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The Landmark Same-Sex Marriage Bill Offers a Lesson for Activists

6 minute read
Solomon, a partner at Civitas Public Affairs Group, was national campaign director of Freedom to Marry. He is the author of Winning Marriage: The Inside Story of How Same-Sex Couples Took On the Politicians and Pundits – and Won

The passage of the Respect for Marriage Act, with bipartisan votes in the Senate and House, marks another major milestone around acceptance of same-sex couples marrying. It also represents an especially powerful case for the importance of centering persuasion in social movements – an approach increasingly at odds with modern political zeitgeist.

Today’s culture of outrage – where ideologically aligned people demonize their political opponents to one another, with the media fanning the flames – is intoxicating. It is soothing to be fed the latest outrage, to feel the fury, and to share it on social media.

And while there is plenty to be angry about, this trend has a dangerous consequence. It can lead to completely dismissing the other and the prospect of finding some common ground. Or, as Anand Giridharadas writes in The Persuaders, we are more and more entrenched in “the culture of the write-off.” In that worldview, trying to persuade those who disagree with you is a waste of time because no one actually changes their minds.

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The freedom-to-marry movement illustrates the value of engagement rather than the write-off, demonstrating that people can and do change their minds on fundamental questions. If they didn’t, we’d be closer to the 27% public support for marriage equality in 1996 than the 71% today, nearer to when politicians fought against the freedom to marry than the widespread acceptance we just saw on Capitol Hill; closer to the time when most mainstream religious denominations opposed the freedom to marry than this year’s support of the Respect for Marriage Act by the Mormon Church.

In the marriage movement advocates made an audacious demand – let a stigmatized group join one of society’s most cherished institutions. We built campaigns to win – in legislatures, in courts, and at the ballot – while fighting the organized opposition. Central to the campaign was a very deliberate effort to grow public support by mobilizing thousands of families to speak from their heart and make their case.

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The movement relied on the research-backed understanding that Americans overwhelmingly believe in the Golden Rule, the notion of treating others the way they want to be treated. But in order to get people to apply the Golden Rule, they must first be able to genuinely empathize and connect. In the case of marriage equality, many Americans were a long way from there. Many didn’t know gay people or understand their motivation for wanting to marry. Until they could have these and other questions settled, it was difficult for them to relate – made harder by opposing political strategists who demonized LGBTQ people, looking to score points for their candidates.

Here is how advocates went about making the case.

We took the fact that people were conflicted as an opportunity to persuade. Nearly everyone grew up in a culture that stigmatized homosexuality and deemed it sinful. Expecting people to “get it” right away was unrealistic – and calling them bigots if they didn’t was deeply unproductive. Advocates understood that they needed to help people resolve conflicts themselves – to help them recognize that their own personal values lead them to embrace the same-sex couples’ freedom to marry. I’ve always liked to think of conflicted people as those who weren’t yet with us rather than those who were opposed, and that we simply needed to keep engaging to help them along.

Advocates had these deep conversations at people’s doors, in houses of worship, at community events, in television and radio ads, at family dinner tables. LGBTQ people answered many personal questions – how were we sure we were gay? Why did we want to get married? Couldn’t we call it something else? And we listened as people worked to resolve conflicts between what their faith tradition taught about homosexuality and what the Golden Rule suggested.

We spotlighted real, relatable stories for people to identify with. Advocates endeavored to demonstrate that LGBTQ people weren’t quite as different as people thought. We spotlighted testimonials from rural communities and “red states,” from people who had served in the military and those who came from conservative families, couples who had been together for decades and those raising children. We also enlisted parents with grown gay and lesbian children, as they proved especially compelling to straight people who could empathize with the parents’ journey to acceptance and support.

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One critique of our approach is that disadvantaged groups shouldn’t have to do this work – that it’s unseemly to have to persuade those responsible for the discrimination. That mindset is very alluring. After Californians voted to take away the right to marry in 2008, many people gathered in the state’s progressive hubs to rally, express outrage, and demand equality. It was necessary and cathartic, and I joined in.

But it wasn’t enough. We were talking to one another, not to conflicted voters. That crucial work had to happen in very deliberate engagement – and, ultimately, it did.

The truth is that nobody is going to do the hardest work for you.

But by engaging sincerely in making the case, movements gain allies who join the cause along the way and lend their voices so that the job is less difficult.

While the recent congressional action makes marriage equality more settled than ever, LGBTQ people remain under attack. Today, the opposition stigmatizes appropriate health care for transgender people and silences discussion of LGBTQ people in schools. It is infuriating to be on the receiving end of those attacks, and to have to keep making the case. But it’s necessary in order to win.

By acknowledging people’s conflicts, sharing accessible stories, making space for them to journey to support, and embracing them when they do so, reformers can bring about victories that make our country a more just, compassionate place while offering hope for reconciliation in these times of deep division.

Correction, December 8

The original version of this story mistakenly included the National Association of Evangelicals among organizations supporting the Respect for Marriage Act. The organization supported the religious freedom provisions in the bill, but did not endorse the bill as a whole.

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