We’re hearing a lot today from Arkansans, out at the legislature and through the ballot box, about homosexuals. We’re hearing that they’re different from the heterosexual majority in more ways than their style of lovemaking. They are, lawmakers have suggested this session of the General Assembly, a bad influence on children, so they must not be allowed to adopt or foster them. Their desires to wed are a clear threat to the institution of marriage — might even lead to bestiality — so voters made sure they couldn’t, by defining marriage as strictly a man-woman thing in last fall’s referendum on Amendment 3 to the state Constitution. Now, homosexuals — and others whose relationship is “substantially similar” to marriage — cannot enjoy the benefits the state confers on wedded couples. Legislators know that Arkansas has more foster children than families who’ll foster them. They must know too that children have been raised by homosexuals since the dawn of time, a fact that has left no discernable ill effect. Voters know that people who marry enjoy certain privileges, such as tax breaks, property rights or the ability to enter an intensive care unit when a loved one is sick. They must know that by denying gay people the power to marry and have a family, they are creating a category of people — like felons — who are second-class. Is it possible that what they don’t know is that among their friends and family are homosexuals with long-time partners and children? In the gay community, the word “family” is used to describe its members. “She’s family” means “she’s a lesbian, too.” But all families — my family and your family, our blood relatives and godparents and in-laws — include individuals who are gay. And you and I know that they are no more promiscuous, unbalanced, perverted, incompetent or evil than our straight kin. If legislators and voters who think all gay men lisp and spend their nights in bars, and all gay women coach softball, got to know some people who are gay, would it change the way they think? Would experience trump prejudice? But the Bible, you protest. The Old Testament and St. Paul — as King James’ interpreters read the ancient language of scripture — say man can’t lie with man, etc. Yet, these same holy laws also command us not to eat pork or wear no-iron cotton/polyester blends. So is it cynical to wonder if at least some folks out at the Capitol and in the poll booth are using holy writ to excuse a prejudice formed in the absence of sword drills on Leviticus? (Knowing their audience, pornographers targeting the heterosexual male audience always trot out female coupling. One has to wonder: If only women were homosexual, would legislators and congressmen be putting up such a fuss? At any rate, they could say, rightly, that the Bible is silent on lesbianism.) When the Times put the word out that it would like to do a photographic story that would let gays and lesbians talk about their lives, my e-mail was swamped with volunteers, more than we had space for in the paper. The volunteers — some of whom were only out to their families — wanted to go public, to explain that they are discriminated against in ways you might not know. That they can be fired from their jobs, booted from their apartments, lose custody of their children, all because of their sexuality — desires not chosen but inborn, often recognized since childhood, even before they understood what their feelings meant. What’s it like to grow up gay? Ty Stacey, daughter of a Mormon mother in Arkadelphia, turned to drinking at 18 because she could not accept herself. Courage came, but not from the bottle, and today, she said, she’s learning to “love myself.” Karmen Hopkins knows what it’s like to lose custody because a child can’t have two mothers. Businessman Paul Dodds had to leave his lover in Germany; no green cards for partners. His anger over Amendment 3 and its discriminatory goal helped him get before the camera. Alma Beck, an Episcopal priest, clings to the belief that “a lot of people who voted [for Amendment 3] didn’t know what it did.” She said life has been “hell this past year. Being gay is not like ‘Will and Grace.’ ” And she hopes the straight community will work with the gay community on what she calls an “issue of justice.” Delight native Angela Frazier and her partner, Rebecca, worship at the United Methodist Church of Maumelle because there they “don’t have to be dishonest about who we are.” They turn to God for direction and believe they have His blessing. Some people we interviewed could not reveal their partners for fear of costing them their jobs. Randi Romo, an activist who created the “We the People” art project that put gay people’s stories — and sometimes their pictures — on cardboard triangles mounted on posts, still wants to reconcile with her mother. Jada Walker, a health care researcher, wants the state legislature to “know us and call us for information,” to offer them voices they’re not now hearing. The more who’ll stand with them, the more they’ll be heard, she said. Kathy Webb, the head of the Stonewall Democratic Club chapter in Arkansas, recalled a time when gays and lesbians wore sacks over their heads when they marched in Little Rock for equal rights. The sacks are off; photographer Brian Chilson and I approached our subjects with admiration for their courageous — possibly dangerous — decision to appear on these pages. We were shocked and gratified at the heartfelt thanks we got from our volunteers. Thank you for letting us come out and tell our stories, they said. You’re welcome. Hey, you’re family.