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Friends Don't Let Friends Suffer Discrimination

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Momentum appears to be building towards legalizing same-sex marriage in New York, right? After all, a Siena poll conducted last month found that 58 percent of the state's registered voters support it, with only 36 percent opposed. Top executives from firms such as Morgan Stanley, Thompson Reuters and Bloomberg L.P. have gone so far as to write a letter to New York state legislators urging them to enact marriage equality, the better to attract top talent to their fields.

In fact, for the first time since pollsters started tracking the issue, a majority of Americans favor same-sex marriage; CNN and ABC News/the Washington Post have put support at 51 and 53 percent, respectively, up from a low of 32 percent in 2004. So why, as support for expanded human rights marches forward, do so many of our elected leaders stay frozen in place? In New Jersey last year, a bill that backers had described as a "slam dunk" before Governor Corzine lost to Chris Christie went down in defeat, amid political skittishness and persistent lobbying by religious groups. In Maryland, a bill to legalize same-sex marriage was withdrawn in March, even after it had passed the Senate, due to a lack of commitments from House members. Some observers noted that its failure was due in part to legislators not being clear on how their constituents wanted them to vote.

The same seems to be true this year, as a recent piece in the New York Times made clear. Inundated by robocalls sponsored by opponents of gay marriage, undecided lawmakers will have an easy out by attributing their negative votes to voter pressure. The Times already quoted the equivocating State Senator Joseph P. Addabbo Jr., a Queens Democrat, as saying "We've gotten about 400 calls and e-mails from voters in the last two weeks, the vast majority of them opposed to the bill." He added that he planned to vote in a way that "reflects the will of my constituents."

So if a majority of voters support gay marriage, but most of the voices being heard are against it, the problem for legalization advocates is not the message, but mobilization. This is the conclusion of Brian Elliot, CEO and founder of the advocacy group Friendfactor, which recently held a Manhattan launch party that featured Chelsea Clinton and Bravo TV exec Andy Cohen as speakers. The non-profit's online tools harness the familiarity and accessibility of social networking, so friends both gay and straight can quickly and simply contact their legislators in support of same-sex marriage. The ease and speed part are especially critical now that roughly six weeks remain in the current New York State legislative session.

"Busy people delete e-mail alerts about issues because they don't have time to make the phone calls," he says. "But then someone writes on their Facebook wall, and they have to check it out. Where did they get that minute when they didn't have it before? It's because we care deeply about the people in our lives. We're making it about gay people as opposed to gay politics." Through www.friendfactor.org, supporters create personal pages through which friends can contact their legislators with a single click; within 30 seconds, the friend's phone rings with that office on the line. The group provides a simple script, and notifies page-posters when their friends have made calls on their behalf, in much the same way that runners in fund-raising races receive pledge notices from financial backers.

The legislative battle in New York will test the friend-to-friend model's viability. One friend of same-sex marriage, Governor Cuomo, has vowed to do whatever he can to support the cause. "For me, this is personal," he has said. And while fundraisers, rallies and protests are important, it's the simple personal message that in the end speaks volumes.