Activists Vander Plaats, Red Wing find common ground

Photo Credit: Rodney White, The Register

Column by Rekha Basu.

A few months ago, I ran into Donna Red Wing, the executive director of the gay marriage-equality organization One Iowa at an anniversary party for a lesbian couple we both know. She told me about something she’s been doing that left me nearly speechless. I begged her to let me write about it.

Maybe at the right time, she said, but not before the elections. And she needed permission from the other person involved. 

She delivered. As we embark upon a new year, I hope that sharing her story leaves you with the same sense of possibilities it has given me.

The idea came to Donna Red Wing after her good friend Pam Baldwin died in October of 2013. The two had worked together when Baldwin headed the Interfaith Alliance of Idaho and Red Wing was chief of staff at the national headquarters. Baldwin had believed in the power of bringing together people on opposite sides of an issue, whether to confront religious prejudice, racism or other forms of bigotry. Her goal, said Red Wing, was to promote “civil dialogue, reconciliation and respect.”

“She would sit with people just short of white supremacists,” she recalled.

To honor Baldwin’s memory, Red Wing, a Massachusetts native who campaigns for marriage equality and is married to her female partner, decided to sit down with the person who should be her nemesis: Bob Vander Plaats. He’s president of a conservative Christian organization, the Iowa Family Leader, which has fought marriage equality and successfully campaigned to unseat three Iowa Supreme Court justices who ruled for it.

Red Wing had spoken briefly to him while attending his organization’s Family Leadership Summit out of curiosity. She’d found him surprisingly friendly. So she sent his office an email asking if he’d be willing to meet for coffee. He agreed.

Going into Des Moines’ Smokey Row coffee house, Red Wing, who is not afraid to speak to audiences of hundreds, was tied up in nerves. “Sometimes when people are on opposite sides, you tend to paint them all with a broad brush,” she said.

Later she would call her spouse, Sumitra, with a different dilemma: “I don’t know how to deal with this. He’s really nice.”

“It’s easy when things are black and white,” Red Wing told me. “It gets really complicated, and better, and richer, when we can look through different lenses.”

Red Wing and Vander Plaats have been meeting every few months for over a year now, for an hour at a time, with no agenda or talking points. They talk about their families, religion, politics. They share an outrage over human trafficking and payday lending. He appreciates her love of children and says she appreciates his service to special-needs people.

She always brings him a gift, Vander Plaats said. One time it was a pomegranate-flavored lip balm branded “One Iowa,” which he uses all the time.

They’re building an unlikely friendship. They don’t shy away from the issue that divides them, but they don’t try to change each other’s minds.

“That is not my role,” Red Wing said when she, Vander Plaats and I sat down at Smokey Row before Christmas. Her goal is “to put a face and voice to what Bob thinks of when he hears of this community.”

For his part, Vander Plaats said he understands that gay people “have been hurt significantly,” and that they associate that hurt him with, though it pains him when people say he hates gays. He said his faith compels him to disagree with “the lesbian lifestyle, and gay marriage.”

“I want to represent the faith community in the right way,” he said.

I asked if he accepts that people don’t necessarily choose to be gay or straight. “I think I was born a lot of ways as well,” he answered. “All humans have a fallen nature. If I need to deny myself, I deny myself.”

Red Wing’s faith as a Unitarian and Buddhist teaches her differently. “We’re good with God,” she said of herself and Sumitra. “God is big enough to love you and to love me,” she told Vander Plaats.

He replied, “I do believe God loves me, Donna and Rekha, but doesn’t love everything we do.”

He concedes they can get into “a sticky wicket,” and then must remember what they’re doing. His goal is to show how civility can be practiced. Slowly, deliberately, and not always easily, they are doing that, by listening, sharing and treating each other with respect.

Vander Plaats said Red Wing told him: “Although I disagree with you on your definition of marriage, I have a great deal of respect for you because you’re not sitting on the sidelines. You’re in the arena.” The respect goes both ways, he said.

Though it’s just the two of them most of the time, there’s much more at play in the room, of course. Red Wing is a prominent Democrat. Vander Plaats, a prominent Republican. Each is a powerful player in a major social movement. Both have bases to answer to. Though neither has spoken of these meetings outside of inner circles, both say their advocacy for their causes is undiminished. But for Vander Plaats, understanding where Red Wing is coming from helps him to see why One Iowa does some things it does. And for her, finding aspects of his life to respect and appreciate is “blunting some of the sharp edges” of the anti-gay-marriage movement.

“I’m not a Pollyanna,” she said. “There are things we hear from the other side that are hurtful, and it’s about who I am in the world.”

Vander Plaats said: “The focus of anything we put out should never be to punish or hurt.” But it happens.

When another organization, Progress Iowa, came out with a comic book that caricatured Vander Plaats, Red Wing said she told fellow progressives it was unkind. “Donna had my back,” Vander Plaats said.

She said at One Iowa, people are “very intentional” about how they talk about the other side. The Family Leader has tempered some of its hardline rhetoric.

I asked the two of them whose side has more power. Red Wing said it was easier for her to contact Vander Plaats because same-sex marriage is the law.

“There’s no doubt you have the momentum,” Vander Plaats told her, “but we will win.”

Even if Vander Plaats starts campaigning for a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage, Red Wing said she’ll continue the coffees. “I guess part of my journey is to learn empathy towards him, even if he is working against us,” she wrote in response to an email. She sees larger principles at stake: “I would fight for his right to believe in what he does to the death. I’ll also fight for our rights.”

Vander Plaats said he believes he and Red Wing will be friends for a long time. They’ve talked of having a dinner with both spouses, though he said he’d draw the line at attending a gay wedding. He wants to model the sort of respectful engagement he says people are hungry for in their Congress, noting, “I don’t think Americans expect perfection, but dialogue.”

You could find plenty of reason to be wary about this. Cynics might say dialogue without expectations lets people feel good while preparing to take others’ rights away.

But lasting change requires internal and external transformation. It requires us to be the change, as Gandhi said. If all this accomplishes is to stop people at odds over issues from demonizing each other and allow them to find their shared humanity, other change will surely follow.

For Red Wing, an end goal isn’t the point. The journey is.

With a new year almost upon us, it’s the perfect time to turn this example into action in our own lives. So here’s a resolution we might all share for 2015: To reach out to someone with whom we disagree and find the common ground.

Happy seeking and Happy New Year.

Read the article from The Des Moines Register.