By Senator Mark Udall
When I first began representing Colorado in Congress during the late 1990s, the world looked very different. Less than three years before I was elected to the House of Representatives, Congress had passed the Defense of Marriage Act, legislation that banned marriage for gay couples at the federal level. More than 80 percent of the Senate and House voted for this law. At the time, no state allowed gay couples to publicly affirm their commitment to each other and their communities through civil unions or marriage.
Today, we face a very different world. Our country and leaders have undergone a stunning transformation regarding this issue - and my own thinking has evolved as well. As a moderate Western senator who supports allowing committed gay couples to publicly affirm their relationships and responsibilities through marriage, I believe my journey illustrates three important lessons about how we can make progress in this country, far beyond the marriage debate.
First, good-faith re-examination of a position you've held in the past should be seen as a virtue, not a vice. Like most Americans, there was a point when I struggled with the idea of allowing gay couples to marry. I thought perhaps there was another way of resolving the issue, such as civil unions, that would satisfy both sides and avoid a major national argument.
But as time went on, I began to realize that gay couples just want to make the same promise of commitment and fidelity that my wife and I made so many years ago. I thought about my own wedding day - one of the happiest of my life - and I began to think that there is no substitute for the unique, public promises I made that day in front of our family, friends and community. And as I talked about the issue with my children and learned how open they were to marriage equality, I realized that allowing two loving, committed people of the same gender to make a promise of lifetime fidelity complemented my own beliefs surrounding the importance of family.
But in this age of "flip-flopping," some people warned me that talking publicly about my personal transformation might be used against me. Despite this concern, I felt I needed to step up, and in August 2011, I announced my full support for same-sex marriage. At the time, I was only the 19th U.S. senator to do so - not many more than the 14 senators who had voted against DOMA when it passed 15 years earlier. And although I hail from a moderate, purple swing state, Coloradans have not punished me for changing my mind. If anything, they have supported my sincere reconsideration and honesty.
The second lesson I learned during my journey was that we can often find common values with those who disagree with us. I support allowing gay couples to marry because of - not in spite of - my values. And many of those values are the same ones deeply held by those who do not believe in gay marriage. When I talk about the importance of the institution of marriage, I think of the commitment and the significance of standing in front of those closest to you and promising fidelity to your partner "'til death do you part." And I think about the important responsibilities that families take on in their own communities - and how the protections of marriage will help them fulfill those obligations. I can find common ground on these ideas with most Americans, including many who come down on the opposite side of this issue. In fact, when we talk about these values, we may find more agreement than disagreement with those who oppose same-sex marriage.
And that's where the third lesson comes in. Genuine dialogue, not rhetorical bomb-throwing, leads to progress. Our country's views are warming toward marriage for gay couples because of conversations among friends, families, neighbors and communities - just as mine did. These conversations open up the opportunity to share our common values and to recognize the many things on which we do agree. They create the space for people to re-examine their views, change their perceptions and come to new conclusions.
These conversations require patience, empathy and honesty from those on both sides. In many ways, this type of dialogue requires more hard work than it does to wage partisan battles from our ideological flanks. But they are the best way to change hearts and minds - including one's own.
I believe that if we continue to talk with one another, identify our common values and allow ourselves to re-examine our own views, the nation will move toward a time when committed gay couples across the country can marry. But more important, I hope we continue to build a forum for debate that is respectful, constructive and makes the country stronger on any given issue that confronts federal policymakers. Let's commit ourselves to moving that dialogue forward - and to heeding its lessons to transform other issues that threaten to divide Americans into ones that bring us together, instead.
Sen. Mark Udall is a Democrat from Colorado.