex marriage was being smeared as nothing more than hate. Marketing relies on emotional manipulation, and this was marketing, plain and simple, with a premise as basic as high school itself: Do you want to hang with the cool kids or do you want to be a hateful bigot? Get in line. Conform. Dissent will not be tolerated.
Michael found it strange. Why can’t they justify their opinion without attacking those who disagree? What is it about the same-sex marriage movement that drives them to paint their opponents as bigots? Is that really the only argument they have?
But just as the harassing calls at his office had become less of a problem, they started coming to his home as well. Michael turned off the ringer and started to screen their calls, but then one night a white-faced Grizzy walked into the family room to tell Michael, “Someone said a bad word on the answering machine.” Michael disconnected it that night.
Grizzy was getting worse. Michael and Kate had done what they could to keep the abuses hidden from her, but she was sensitive and could sense the tension that Michael and Kate were living under. She was eating less and less, worried she might vomit, worried about poison, worried about anything and everything.
Michael and Kate began talking seriously about getting her therapy, but they hesitated, worried that whatever therapist they picked would view them not as her loving parents but as hateful bigots. Would the therapist try to turn their daughter against them? Would the therapist see it as a duty to “reeducate” their daughter rather than to simply help her with her worries? Maybe it was an irrational fear, but it was an irrational time. And if people really believed that Michael and Kate were as horrible as their slurs made it sound, why wouldn’t it happen?
Then somehow Michael’s cell phone number got leaked onto the Internet. In a way, he was glad it had happened. If his family faced abuse, he’d rather it was directed at him instead of his wife and kids. He wondered, though, as he listened to the angry callers. Do these people know anything about me other than that I donated to Proposition 8? Was that the only instruction they were given before being set loose to take out their anger on a stranger? And anger was all it was.
“You bigot, what harm is it to you if someone else gets married? You’re just a bigot.”
“You evil Nazi!”
“How’d you like it if someone took away your rights, you homophobe!”
“What you did was evil!”
“We don’t tolerate bigotry!”
One night Michael lay awake in bed. Kate was downstairs sleeping on the couch with Grizzy, who was on a third night of not sleeping alone. Michael looked up at the ceiling, remembering the last call he had gotten on his cell phone. It had come as he was leaving his office. The words were as unkind as they usually were. It made him wonder again: Why does the same-sex marriage movement treat all who disagree as if they were bigots? Why can’t they let me remain a person, an actual person who simply doesn’t agree with them? He couldn’t understand it, and as he lay awake and wished for sleep, he debated with them in his mind, imagining what they would say to him.
“Everyone must support same-sex marriage! If you don’t, you’re a bigot!”
“Hey, let’s be reasonable here—”
“Wait, what? Where’d the preposition go? And what does that have to do with anything anyway? That’s not what we’re talking about—”
“Do all your arguments depend on past guilt? Can’t you talk about this without smearing others as bigots?”
“No, seriously. You keep saying that, and I’m thinking about what you’re saying, and I’m telling you that what you’re saying makes no sense. Do you expect me to just shut off my brain and not think? Is that what you’re asking for? Is that what you’re trying to bully me into doing?”
“Shut up, bigot! Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!”
He thought again of the political slogan “marriage equality,” and suddenly the words took on a more sinister purpose. By framing the discussion in that way, same-sex marriage advocates were claiming that Michael wasn’t just opposing same-sex marriage; he was opposing equality itself. And who opposes equality? Bigots do. And what do we do to bigots? We shun them and we spit on them and we kick them out of civil society. Why did they pick this approach? Michael wondered. Why can’t they let us remain people who simply disagree? Then, drifting off to sleep, he had one final question for the same-sex marriage advocates: “If same-sex marriage can only come through smearing hundreds of millions as bigots, is it worth the price?”
The phone calls didn’t stop. Michael did his best to ignore them, reminding himself that the callers weren’t really insulting him, they were just insulting the imaginary monster they thought he was. Thinking of it that way helped a little, but it still stung to be on the receiving end of such anger. And then there were the more threatening calls.
“I hope someone takes away your family too.”
Comments like that made Michael worry. People were letting themselves get carried away in anger. Do they even think of us as human anymore? he wondered. Will they rein in their anger at some point, or has it become uncontrollable? And more worrying than the messages was Michael’s realization that he could recognize a familiar voice among the callers—the same man was calling again and again. They had a stalker.
Michael tried to talk to him. “Why are you doing this?” But the man only hung up. Then the man called back the next day to make another comment about how hateful and horrible Michael and his family were. This time Michael tried to reach him with a friendly tone. “My favorite ice cream is Neapolitan. What’s yours?” But the man only hung up again.
Michael considered calling the police. To have one person focus on him seemed more dangerous than getting calls from random people, but the reaction the police had given to his workplace harassment made him doubt that calling them would do any good. Society had marked Michael and his family as outcasts. They were on their own.
Unable to turn to others for help, Michael decided to take his family’s safety into his own hands. He didn’t bother taking a gun safety course. He didn’t talk to Kate. He just drove to a gun store after work one day and bought a revolver. There was a waiting period before he could claim it, so he couldn’t take it home that night. Having to wait made him nervous. People were making themselves angrier and angrier. If nothing stopped the escalation, it was only a matter of time before someone snapped and decided to make things really ugly.
The worsening conditions weren’t limited to just Michael and weren’t invisible to others. Even some same-sex marriage advocates were starting to call for restraint and to speak out against the witch hunts being held for the Proposition 8 donors. But Michael found the advocates’ words to be hollow because right after calling for civility, they would characterize those who disagreed with same-sex marriage as anti-gay, or homophobes, or bigots, or else the advocates would claim there was no rational basis for marriage. They’re disingenuous, Michael thought. They can’t complain about our treatment in one breath and then demonize us in the next. They are helping to whip the hounds into a frenzy, and then they act shocked when the hounds begin to bite. They’re contributing to this hostile environment with the arguments they use to advance their cause. What did they think would happen after they labeled us as bigots? How did they expect others to treat us?
And then Michael realized: That’s the point, isn’t it? They don’t have any other arguments. Reality has dealt the same-sex marriage advocates a weak hand. There is no need for same-sex marriage. It wasn’t needed in the past. It isn’t needed in the present. It won’t be needed in the future. Compare that to the utter chaos and collapse that would occur should marriage itself be discarded. Yes, reality has dealt the same-sex marriage advocates a weak hand. They can’t argue with logic because the truth is that same-sex marriage isn’t necessary, and the religious can sense how harmful gay marriage would be. People are not sin—the very idea is toxic to morality. So what other argument does that leave the same-sex marriage advocates? Michael asked himself. What other method is available to them other than to demonize people like me?
There isn’t one, he told himself. We have to be thought of as bigots and homophobes, as hateful people that want to steal away the rights from others. We have to be thought of as bigots because same-sex marriage will never win if people like me are allowed to be seen as reasonable. That’s why the advocates are arguing that there is no rational basis for opposing same-sex marriage. That’s why they claim that all opposition is nothing but bigotry itself. They’re arguing that way because they have to. They’re arguing that way because there’s no other way for them to win.
But behavior is not being, Michael said to himself. If society realizes that truth, then the whole jig is up. Behavior is not being!
“Shut up, bigot! Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!”
And so, branded as a bigot because he had to be, Michael went to the gun store once the waiting period was over and picked up his revolver. The choice of gun had been the clerk’s suggestion. He had immediately sized Michael up as someone unused to guns, and to be honest, the operation of a semi-automatic intimidated Michael, making the revolver seem simple in comparison. Michael had stood in the aisle of the gun store and held the gun up, pointing it at the distant wall. Dry firing a few times to get the feel of it, he imagined himself using the gun to protect his family. The trigger took more pressure to fire than he expected. He hoped he would never have to use it.
After returning home with his revolver in its case and a box full of ammunition, Michael hid the case in his sock drawer. Should I store it loaded? he wondered. That seemed like the wise thing to do if he needed it for self-defense. What good is an unloaded gun when someone is breaking into your home? But the idea of Grizzy finding his gun—or worse, Tank—and accidentally shooting themselves or someone else terrified him, so he left the gun unloaded, the bullets in their box on the other side of the sock drawer. It was dangerous to leave the revolver outside of a gun safe, but Michael felt his family was in a dangerous situation, and he didn’t dare make it any harder for him to find his gun.
I just hope I never have to use it, Michael said to himself.
Grizzy continued to have a hard time sleeping. It seemed like every other night Kate was sleeping with her downstairs on the couch. Michael tried to talk with Grizzy, to help her see that her fears were irrational. But she was only eight, and it seemed like her emotions were simply too much for her young mind to control. It was like she were two different people. While talking with him, she could come up with alternate possibilities. No, the food isn’t poisonous because my parents would never poison me. Dad, and Mom, and Mikey didn’t get poisoned from eating the food, so neither would I. No, the food wasn’t poisoned the last time I tried to eat it. She had these rational thoughts. She could identify them. Yet, when she was caught up in the midst of her worries, it didn’t seem to do much good. She needed some sort of a boost. Michael and Kate began thinking more seriously about medication and therapy. But who could they trust? With the hostile environment that had been created by the same-sex marriage advocates, an environment that treated people like Michael and Kate as bigots, who could they trust with the well-being of their daughter?
They had Grizzy start brushing Panther’s fur every night. It was Kate’s idea. She hoped the task would help soothe Grizzy, that the act of serving another would help her forget her worries. Panther loved the attention. She would sit up tall despite her old, trembling legs, patiently letting Grizzy work the brush through her hair. Kate thought that maybe the two would bond, that somehow an animal could help Grizzy in ways that she and Michael could not. And it seemed to help for a while. Grizzy actually slept in her own room for four nights straight. Panther had started sleeping on the floor beside her bed, which Michael thought was helping. But on the fifth night, Grizzy was back looking for Kate again.
“What if Panther dies in the middle of the night?” she asked, tears in her eyes. “What if I wake up and her body is just lying there on my floor?”
And so, down onto the couch Kate and Grizzy went, Panther following behind, the old dog completely unaware that she was only adding to Grizzy’s worries rather than removing them.
The phone calls continued, the familiar voice calling again and again to speak hateful remarks. Michael’s attempts at reaching the man at a human level didn’t work. It was obvious the man had no interest in Michael as a person. To him, Michael was only a bigot, and any evidence to the contrary only seemed to aggravate him; so Michael learned to simply hang up. He wished he could ignore the calls entirely, but the number was always blocked and Michael couldn’t ignore blocked calls without risking losing a call from a patient.
It seemed bizarre to devote so much time and energy to harassing a stranger. What would lead someone to act like that? Michael wondered. He didn’t know. But he imagined what the stalker must look like. Carrying that much anger inside must mark the man somehow. But how?
At least work didn’t get any worse. No one else from his staff quit. He did lose a handful of clients, but he wasn’t sure of the reason—there was always some amount of turnover with the number of clients he had: people move, people forget, people stop caring about their teeth. Some clients actually mentioned support for Michael and what he had done. They whispered that they had voted for Proposition 8 and were happy it had passed. But otherwise, the topic simply never came up. Michael was a dentist. His job was to keep his patients’ teeth healthy. That’s what he did. He had a successful practice. He provided a generous living for his family, who were all relatively healthy, Grizzy’s challenges included.
But that’s a problem, isn’t it? If people like Michael are allowed to live good, successful lives, then how will the rest of us ever learn our lesson?
Michael woke suddenly in the darkness, his body alert. Alert about what?
A broken window.
Panther was barking viciously downstairs. Michael leapt out of bed, stumbling in the covers, and flipped on the light switch.
“Get the kids into the panic room!” he told Kate. Then, rushing to his dresser, he pulled out his gun and grabbed the box of bullets.
Panther was still barking. He had never heard her so wild—growling, snarling. Good old girl. Michael’s hands trembled as he tried to remember how to release the cylinder. His fingers fumbled. Why isn’t Kate moving yet? There! The cylinder slid to the side and he tried to load the first bullet. His fingers wouldn’t cooperate. Panther continued her frenzied barking. Keep them busy, girl. He loaded the first bullet. Why isn’t Kate moving?
“Kate—” Michael turned and looked at the empty bed. Where’s Kate? Then he realized: She’s downstairs on the couch with Grizzy.
Michael dropped a bullet. The box was shaking in his hand. Cursing, he grabbed another. Panther was still barking. He loaded a second bullet.
A loud bang shook the floor. The barking stopped.
“You bastard!” No time to finish loading, Michael slammed the cylinder into place.
Kate and Grizzy are downstairs!
Michael flew out of the room and raced down the stairs. Reaching the bottom, he glanced toward the kitchen before hurriedly creeping to the hallway. Holding his revolver in front of him, he moved toward the family room. The shooter must be in the kitchen. How long before he moves to the front room?
Michael stopped where the hallway wall ended, the front room opening to his left, the family room to his right. Both were dark, although there was a small light from the kitchen. Glancing quickly, he thought he saw a shadow move within it. He turned back to the family room.
“Kate,” Michael hissed. “Kate, are you down here?”
There was a low noise, like a recorded voice, coming from behind the couch.
“Kate!” Michael whispered louder. He peeked again around the wall. The shadow in the kitchen was nearing the entrance to the front room.
Kate’s head popped up. Her face was white and she had a phone to her ear.
Smart woman, Michael thought. She called the police.
Then he heard footsteps enter the front room—slow, intentional footsteps. He remembered the saying: “When seconds count, the police are only minutes away.”
“I have a gun!” Michael shouted. Kate’s eyes widened as she realized what he was holding. He motioned for her and Grizzy to move into the hallway with him.
“I have a gun! Get out of my house!” he yelled.
There was no reply, but the footsteps stopped. Michael stood with his back against the wall, his revolver held in both hands, pointed at the ceiling. He peeked quickly around the corner but saw nothing. Kate and Grizzy were crawling over from the couch. They seemed to take forever. Then they were there, Kate crouching on the ground beside Grizzy, who was trembling. Kate still had the phone up to her ear.
“He’s in our front room,” she whispered. “No, we haven’t seen him yet. Yes, it might be a woman. We don’t know. Yes, they have a gun.” Her voice cracked at this and she looked up at the gun that Michael held in his hands. Grizzy leaned against Kate. She seemed on the verge of a panic attack. Michael felt like he might join her.
The footsteps started moving again, coming further into the front room. That meant the shooter was moving away from the stairs.
“Get up into the panic room,” Michael whispered to Kate. “Grab Tank. Get in the panic room and bar the door.”
Kate glanced at the stairs and then back at Michael. He could guess her thoughts. If the shooter is in the front room, she and Grizzy would be exposed as soon as they stepped past the hallway wall.
“I’ll distract him,” Michael whispered, motioning with his gun. “Now, go!”
Kate started to move, dragging Grizzy behind her. Michael heard something fall to the ground in the hallway but he was turning into the front room, his gun held out in front of him, his finger shaking on the trigger.
Then he saw the shooter and he froze. The man was standing there in the middle of the front room, staring right back at him, a gun in his hand. It was shocking how ordinary the man looked. Michael had expected something dramatic—He broke into my house! He shot Panther!—but the person standing there could have been anyone. Except for his eyes. Michael saw the anger and hatred that burned within them. Those eyes didn’t see a man when they looked at Michael. Those eyes could see nothing more than a bigot, a monster that must be destroyed for righteousness’ sake. How can anyone allow themselves to be filled with such irrational anger?
There was running in the hallway as Kate and Grizzy made a break for the stairs. The shooter’s gun turned toward them and Michael yelled, “No!” as he pointed his shaking revolver at the man and pulled the trigger.
It clicked but didn’t fire. He pulled the trigger again and again and again. Click, click, click. The shooter heard the dry fires and was swinging his gun back toward Michael. Bang! Michael’s revolver went off, Michael’s eyes closing instinctively at the loud noise, and the bullet flew wild. The shooter had his gun pointed back at Michael, who pulled the trigger again. Another blast. He ducked behind the wall as the shooter returned fire, their downstairs filling with terrible blasts. Michael could smell the smoke. His stomach churned. He wanted to vomit.
“Think about what you’re doing!” he yelled, his voice sounding hoarse. He glanced up the stairs. At least Kate and Grizzy had made it. He heard a low sound coming from the ground. Looking down, he saw the phone Kate had dropped in her flight to the stairs. He couldn’t understand what the operator was saying.
“Think about what you’re doing!” Michael yelled again. “Are you going to kill me for having a different opinion?”
“Opinion!” the shooter roared, and Michael recognized his voice from all those phone calls. “Opinion! This isn’t about your opinion! This is about your money! You paid to take rights away from others. You paid! This isn’t about your opinion, you bigoted Nazi!”
“Rights?” Michael asked, shocked at the man’s words. He killed Panther for this? He’s shooting at me for this? “What rights?” Michael asked, his back against the wall. “You and I are both men. You and I have the exact same rights!” Then he crouched low as the shooter growled and fired a shot through the wall where his head had been. Michael saw where the bullet had pierced the opposite wall.
“You stole their right to marry who they love!” the shooter yelled. “You paid to take their families away from them! Now I’m going to take your family away from you! No one has the right to steal the rights of another! You stole their right to marry who they love!”
If person A loves person B, will you always say yes? I doubt that, Michael thought.
“Love is love!” the shooter yelled, his gun blasting a hole above Michael’s head, the bullet striking a picture of Michael’s family that hung on the opposite wall, the picture’s glass shattering and falling to the floor. Michael dropped to his hands and knees on the ground.
“Love is love!” the shooter screamed again, his bullet striking lower this time, but Michael had crawled toward the staircase. He’d have to make a break for it. But that would leave him exposed.
Michael held his empty gun in his hand. He wondered how many bullets the shooter had left. His ears rung from the sound of gunfire. I need to make it to the panic room, he thought. I don’t want to die in flannel pajamas.
Rising to a crouch, Michael threw his gun behind him into the family room. It knocked over a vase with a loud crash. He darted toward the stairs.
“Bigot!” the shooter yelled a second later. “You won’t get away from this, bigot!”
Michael heard footsteps running after him. He raced up the stairs and flew around the corner. The panic room was ahead of him. Kate’s tear-filled face was peeking out.
“Move!” Michael yelled as he barreled toward it.
The shooter’s feet were pounding up the stairs. “Homophobe!” the shooter screamed.
Michael burst into the panic room, almost running over Kate, who stood behind the doorway. He flung the metal door shut, slamming the bar into place just as fists started pounding on the door.
“I hate how hateful you are!” the shooter shrieked, and the room filled with large thuds as he rammed his body against the door.
“I hate how hateful you are!” the shooter shrieked again. He struck the door repeatedly with both hands and feet.
Tank was whimpering on the ground, Kate hugging him tight, Grizzy kneeling next to them. Michael stood and watched the door. It’s steel, Michael reminded himself. He can’t hurt us now.
The shooter grew silent, and the only sound was Grizzy’s hurried whispering. Michael looked down at her, worried she might be having a panic attack. She was praying. At least I taught her one thing right, Michael said to himself. Then he turned his attention back to the door, wondering what the shooter was up to.
Michael jumped at the whisper from under the door. Somehow the fact that the shooter knew his name shocked him even more than being shot at. Of course he knows my name, Michael reminded himself. It was plastered all over the Internet along with the rest of the Proposition 8 donors.
“Michael,” the whisper came again.
He must be lying down right in front of the door, Michael thought.
“Michael, I’m sorry about your dog.”
Michael turned and looked at Kate, who stared back wide eyed. Of all the crazy things—
A gunshot echoed through the room, followed by a thud on the ground outside.
“Did he just—” Kate’s voice caught. Tank was blubbering more than before. Grizzy didn’t stop praying.
“I think so,” Michael said. He put his ear up to the door. He couldn’t hear anything. “I should check.”
“The police are coming,” Kate said.
“Are you sure?” Michael asked.
Kate buried her face in Tank’s thick shoulder.
The shooter is probably dead, Michael thought. He was probably planning a murder-suicide, and with murder impossible, he switched to just suicide. Michael wished he had his gun still. Looking around the small room, he looked for a weapon, but the food cans didn’t seem very useful.
Then he saw his old golf clubs. Reaching into the bag, he took out his favorite putter. Then, turning back to the door, he lifted the metal bar out of the way and slowly pulled the door open.
“Michael, don’t!” Kate yelled and sprang to her feet.
But Michael had already peeked out from behind the doorway. And there was the shooter, standing with his gun pointed right back at Michael, the shooter’s eyes an inferno. “Bigots don’t deserve to be happy!”
The shooter fired, Kate pulling Michael back into the panic room right before the bullet struck the door frame. And suddenly the hallway was filled with voices—“Freeze! Drop the gun!”—followed by gunfire. “He’s down! He’s down!”
Michael collapsed onto his knees. Kate was there beside him. He wrapped his arms around his wife and children, tears of fear and relief running down his face. Grizzy never stopped praying.
* * *
Detective Price stepped through the front door and looked around the room, pulling out his notebook and beginning to jot down details for the investigation. There was a nice little gunfight here, he thought. The bullet marks were prominent in the wall that divided the front room from the hallway. A few pictures had been shattered, a vase too, and the smell of gunpowder lingered in the room. Turning his attention away from the bullet holes, the detective looked up at a large oil painting that hung in the center of the wall. I’ll bet that cost a bundle, he thought. It was some sort of church building, perhaps a cathedral or a temple. Beside it hung a framed document: “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.” Detective Price shrugged and walked into the kitchen, where a couple of officers were looking down at a dead German shepherd.
“It’s a shame about the dog,” an officer said. “They’re beautiful animals. Loyal, too.”
Detective Price jotted down some details from the kitchen. There was a broken pane of glass on the kitchen door. That was how the shooter must have entered. “Have we ID’d the shooter?” the detective asked.
“Not yet,” an officer responded.
“And who’d he try to kill?”
“Michael Keeler? Where have I heard that name before?”
“He’s a Prop 8 donor. Gave $1,000.”
The detective paused, turning to the officer in surprise. Then he snorted and put away his pen and notebook. “Well, I guess the bigot just got what was coming to him, didn’t he?”