How Do You Change the Deeply Held Beliefs of a Nation?
This article by Evan Wolfson was originally published on April 17, 2015 in Reuters. Read the full article here.
The transformation over the last 20 years in how Americans view gay people is the result of one of the most successful social justice movements of modern time.
The stunning shift has taken place because we have shown Americans who gay people are — that we are family members, neighbors and co-workers. With this awakened understanding, public support for the freedom to marry has now increased to 63 percent from 27 percent in 1996. There is majority support in every region of the country.
As recently as 10 years ago, Republican officials viewed the freedom to marry as a sure-fire wedge issue. But support for ending marriage discrimination is now a bipartisan political imperative across most of the United States.
Same-sex couples were unable to marry anywhere 15 years ago, but today gay couples can officially marry in 20 countries across five continents, in addition to here in the United States.
The freedom to marry has just been ratified by the U.S. Supreme Court; a 5 to 4 decision that matches the consensus of the country.
How did we build this broad social consensus that it is wrong to discriminate against gay people and unfair to exclude same-sex couples from the freedom to marry? The chief engine of this extraordinary change has been the wider discussion, greater visibility and increased awareness of shared values, understanding and empathy generated by the freedom to marry movement.
After some losses and blows to our efforts, we decided to overhaul the messaging in 2010. Working with partner organizations and movement supporters, we combined polling data research with the lessons learned through experience to figure out what messages and messengers could help build the majority we were seeking.
Research showed us that we had to shift our emphasis from abstract talk of rights and benefits to more personal connections tied to values. We had to touch the heart as well as the mind. Rather than focusing on, for example, how exclusion from marriage can mean denial of health coverage, Social Security or other critical legal protection, we talked more about the love and commitment that are at the heart of the desire to marry for gay and non-gay couples alike. We needed to highlight our connectedness.
After cracking the code on the right kind of message, we focused on the delivery. We told true stories about how crucial marriage is to the lives of same-sex couples. We built a powerful drumbeat with reinforcing messengers — not only same-sex couples, but their parents, grandparents, children and friends. We elicited affirmation from respected community members, including first responders, labor and business leaders, military officers and elected officials.
We invested millions of dollars in building strong, well-resourced media and digital campaigns, recruiting staff, partners and talent in states that were debating freedom-to-marry legislation. And we saw artists, bloggers and journalists step up to pose questions and move hearts in important ways. ,
To help widen our reach and base of support, we worked with allied groups — Latino and African-American civil-rights organizations, labor unions and faith congregations — to enlist and present the stories of same-sex couples and their families. This demonstrated the breadth and diversity of support and reinforced the understanding that the need for the freedom to marry is personal, local and involves people like you.
We also turned to notable individuals to champion our cause — from former Senator Alan Simpson (R-Wy.) to legendary civil rights leader Representative John Lewis (D-Ga.). We used TV ads and social media and launched public-education campaigns, such as Why Marriage Matters (a set of resources and partnerships to give people clear reasons to offer when making the case) and Young Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry (to encourage right-of-center allies and advocates).
We sought to open the window so all Americans could hear the stories of gays and lesbians and the non-gay people who know and love them.
A big part of our campaign focused on “journey” stories — showing how parents, neighbors, veterans or die-hard conservatives had changed their minds and come to support the freedom to marry. When key people spoke out, notably President Barack Obama, it gave undecided Americans permission to “evolve” in their thinking, at their own pace.
Throughout, Freedom to Marry served as a central hub for state campaigns tackling legislative and ballot measures, raising unprecedented amounts to fuel our campaign and making our case through innovative social media as well as traditional forms of communication.
We built on our wins to bring the conversation to regions emerging as new battlegrounds — from the Midwest to the South. With a tenacious investment of time and money to develop needed campaigns in states as well as to navigate Congress, we stuck with our strategy of building a critical mass of states and public support to convince decision-makers, elected and judicial, to do the right thing when it was time for litigation.
Our campaign to attain the freedom to marry finally brought us, as intended, to the Supreme Court. With the ruling announced Friday, we have attained our long-sought, hard-fought goal of winning marriage nationwide. This is a testament to the power of the marriage vocabulary and activist engagement.
But the work is far from over. It should not be legal to fire, refuse services or deny housing to people because of their sexual orientation, sex or gender identity.
Nor should states open a can of worms by allowing discriminatory individuals or businesses to opt out of following a law just because they want to — even when guised as “religious liberty.”
Thanks to an outpouring of support from American businesses — that now understand the urgency of speaking out for gay people — we got a crucial, if still incomplete, fix in Indiana’s atrocious “RFRA” law.
But there still is no affirmative protection against discrimination in states like Indiana and Arkansas. Meanwhile, too many other states are mulling further discrimination.
In fact, there is no federal law prohibiting sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations. This is a pressing goal for our movement’s next chapter. We must harness the powerful vocabulary of marriage and transformative engine of winning the freedom to marry to improve lives on all fronts.
As the federal court declared when we won the freedom to marry in Utah, “It is not the Constitution that has changed, but the knowledge of what it means to be gay or lesbian.”
The Supreme Court took a major step Friday in getting our country on the right side of history. Time to end discrimination throughout the land — with liberty and justice for all.