By BRANFORD MARKS
FOR THE DAILY MAIL
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Although the general attitude in West Virginia isn't exactly favorable to gay rights, one leading advocate is optimistic that will change.
Gay residents shouldn't leave West Virginia to live in more welcoming states, writer and activist Evan Wolfson told radio host Hoppy Kercheval during a public discussion at West Virginia University on Monday night.
Instead, they should stay and try to encourage discussion about the importance of equal rights, Wolfson said.
Wolfson, considered by many to be the father of the gay marriage movement in America, and Kercheval, a noted conservative, Daily Mail contributor and host of Talkline on MetroNews, took part in a discussion on the state of gay rights in West Virginia. The WVU College of Law and LGBT support and advocacy group OUTlaw hosted the event. About 60 people attended.
"We owe it to the fair-minded people of this country to give them the chance to rise to fairness," Wolfson said.
"The way to do that is to engage in conversation about values and about real stories of real couples and the real unfairness of being denied something this important," he said in reference to gay marriage.
"There are many good people here and what they need is the same opportunity, sometimes over time, to rise to fairness that we've seen the majority of Americans engage in."
West Virginia does not allow gay marriage and does not recognize gay marriages granted in other states. It also remains legal here to fire or evict a person because he or she is gay or lesbian.
Kercheval asked why gay couples couldn't embrace a different word for their unions. He wondered if his fellow conservatives might be more receptive if a word other than marriage was used.
"If you call it something else, it is something else and something else is not as good," Wolfson replied.
"Gay people want the freedom to marry for the same mix of reasons as non-gay people, and one of the most important protections that come with marriage is the word 'marriage' itself.
"When you say you're married, everybody knows immediately who you are, in relationship to the primary person you're building your life with."
Wolfson sees similarities in the current debate over gay marriage and the repeal of bans on interracial marriage a generation ago.
"The way we're going to end this discrimination is the same way we ended race restriction on marriage or ended the legal subordination of women," he said. "It took enough people taking action and some political and legal battles in the course of a struggle when a movement has won a critical mass of states and a critical mass of public support."
Kercheval pressed Wolfson to address the reservations many religious conservatives have regarding gay marriage.
"People are entitled to their religious views and there are many millions of people of faith who support the freedom to marry and many of them do so precisely because of their values, whether religious, moral, or spiritual," Wolfson said. "They believe deeply in one thing, not just a phrase they picked out of the Bible as a weapon, but in the values that the Bible is teaching."
Wolfson said marrying his partner in 2011 moved him to be more active on the matter.
"Even though I had preached it intellectually, to be part of it just underscored how important marriage is as a connective language," he said, "and for gay people to be shut out of that family, language, and community harms them and harms the community.
"If we can make that move and see that progress as the polls now tell us we are seeing in all parts country, including the south, we can make that progress here in West Virginia."
The most important takeaway from the discussion, in Wolfson's opinion?
"Everyone has an opportunity to make a difference and be part of this. And by speaking out and talking about who the gay people are in their lives and why marriage matters and what West Virginia needs to do so that we can move the state as we're moving America towards fairness," he said.
A reception was held following the discussion where audience members were able to meet Wolfson and Kercheval and purchase copies of Wolfson's book, "Why Marriage Matters: America, Equality, and Gay People's Right to Marry."