Four years ago, LGBT advocates were devastated by the voter approval of Proposition 8 in California, which reversed a state court ruling allowing same-sex marriage. In that fight, the political consultant Frank Schubert, who led the anti-gay forces there and in the four states that voted on marriage this week, created a deadly ad campaign that played on lingering fears that gay equality threatens kids. In his advertisement, a schoolgirl returns home and cheerfully announces what she learned in school — that a prince can marry a prince, and she can marry a princess! In 2009, Schubert used the identical playbook to win a ballot measure in Maine invalidating the Legislature’s decision to let gays wed.
Just three years later, the people of Maine did an about-face, and along with Maryland, Minnesota and Washington state, voted Tuesday to let gay couples marry. Until this election, every state that had held a popular vote on the question — 32 in a row — had rejected same-sex marriage. Maine and the other three states not only ended the losing streak but may have turned the war, depriving defenders of straight-only marriage of their latest talking point: that the people don’t want gays to marry.
The gay rights movement succeeded by using one of the most sophisticated issue campaign operations ever deployed — and by making it stick with old-fashioned commitment, hard work and face-to-face conversations.
Within weeks of the Maine loss, Freedom To Marry helped assemble a coalition of state-based gay groups, polling experts and academic researchers to centralize and share information so that each campaign didn’t have to start from scratch for each new battle.
Third Way, a centrist think tank working in the coalition with Freedom To Marry, began to unpack exactly how straight people reacted to such tactics. The group found that when straight people were asked what marriage meant to them, they spoke of love, commitment and responsibility. But when asked why they thought gay people wanted to marry, they cited rights and benefits. Tapping into anti-gay stereotypes, they suggested gay people wanted marriage for selfish reasons while they themselves wanted to express love and commitment.
Thalia Zapatos of Freedom To Marry, who oversees the coalition’s messaging research, describes another revelation from the data. Schubert’s misleading “princess” ads implied that schools could usurp the role of parents in teaching pro-gay values, but that was wrong. As Zapatos and her team pored over the research, they watched conversations in which voters spoke among themselves and kept circling back to the same insight: Parents are the parents, and they teach their kids values at home.
The first step to combating that fear were ads that showed (among other story lines) a mom who was also a teacher speaking at home with her husband. “What we do in a school is no substitute for what happens at home,” she says. Her husband chimes in: “No law is going to change the core values we teach our kids here at home.” The takeaway: No one would force parents into uncomfortable conversations when their own child returned home from school.
But advertising is a one-way conversation. Zapatos began to find that once voters became engaged (either by pro- or anti-forces), new concerns arose. The next step was to turn the messaging into a conversation.
In the end, the Maine campaign spoke to 250,000 people, nearly one-fifth of the state’s population — and that was likely the fifth that mattered most. This sort of effort is ongoing in more states beyond this week’s election, such as Oregon, which may be next up for an initiative.
Research shows that knowing a gay person makes you 65 percent more likely to support same-sex marriage — and having a conversation with that gay person about marriage raises the figure to 80 percent. Third Way recently released a report showing that 75 percent of positive movement in support for same-sex marriage comes from people of every age group changing their minds. It’s about having the right message and imparting it with patience and labor.
Nathaniel Frank, author of “Unfriendly Fire” and a visiting scholar at Columbia’s Center for Gender and Sexuality Law, is writing a book called “The Anti-Gay Mind.”