November 20, 2012
By Jacob Combs
Updated at 11:15 am Eastern to include the following: Today is the International Transgender Day of Remembrance. In honor of those who lost their lives to anti-trans hatred, GLAAD has a timeline covering the history of transgender visibility and Think Progress is featuring a great video by the Socially Connected Equality Network that remembers the 265 transgender individuals who we lost in 2012. The T in LGBT is not, and never should be, silent.
Yesterday, BuzzFeed’s Chris Geidner, one of the best journalists covering marriage equality, posted an exhaustive (and exclusive) look at the political and media strategies that equality advocates used to make this election the best one in LGBT history. Geidner’s piece is extraordinarily valuable and worth reading in full to get a sense of just how different the 2012 campaigns were from those in the past, but perhaps the most intriguing part of his reporting has to do with the broad and somewhat synchronized messaging revamp that the various campaigns in Maine, Minnesota, Washington and Maryland undertook to prevail at the ballot box.
Although Geidner points to the importance of the state-based campaigns’ organization, volunteer efforts and unique voter outreach programs, he notes that a major foundation for each campaign’s strategy came from a research report conducted by the center-left think tank Third Way called “The Answer to the Middle’s Questions on Marriage for Gay Couples.” Quoting from the report, Geidner points out six major findings from Third Way’s research:
- Commitment trumps rights, a point made in prior research by Freedom to Marry as well: “Leading with commitment will show the middle that gay people want to join the institution of marriage, not change it.”
- Kids move voters: “In our past qualitative research, we found that underlying these concerns about children are deeply emotional fears about loss of parental control. These fears were also evident in the poll data.”
- The home is our turf; schools are their turf: “When compared directly to other possible responses to attacks around children, parents teaching core values ranks highest in persuasiveness.”
- On kids—turn down the heat: “One effective way to do that is to remind those in the middle of something they already believe to be true—that ‘kids will be kids,’ and in reality, they are much more interested in other things than they are in whether gay couples are allowed to marry.”
- Give people permission to change their minds about why gay couple[s] marry: “Using a messenger who could describe changing his own opinion on why gay couples want to marry modeled this positive evolution on the very issue that is most crucial to gaining support.”
- Religion is a hurdle, not a wall: “[E]ven among those groups in the middle who were more concerned about religion, overwhelming majorities said ‘It is not for me to judge.’ … [I]t is crucial to include reaffirmation of religious liberty protections as a significant part of supporters’ message framework.”
What can we learn from the successes of this year in Maine, Maryland, Washington and Minnesota? First, that reframing our message from one of civil rights to one of personal rights can have a big impact. That doesn’t mean that the legal rights aspect of marriage equality isn’t important–it is, and of course it is one of the issues that feels most personal to the LGBT community. But to a voter who may not have gay or lesbian friends or personally know a same-sex couple, the rights argument could sound overly abstract.
Because of that, focusing on the rights of marriage may not persuade these types of voters as much as a message of commitment would–and, in fact, the rights argument doesn’t even fully represent the reason that LGBT advocates are pushing for marriage equality in the first place. There’s a reason we’re not content with civil unions even though they provide many of the rights married couples enjoy: only marriage carries with it the sense of societal recognition (and responsibility) that any couple’s decision to commit to one another deserves.
The second lesson of the 2012 elections, I think, is that victory at the ballot box takes work–lots and lots of it. The marriage equality campaigns this year didn’t win because they were in the right place at the right time; on the contrary, they won because they met the citizenry of their respective states and persuaded them to vote for equality. Yes, public opinion is changing, but that opinion isn’t something static and abstract–it can (and should) be shaped and molded by those who feel strongly on the issue.
Earlier this year, when I had the opportunity to join the conference call in which Mainers United for Marriage announced they would be seeking to ask Maine’s voters to affirm marriage equality this November, I was struck by the way the campaign emphasized that its decision had come in large part because of the conversations they had had with various residents of the state. According to the New York Times, Mainers United contacted around 250,000 Mainers over the course of the campaign, engaging many of them in 20-minute personal conversations seeking to change their minds.
In the wake of November 6th’s historic victories, many LGBT advocates are pointing to this moment as a sea change, a shift that will allow for more victories in the future. I think they’re on to something, but that shift hasn’t taken place in a vacuum. It’s a product of the research that Third Way and Freedom to Marry did; it’s a direct outcome of the state-by-state personalization that each of the campaign’s endeavored to create. After 2012, we’re not just looking at a new playing field, we’re approaching the game with a new playbook. And that, I believe, will be one of the most important foundations for our future successes.