Gay rights in America: meet Norman, the gay icon

A puppy who moos may sound like a joke. But when it comes to defending homosexuality against campaigns by the Christian right, he is playing a key part in a debate that is very serious indeed. Andrew Buncombe reports
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The Independent US

It is high summer in Colorado Springs and its citizens are living through dog days. From buses and billboards, from television advertisements and film trailers jumps the face of Norman, a brown and white spaniel puppy with large floppy ears. Norman is like any other spaniel puppy - except that he moos. You see, Norman was born different.

Norman's canine opponent in Colorado Springs is Sherman, a dog of unidentified breed who features in a less extensive rival advertisement campaign. Sherman barks. He, you understand, was born a dog. He would never moo. Furthermore, in the unlikely event he felt tempted to, Sherman would take active steps to "cure" himself of such unnatural behaviour.

Norman and Sherman are somewhat unlikely proxy participants in the latest skirmish in the culture wars that continue to divide the US, over issues that proved crucial in the 2004 presidential contest and are poised to again play a crucial role in the upcoming Congressional elections this November.

Specifically, Norman the mooing spaniel is the creation of gay rights activists who support measures such as the right for gay couples to marry and receive the same protections as straight couples. The $900,000 Born Different campaign, funded by the Denver-based Gill Foundation, makes the argument that gay people are born gay and that to discriminate against them would be no different than discriminating against any other minority group.

"This is Norman. He's just like every other dog except for one thing," says the voiceover in the advert playing on the Born Different website, as Norman moos with bovine aplomb. "Norman never chose to be different. He was just born this way. Norman is not the only one in the Springs who is different."

By contrast, Sherman is the creation of Focus On The Family (FOTF), a powerful, conservative Christian organisation based in Colorado Springs and headed by Dr James Dobson, whose daily radio broadcast is heard by 200 million people around the globe and whose organisation opposes gay marriage with as much vigour and passion as those gay activists who argue in its favour. Mr Dobson is certainly one of the most influential evangelicals in the country and he wields considerable political power. He also counsels women not to work outside the home until their children have grown up and he warns that people should think long and hard before marrying a person of a different race.

"This is Sherman. He's a dog," says the advert on the website of the FOTF campaign, No-Moo-Lies, as it shows the silhouette of what might be a basset hound. "He barks. Why? Because that's what dogs do." It continues: "If he could talk he'd tell you to keep your eyes and ears open between now and November to make sure you hear the truth about what marriage should mean in Colorado. Sure, making a dog sound like a cow is cute, but messing with marriage, the building block of all societies, is not. Indeed, it would be a dog-gone shame."

One might be tempted to dismiss the rival Sherman and Norman campaigns as little more than some light-hearted fun. But behind these grinning mutts is a bitter struggle. In Colorado - as in Wisconsin, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, and possibly Illinois and Arizona - voters electing their Senator and Representatives will also be asked to decide whether state laws should be changed to either grant or ban same-sex couples from the right to marry. As things currently stand gay marriage is only legal in Massachusetts. Earlier this week a court in Washington state voted 5-4 that there was no Constitutional right to same-sex marriage, though three of the judges in the majority asked lawmakers to lift the ban because of "the clear hardship" it was causing gay couples and their children.

Gay rights campaigners say polls show that they are steadily winning the argument, especially among younger voters. Recent studies conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that while 51 per cent of Americans opposed gay civil unions, that number had fallen from more than 60 per cent in 2004. It said 59 per cent still opposed gay marriage.

Molly McKay, of Marriage Equality USA, said: "These initiatives are last-ditch efforts to shut down the debate. The polls show that people are coming our way. There is an age demographic - older people are not in favour of gay marriage yet but for younger people it is a non-issue."

It would appear Ms McKay's claim is not fully supported by the Pew report, which found that even among younger Americans a slight majority disapprove of gay marriage, but the report does conclude: "People in their early thirties today have a relatively favourable view of gay marriage and their views are similar to those of younger generations. But those in their late thirties are much more opposed; in fact, opposition is as widespread in this group as among people in their forties and fifties." There is little doubt that the gay marriage issue will be important in November, even in states where there is no ballot initiative. Indeed, in 2004 such amendments were used in 11 states by Republicans to encourage strong turn-out. Political scientists are still in disagreement as to whether a gay marriage amendment in Ohio was the crucial issue that drew up conservatives to vote in such numbers, thus securing George Bush the state and his re-election.

But Larry Sabato, Professor of politics at the University of Virginia, said: "They had some effect, especially in Ohio, which re-elected Bush. It probably generated a lot of additional rural support among conservatives. There are still those arguing that Bush would have won anyway. But I don't think there's any question [it helped]." Of the effect the initiatives could have in November, he added: "It's bound to help Republicans generate rural turnout though you have to realise some of the differences from two years ago. In 2004 the issue of gay marriage was new and more potent [and] these days there are some other issues that people care about. Iraq stirs passions, [petrol] prices stir passions, Bush stirs passions."

Mr Bush has already laid his cards on the table on this issue by saying he supports an amendment to the US Constitution that would define marriage in the US as a union of one man and one woman. A vote on such a proposed bill failed 49-48 in the US Senate this June.

Mr Sabato pointed out that gay marriage is just one of many populist wedge issues that US politicians have seized on over the years and used to organise political support. Another is abortion, an issue that has been effectively used by conservatives as a rallying cry to lure voters to the polls. In the late 19th century a populist campaign based on the free minting of silver and a revision of the gold standard was enough to make William Jennings Bryan the Democratic candidate for president on three occasions.

The mountain city of Colorado Springs, which sits at an elevation of more than 6,000ft and has a population of around 370,000, is an ideal venue for this latest of America's culture clashes. Two hours' drive south of Denver, the city was last year described in an article in Harper's Magazine as "home to the greatest concentration of fundamentalist Christian activist groups in American history".

Among the vast churches with huge congregations is the New Life Church, headed by Pastor Ted Haggard. Though the church has a congregation of around 14,000 people, it is not - by some way - the largest church in the US. But it may be the most influential. Mr Haggard played a crucial role in organising evangelical support for Mr Bush in the last election and it is reported that every Monday he speaks by telephone with the president or one of his advisers.

If Mr Haggard holds this rarefied position at the pinnacle of political influence, Mr Dobson is not far below. The writer and psychologist first came to public prominence with a book, Dare to Discipline, that said it was acceptable for parents to use corporal punishment on their children. In addition to establishing FOTF he has also set up a political organisation, the Family Research Council, which lobbies in Washington on conservative issues and has a reported budget of around $10m. FOTF yesterday said no one was available to talk about its latest campaign, but Mr Dobson has previously said the defence of the traditional family is more important than Mr Bush's so-called "war on terror". Heterosexual marriage, he has said, is the "the bedrock of culture in Asia, Africa, Europe, North America, South America, Australia, and even Antarctica". He has also said he believes homosexuality is a disorder that can be "cured".

Yet for all his opposition to Norman, the mooing puppy, Mr Dobson may share some of the views of the Born Different campaign. While he does not believe that being gay is entirely controlled by a person's genes, in his 2001 book, Bringing Up Boys, he wrote: "Homosexuals deeply resent being told that they selected this same-sex inclination in pursuit of sexual excitement or some other motive... No, homosexuality is not 'chosen' except in rare circumstances. Instead, bewildered children and adolescents find themselves dealing with something they don't even understand."

Scientists increasingly share the view that homosexuality is effectively "hard-wired" into the brain long before a person reaches puberty. Some researchers believe gay orientation may be linked to exposure to various levels of hormones in the womb.

Marc Breedlove, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, has worked trying to explain the recent finding that men with more older brothers are more likely to be gay. Mr Breedlove suggests this may be due to differing levels of male sex hormones in the womb. Meanwhile Glen Wilson of the Institute of Psychiatry in London has revealed tests that show fundamental differences in the brain behaviour of gay and straight men, again suggesting a biological root for sexual orientation.

Voters in Colorado and elsewhere will not be asked to examine such science when they vote in November. They will, however, be forced to consider whether refusing gay couples the right to marry and the legal protections that come with it is inherently unfair. Gay rights campaigners in Colorado believe that Norman the mooing puppy has played an important role in forcing people to think about the issue.

Mary Lou Makepeace, director of the Gay and Lesbian Fund for Colorado, a participant in the Gill Foundation's campaign, said that while Colorado Springs was a "wonderful place", some people were a little "buttoned-down" and disinclined to discuss issues such as gay marriage. But Norman and his unlikely noise had changed that and had forced people to talk.

"They can have a conversation they would not normally have," she said. "People like Norman. For that matter they like Sherman... You have this conversation going on in the community."