Castro Valley is a bedroom community, an unincorporated area of Alameda County Southeast of Oakland. A local free paper, the Castro Valley Forum, is distributed weekly to residents. For at least a year, the Letters column of the Forum has carried a running debate regarding marriage equality for same sex couples. Finally, local gay activist Billy Bradford began contacting some of the most prolific letter-writers regarding a public debate. The Great Castro Valley Marriage Debate, as it was called, took place Tuesday evening before a standing-room only crowd of around 250 people at the Castro Valley Public Library.
Speaking in favor of marriage equality were Bradford, Rev. Dr. Arlene Nehring of Eden United Church of Christ, and Dr. Irene Landaw, a local pediatrician. Speaking against were Trinity Bustria, a recent Castro Valley High School graduate accepted at Biola University, Peter Hauer, a retired attorney, and Stacy Spink, an accountant and small businessman.
The “con” side spoke first. Bustria mainly read the Bible. He opined that loving thy neighbor must also include rebuking thy neighbor when he/she does wrong, which includes being gay. Hauer claimed that marriage equality is but another in a series of failed social experiments that are destroying marriage and families, including no-fault divorce, welfare payments to unwed mothers, and above all, feminism. He insisted that marriage equality absolutely would lead to polygamy. For those who found this ridiculous, he said that 5 years ago most people thought same sex marriage was ridiculous. (NOTE: I attended my first lesbian wedding in 1971, 41 years ago.) He also said gays and lesbians were seeking not merely legal equality but acceptance. He stated that the 14th Amendment applied only to race and could not be used to grant marriage equality. Spinks claimed that homosexuality was a biological flaw similar to obesity and alcoholism, the result of maternal and environmental stress. He said this was true throughout the animal world, in “squirrels or humans” (I have never seen an alcoholic squirrel!) He insisted he had objectively proven the flawed nature of homosexuality and that same sex marriage was redefining marriage. He added that when his children misbehave it is appropriate to say he will not accept or tolerate their behavior, just like homosexuality should not be accepted.
On the “pro” side, Rev. Nehring spoke of inclusiveness and religious diversity. She said marriage was both a civil right and a religious rite. She also discussed the pain of LGBT youth rejected by family and church. Dr. Landaw exploded pseudo-scientific “theories” on homosexuality, including the once cited by Spinks (the study was based on gay men in Germany in the 1940s who sought to "change" to straight and who self-reported their mothers had been under stress at their birth, hardly surprising considering Germany at that time) and informed the audience that medical and psychological professional associations agree that sexual orientation is innate. Bradford presented marriage equality as a civil rights issue, noting the largest African-American and Latino civil rights groups both now support marriage equality. He cited case law, including Davis v. California and Loving v. Virginia which establish marriage as a fundamental right.
During the discussion, the ground rules were questions only, not comments, and a balance between questions for each side. People tend to aim their questions at those with whom they disagree. Supporters of marriage equality pressed the opponents to defend statements, for example, evidence that marriage equality would be the downfall of Western Civilization, and challenged them on the Constitutional basis of asking the State to make their religious views the laws for all. Mostly, the three opponents avoided actually answering the questions. The “cons” in the audience rarely asked fact-based questions. One woman did ask Rev. Nehring to describe various forms of marriage found in the Bible, and a teen boy asked Dr. Landaw about psychological impact of being gay. Mostly, though, they made speeches, despite the “questions only” rule. A woman demanded to know why no gastroenterologist was present to explain the results of “homosexual anal sex” and why no one talked about AIDS or the claims of Dr. Soccarides to “cure” gays. Dr. Landaw explained AIDS is caused by a virus, not homosexuality. A man went on at great length about how if marriage equality is passed when 5-year-old children visit Grandma they will see on daytime soaps “men sweating up the sheets and swapping spit”. After repeated requests, he finally asked his question, “Where are the children?” Bradford pointed out his teenage son in the audience and replied “That is where my child is!” Dr. Landaw pointed out when she was raising her two children she did not allow them to see any sexually explicit material, same sex or opposite sex, at age 5.
At the end of the discussion, each panelist gave a brief summary recapping their position. Bradford cited Martin Luther King’s famous saying that the arc of history bends toward justice, adding that the arc does not bend of itself but must be pushed.
Based on audience reactions, the pro-equality side had by far majority support (“con” speakers were politely applauded, “pro” speakers cheered). However, everyone remained courteous, although at times it was an effort.
I’m glad this event took place. Most people in outlying areas do not frequent political events in Oakland or San Francisco so this time the political event came to them. There may well have been people in the audience who were questioning or opposed to equality but open to new ideas, and hopefully they saw who had logic, reason, compassion and democratic values on their side.