AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
In Maine, polls show a close contest over a ballot measure to legalize same-sex marriage. Three years ago, voters there overturned a law allowing gays to marry. For the measure to pass this year, supporters will have to win over a key constituency, people in the state's most rural areas.
Reporter Michael May joined a canvasser in the small town of Dexter, where voters now find themselves on the frontline of the fight over gay rights.
(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: What?
RION TUCKER: I'm looking to speak to Shevon and Thomas.
MICHAEL MAY, BYLINE: Twenty-year-old Rion Tucker, of Equality Maine, wears a baseball cap over his blond Mohawk as he knocks on doors in Dexter, Maine. Sixty-nine percent of the people in this town voted against same-sex marriage last time. Dexter's population tends to be older, whiter, and poorer than the rest of the country. Tucker canvassed here a couple months ago and got a lot of doors slammed in his face. But he's back.
(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)
TUCKER: When vote on the issue of marriage, would you say you will definitely vote yes to allow same-sex couples to marry, probably vote yes, probably vote no, or definitely vote no to oppose marriage for the same-sex couples?
MAY: For the last few years, gay marriage advocates have traversed this mostly rural state, knocking on around 300,000 doors, aiming to persuade voters one by one. Now they're in the final stretch, revisiting supporters they've identified like Patricia Smith.
PATRICIA SMITH: Definitely vote yes.
TUCKER: Definitely vote yes, great. Me, too. Tell me more about why you support marriage for gay and lesbian couples?
SMITH: I just support anybody that wants to be married and live together as a couple.
MAY: Tucker asks supporters to keep in mind actual couples that would be able to marry. He encourages them to put bumper stickers on their cars and vote early. Tucker has been canvassing for five months and believes this kind of personal campaign can work anywhere.
TUCKER: I know it won't be the end for a lot of us. I know a lot of us want to go to the next place where it will be voted on, and the next place, and just keep doing it.
MAY: Tucker is a transgender man. He grew up nearby as a closeted lesbian, even joining the Marines, until coming out as a man about a year ago. Now he spends hours every day debating with Mainers whose concept of gender is considerably more traditional, like Dexter resident Douglas Brackett.
DOUGLAS BRACKETT: This is what I'm getting to, what is it to be a woman and what is it to be a man, I suppose. Because these days it's kind of sometimes kind of hard to tell.
TUCKER: All right. Well, we do appreciate you talking to us today. We're going to try to cut it short there. But, you know, you said you were probably be voting no on...
BRACKETT: ...if I voted.
MAY: Most of the addresses in this neighborhood are not on Tucker's list. So we often walk for blocks to the next supporter's home, and even they can be skittish. At one home that doubles as a gunsmith shop, a young man tells us he'll vote for the bill but he keeps his voice low. He lives with his father who's vehemently opposed. Tucker offers him a bumper sticker. The man laughs and says, that would be a great way to get my car set on fire.
FATHER SEAMUS GRIESBACH: Nobody wants to talk about, about it at all.
MAY: Father Seamus Griesbach is a priest at the St. John the Apostle Parish in Bangor, the biggest city in the county. Around a third of Mainers are Catholic. Last time, the Catholic Church in Maine raised money for TV ads and dedicated days to preaching on the issue from the pulpit. But Father Griesbach felt emotionally bruised by the political campaign.
GRIESBACH: We have both sides, we still do. We have both perspectives in the church, and they're very inclined to get pretty nasty. So I think the church just said, wait a minute, we cannot allow the Gospel to be limited to some kind of a slogan.
MAY: This time, the Catholic Church's strategy mirrors the other side's. Father Griesbach is focusing on one-to-one conversations. He says the most difficult encounters are with those who have a gay family member. What do you say?
GRIESBACH: I, first of all, say I'm sorry you're having to go through this. I know how brutal it is. That's the first piece, and the second piece is to try to help them understand how they can love their family member while at the same time not necessarily espousing all of the lifestyle choices that their child or son or daughter or brother or sister is making.
(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING ON DOOR)
TUCKER: Hi, how you doing today?
MAY: Night has fallen in Dexter, but Tucker is still out talking to folks. As we work our way back to the car, Tucker knocks on a door not on his supporter's list. Giovanni Sarino answers the door. He's got a bushy gray beard and wears a Vietnam vet sweatshirt. He says he's definitely opposed to same-sex marriage.
GIOVANNI SARINO: Because I believe in a marriage is a man and a woman. That's it.
TUCKER: OK. Tell me more about that.
SARINO: Well, because that's tradition, since the beginning of time.
SARINO: And the worst part is, I got nothing against people, but there's all the part about adoptions and kids being brought up with same-sex marriages really offends me in a great way.
TUCKER: How so?
MAY: But, like so many people here, Sarino is willing to debate the issue with the stranger at the door. Tucker turns the conversation personal.
TUCKER: OK. Well, have you ever been in love?
SARINO: Of course.
TUCKER: Of course. What was that like for you?
SARINO: Ah, it was beautiful. Except a tragedy. It ends up my fiancÃ©e died.
TUCKER: Oh, very sorry to hear that.
SARINO: So I just never wanted to get married again and I've been by myself a long time.
MAY: Tucker tells him gay couples just want to commit to the ones they're with.
SARINO: These people are forcing the issue. You know, it's a private thing.
TUCKER: Mm-hmm. I agree.
SARINO: You know.
TUCKER: Well, if you weren't able to get married - if the state of Maine looked at you and said, sir, you are not able to get married because of whatever reason, maybe you have dark hair. You know, how would that make you feel? Would you push the issue so you could share that love with someone that you loved?
MAY: Pretty soon the two are chatting like old friends who disagree on an issue. Tucker prods Sarino into grappling with his own upbringing, his faith, what it means to be tolerant of others. He recalls he did know a lesbian couple raising kids.
SARINO: I didn't hear a lot of negative things about them raising a family. Makes me think that let them have kids.
MAY: Tucker anticipates Sarino's last concern. He's Catholic and under the misimpression that the measure would force churches to marry gay couples.
TUCKER: Well, they're not going to be here in the state of Maine. This is a people's referendum and we have it on our terms.
SARINO: All right. I'm all for everybody having the rights to love and care about the person they're with.
TUCKER: That's wonderful.
SARINO: OK. The issue...
MAY: Gay Marriage Campaign doesn't need to change the mind of everyone like Giovanni Sarino. But it will need to do better with rural voters than it did in 2009. Religious leaders in the opposition are also confident. They've heard from people in the pews that they'll hold strong on traditional marriage. Of course, when Maine voters enter the polling booth on November 6th, they'll be alone. For NPR News, I'm Michael May.