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The Nation

Dog's Tale Is Used to Get People Talking

July 26, 2006|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The forlorn face of Norman, the mooing puppy, is all over this town.

The brown-and-white spaniel mopes through five TV ads and a movie trailer. His silhouette decorates banners and billboards and city buses. And every afternoon, a posse of young men wearing blue "let the puppy moo" T-shirts hits the streets to ask locals what they think of Norman's plight.

Norman is a puppy like any other, except he was born mooing instead of barking. Or so goes the plot of a quirky new gay-rights campaign. By telling Norman's story -- his struggle to change, his longing for acceptance, his confusion about why he is the way he is -- the Born Different campaign aims to get people thinking about what it means to be gay.

Norman's star turn is funded with a $900,000 grant from the Gill Foundation, a Denver nonprofit that supports gay rights. He's appearing exclusively in Colorado Springs, a town often associated with the religious right because it is home to the advocacy group Focus on the Family.

Organizers insist Norman's not pushing a political agenda; they say he just wants to spark discussion. But the campaign fits with a broader strategy by gay-rights activists to step up public outreach in search of support for same-sex marriage.

Opponents see the puppy as an effective political tool.

"We're almost jealous," said Gary Schneeberger, a spokesman for Focus on the Family.

That group recently unleashed its own furry mascot -- Sherman -- to argue that Norman had it all wrong. The result is almost a parody of clashing claims. Norman's website, borndifferent.org, features the tale of "gay penguins" in New Zealand. Sherman's no-moo-lies.com counters with the "ex-gay" penguins of New York (Silo dumped Roy for a winsome female named Scrappy).

"Sure, making a dog sound like a cow is cute, but messing with marriage, the building block of civilized societies, is not," the website warns.

During a recent lunch hour, Norman's handlers stationed themselves outside a downtown Starbucks to try to start a conversation about gay rights. Several people brushed by brusquely, expressing disapproval. But at least a dozen stopped to talk -- and to reflect.

Sharon Ragghianti, a 51-year-old nurse, said she considered homosexuality "an aberration ... not the way God made us."

"When did you choose to be straight?" Travis Nuckolls asked.

Ragghianti hesitated a moment. "I didn't choose it. I was born that way," she said.

Perhaps, she added, sexual orientation was inborn for gays and lesbians as well.

Reflecting on the issue later, Ragghianti said there was no chance a mooing puppy would soften her opposition to same-sex marriage. But she did credit Norman with a thought-provoking campaign. "The more people talk about it," she said, "the more it's going to have an influence."

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