Monday, November 22, 2010

Put 'Gay' in the Marriage Debate

(Kotulski, left, with her wife Molly McKay. Credit: Dunn San Francisco.)

The other day I exchanged emails with Davina Kotulski, Ph.D., longtime gay marriage advocate who's been involved with the Marriage Equality USA org and married to activist Molly McKay, about how we don't hear "gay is good" enough, if at all, from our professional advocacy groups and leaders. Davina told me she has a "Gay Is Good" sticker on her car, and I asked her to write up a guest column, addressing the need to clearly say the word gay in our marriage campaigns. Here is her thought-provoking piece:


In 2003, I wrote my first book Why You Should Give A Damn About Gay Marriage because I wanted to awaken the LGBT community to the outrage of being denied 1,138 federal rights and hundreds of state rights and what that meant in terms of our real lives. Before that, many people believed that marriage wasn't worth wasting our time over.

I started writing Love Warriors: The Rise of the Marriage Equality Movement and Why it Will Prevail soon after Prop 8 passed because I felt like we were missing a comprehensive book in favor of "gay marriage" able to address why marriage is a civil right, an institution that benefits LGBT people, and compelling stories and talking points on the issue of marriage equality. I also felt like the No on Prop 8 campaign was homophobic and failed to use basic psychology to create effective commercials and talking points. In Love Warriors, I combine my expertise as a psychologist and my over ten years of experience as a grassroots marriage activist to show how we can create more effective campaigns and messaging.

To refresh your memory, we have fought and lost over 30 ballot measures on marriage equality. Despite these repeated failures, marriage equality campaigns continue to employ similar messaging and campaign strategies that seek to persuade voters that the measures are “unnecessary and unfair.” This messaging alone is unemotional and ineffective. We need campaigns that are clearly pro-marriage equality and pro-gay people.

Pollsters and campaign professionals hired by our community tell us that public education campaigns and beating ballot measures are two totally different things. They argue that the only way to win is to aim at the swing voters who might be persuaded to vote for equality if we can convince them that the issue at hand is not gay rights, but fairness. This does not work because it appears that they are trying to trick people by not including images of gay people and the “gay” and “marriage.” If you keep gay people out of the equation it looks like a trick or a cover up, or worse, it sends the unintended message that gay people getting married should be hidden because it’s shameful.

A campaign that has straight spokespeople telling other straight people that there is nothing to worry about is ineffective. People are no more educated or informed about the issues of marriage discrimination than before the campaign began.

Future campaigns must show both how gay people are harmed by inequality and deserving of equal rights at the forefront. We need ads that put a human face on marriage discrimination and leave viewers with some sense of the lasting harm of marriage discrimination as they go to the voting booth.

The LGBT leadership in California failed twice because it failed to use pro-active messaging in the No on 22 and No on 8 campaigns. It was a very painful learning experience that cost us our marriage rights, hurt our children, and has led to an increase in animosity towards LGBT people, as well as emboldened our opposition.

The “No on 22” Campaign, formed to defeat the “Knight Initiative,” did not show gay people in its advertising. Instead they featured straight white men saying things like “You don’t have to be for gay marriage to be against this initiative.” Sending the message—actually paying for the message— that it is “okay to be against gay marriage.” Think about that for a minute. If you weren’t for equality and equal marriage rights then what were you for?

If you want to win wouldn’t you talk pro-actively about the benefits to society of allowing couples who love each other to marry, (e.g. ending bigotry, supporting diversity, teaching tolerance, and helping families protect one another with marriage rights like hospital visitation, parentage, health insurance, medical decision making, the right to inherit their shared property without a will, filing joint taxes, etc.).

We lost in 2000 with Prop 22 and No on 8 recycled the same luke-warm messaging in 2008. It seemed like gay campaign leaders and straight political consultants decided that gay people were so scary to non-gay voters that they refused to show our faces or acknowledge that 18,000 same-sex couples were happily getting married at this exact time surrounded by their friends and families and asking for donations to the No on 8 campaign in lieu of wedding gifts.

How can we expect to win and hold on to the institution of civil marriage when are own executive campaign committee doesn’t think we are palatable enough to be in our own commercials, even paid actors? How can we get non-gay voters to see our shared humanity when we spend $43 million dollars on advertising that excludes gay people?

The No on 8 campaign leaders said they steered clear of using the word “marriage,” so that they wouldn’t offend religious groups or alienate people who choose cohabitation. The campaign was trying so hard not to offend anyone that they failed to come up with an effective reason why marriage matters and in the process lost LGBT Americans’ right to marry in California.

To learn more about Davina and to purchase a copy of her new book, click here. Thanks, Davina, for laying out some cogent arguments for better ways to advance gay marriage and an honest gay agenda.

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