Last summer Louis Marinelli spent his days and nights touring the country with the National Organization for Marriage, waging war against gay marriage.
Last week, the 25-year-old conservative activist shocked his supporters and detractors alike by declaring in a blog post that after five years fighting same-sex marriage “as if it were a contagious disease,” he now supports it as a constitutional right.
Marinelli has a steady girlfriend and is still a firm believer in traditional marriage. In an interview with The Daily Beast, he said it was his exposure to gay people—those affected by his work—that caused him lose his taste for the battle.
The young Republican’s turnabout began last summer, when he was on the road with NOM after taking a break from teaching English in Russia. Marinelli, the product of a difficult divorce, had been running an anti-gay marriage Facebook site that he says funneled donations to NOM and had, in the spring of 2010, contracted with the group to help with a summer bus tour and online outreach.
“I started to see that they were not just political targets, they were real people who just… wanted to get married. It started to feel like a petty issue.”
The tour was meant to drum up support for traditional marriage, but at every step NOM workers and supporters were followed by pro-gay activists. The Courage Campaign, a progressive alliance based in California, sent out field director Arisha Hatch and cameraman Anthony Ash to cover the events, often conducting quick and terse interviews with NOM leaders and supporters, including Marinelli.
Marinelli says he just wanted to hold on to a lifestyle he held dear. He was an altar boy who briefly attended Catholic school, and as an adult he was determined to protect traditional values. “I saw gay marriage as just another liberal iconoclastic attack on traditional culture,” he said.
His mother, Karen Clark, said she’s surprised at his change, but not the reasons behind it: “I knew he wasn’t against gay people, he just really supports traditional marriage.” He’s the kind of man, she says “who wants only a Tiffany ring for his fiancée once he gets engaged.”
While on the NOM tour in Atlanta, Marinelli recalled looking out at a crowd of some 300 counterprotesters supporting gay marriage, and it floored him. “I started to wonder—what was I doing here?” he said. “That’s the point when I first started to question myself.”
But he kept on toeing the NOM line. During the tour, he helped with logistics, driving, sound checks, advertising, and Internet promotion, tweeting about the immorality of gays.
In early August he said he sat on a park bench in St. Louis with cameraman Ash, a 29-year-old gay man who asked him questions on camera, resulting in a typically cold interview—until Ash turned off the camera.
“I asked Louis, ‘Can we just be real for a minute’?” said Ash, who was devoting his summer to tracking NOM’s every move. He said Marinelli asked him why Ash had covered his ID badge one day when Marinelli took a photo of it. “I told him it was out of safety, that one NOM supporter had said the solution to gay marriage was lynching, and I was looking out for myself.” (Ash said he was punched and his camera damaged during a subsequent NOM tour.) They talked briefly about their lives, and Ash told Marinelli he had a family whom he had left for the summer to fight NOM. He said he also did drag. “He laughed. You could tell he was uncomfortable, it was kind of overload for him, but he laughed,” said Ash.
That conversation had a lasting impact, said Marinelli. “I realized he was someone I could talk to, not someone I wanted to go after anymore,” he said. “Anthony helped change me because I finally saw someone personally affected by what I was doing.”
Marinelli paused. “I started to see that they were not just political targets, they were real people who just… wanted to get married. It started to feel like a petty issue.”
But he kept his feelings to himself, even when the tour ended, launching a new website defending traditional marriage. “I actually started to write some harsh and pretty offensive stuff, until one person wrote back to respond to my question ‘what is the homosexual agenda?’” That person, Marinelli said, wrote that it was “being with your family, going to the park with someone you love... I realized again it was pretty stupid what I was doing.” He closed down the site the next day and created a new one focused only on conservative issues, not marriage. He didn’t want to fight gay marriage anymore, but wasn’t about to support it.
In December, Marinelli came out in support of repealing the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. “I just realized you can’t oppose everything these people want to do,” he said. The decision upset his colleagues at NOM, he added. But he also grew sick of the hateful comments about gay people he kept seeing on his various websites and his Facebook page. “I had thought the hate was fringe, I denied it, but it was everywhere,” he said. “By January or February I realized I just supported marriage equality.”
He began sending out olive branches to gay advocates and a reporter. He even reached out to Arisha Hatch to say he’d had a change of heart. “But I didn’t believe him, I thought he was being sent out by NOM to infiltrate an equality organization,” she said.
It wasn’t easy for Marinelli to hit the send button on his blog announcement last week, but once he did, the attention from gay-media outlets was overwhelming, he said. “There was a lot of pressure, a lot of stress… I wasn’t as worried about the attention as I was about turning my back on people who I called my friends.” He was especially anxious about NOM’s president, Brian Brown: “I considered Brian a friend.”
Brown said he does not consider Marinelli a friend and that he was not an important player in the NOM organization.
“Louis was a bus driver,” Brown said. “It’s pretty hilarious, this idea that he was a top strategist for NOM. He was a part-time consultant. He has since changed his position, and people have a right to change their minds.” Brown dismissed the attention surrounding Marinelli as a “tempest in a teapot” drummed up by the gay press. But a few hours after Brown spoke to The Daily Beast, Marinelli said he received an email from the NOM president saying the organization was exploring legal action against him, alleging he violated his confidentiality agreement. Marinelli’s conclusion: “He’s trying to get me to shut up.” (Brown could not be reached again for comment.)
NOM, Marinelli said, provided 60 percent to 70 percent of his income, which he has yet to make up for. Some Facebook commenters have attacked him with remarks like “You really need to find Jesus and get the devil taken out of you.” But Marinelli, now living in St. Petersburg, Russia, said the vast majority of responses have been positive. “Some say they were in tears because of what I wrote,” he said. “There seems to be this whole new army of people who want to be my friend. After five years of attacking and misrepresenting them, they are only giving me kind words and support.”
Eve Conant is a Newsweek staff reporter covering immigration, politics, social, and culture issues.