Mary Altaffer, Associated Press
Demonstrators march on the Mormon Temple to speak out against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints for its role in the passage of California’s anti-gay Proposition 8, Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2008 in New York.

For 30 years I have written about a wide variety of topics here, but never this one:

Same-sex marriage.

It’s a toxic subject — radioactive, as one writer put it — especially if you are on what is perceived these days as the “wrong” side of the argument.

Who wants to invite that hysteria into their lives?

It’s the great debate of our era — the acceptance or rejection of gay marriage — but debate has mostly been crushed.

The sides are clear:

On one hand, you have a group of people who have been marginalized and bullied throughout history and desperately want to be recognized.

On the other hand, you have a group of people who hold sacred an institution that is thousands of years old, and just like that they are being told to get over it and move on — that it is something else entirely. It’s as if they have been told the earth is flat, not round, and they better believe it or else.

I have had some interactions with gays in the community during my writing career and it gave me a sense of the loneliness and isolation they feel. I wrote a column about a sad, conflicted young gay man who had resigned himself to living alone, with a dog as his only companion.

A few years ago I wrote “Driven,” a book about Larry H. Miller, the great entrepreneur and philanthropist. One of the chapters dealt entirely with his rejection of the “Brokeback Mountain” movie from his theaters and the hysteria that followed — calls from gay and lesbian groups to boycott his businesses, emotional talk-show fodder, newspaper stories, cracks by national talk show hosts.

As it happened, Miller had been asked to give a speech at the University of Utah and now there were demands that the invitation be withdrawn. Instead of hiding or equivocating or defending himself, Miller asked to meet with the gay and lesbian community.

“I want to hear what you’re feeling,” he began. “What have I done to hurt you?” And then he simply listened and learned. What he learned is that while taking a stand for what he believed in, he had unwittingly hurt many people and regretted it. He learned about the ridicule and prejudice they endure. He heard stories of people throwing popcorn at them in theaters and snickering behind their backs and worse. They told him that by rejecting the movie, he seemed to be engaging in the same behavior.

“I had no idea you were being persecuted and I had no intention to endorse bad behavior,” said Miller, who was moved to tears. “I’m sorry that happened to you. I do have my beliefs and they’re pretty well founded in marriage between a man and a woman. I disagree with your lifestyle, but I don’t tell you that you can’t live it.”

By the time the extraordinary two-hour meeting was finished, there was new respect on both sides. The gays and lesbians had vowed to wear cowboy hats to his speech in protest, but only a few brought their hats and those who did held them in their hands as a token of respect.

Jim Wall, who had invited Miller to speak in behalf of the university, recalled the meeting in the book this way: “A lot of bad feelings melted away. (Miller) never compromised his values, but he was empathetic and listened. It was one of the perfect examples of diverse, opposite points of view coming together in a dialogue in which both sides were hurt and neither side moved, but both sides understood each other better and really could have differences of opinion without being confrontational.”

I remembered this story because of what is happening now. There is little dialogue these days; it’s confrontation. For years, nobody was listening to the gay/lesbian community; now they are heard loud and clear, and it has swung the other way. Only one side is allowed to open up about their feelings on this subject. Maybe after all the years of the abuse, the victims are too fed up to listen.

There are many in the country who would speak in support of traditional marriage, but they have been cowed into silence. We’ve seen the hysteria that follows anyone who doesn’t toe the line.

The message from gay marriage proponents is: If you don’t support everything they want or do, or the choices they make, then you hate them and you are bigoted, homophobic, intolerant, hurtful, etc. Syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin wrote, “(GLAAD’s) mission … is about making open debate radioactive, demonizing people of faith and making even the slightest perceived slight a hate crime.”

In Oregon and Colorado, bakers refused to bake wedding cakes for gay couples because it was against their religious beliefs. One was driven out of business and the other ordered to make the cake by a judge. In New Mexico, a photographer did not want to photograph a gay wedding because of her Christian beliefs. The couple could have found another photographer and they did — but they also filed a discrimination suit against the photographer and won.

So the message is clear: Enter the fray at your own peril; get on board or get out. If you hold deep-seated, intractable beliefs that marriage is between one man and one woman; if you believe the institution has enjoyed favored status not granted for any other union from the beginning of man and continued under the Constitution because it propagated the species and was judged to be fundamental to the health of any culture; if you believe that every child deserves both a father and a mother because there are gender differences and that a man and a woman complete each other and bring unique and necessary traits to the home; if you believe that gay marriage will change the definition of marriage forever, ushering in any other union (sister-brother, father-daughter, just friends) that wants protected status for whatever reason; if you believe all that … well, it’s not enough even to warrant a healthy dialogue in today’s climate.

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: [email protected]