03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why the Gay Marriage Message Is Misfiring: Part 1

Recently while appearing on NPR as part of a discussion of race relations one year after President Obama's election, I was reminded that while black Americans have come far in a lot of respects -- number of black elected officials nationally, first black president, etc. -- we still remain a convenient political scapegoat for certain constituencies.

No, I am not referring to white, working class voters. I am referring to some members of the gay rights movement. One caller to the NPR program who identified as gay made it clear that he was having a tough time celebrating our country's historic election when black Americans, including the president, have been such obstacles to his community's civil rights fight. (He apparently was not aware of the fact that barely 1 percent of Maine's population is black, the site of marriage equality's latest defeat.) But the exchange made something painfully clear. The gay marriage movement has a messaging problem. It has suffered defeats in California, Maine (and other states) not because it lacks a compelling argument, but because it has not executed its message with key constituencies in a compelling fashion.

With that in mind, below is the first part of my list of what I consider the top 5 messaging blunders that have hurt the marriage equality movement so far. Because of space constraints, I will post the second part of my list later this week revealing what I consider the top blunders, along with some general thoughts on moving forward. Let me say that I know that some of you may be rolling your eyes and dismissing my advice (and me) out of turn, but keep in mind that if the messaging was working just fine then Maine, and other states, would have turned out differently. So it might be time to try something new.

5. If you want diverse constituencies to hear your message, diversify your messengers.
Though as I stated before black Americans are not the predominant obstacles to gay marriage in this country, there is a great difference between not being an obstacle and being an ally. Just as gay Americans have challenged President Obama to demonstrate his commitment to diversity through his appointment of gay Americans to various positions within his administration, racial and ethnic minorities should expect the same commitment from gay rights organizations. It is a rarity that racial minorities are featured on television and on popular new sites (including this one) discussing this issue. Is that because gay minorities and marriage supporters don't exist? Of course not. It is because much like previous liberal activist movements (the feminists in the 1960's-70's and the environmental activists of the last decade) the largely white, liberal (and yes, elite) leadership within the gay community has not exactly done a stellar job of doing effective, targeted outreach to communities of color for support or for leadership.

This failure in strategy and messaging was magnified during the fallout from Proposition 8. A black UCLA student at an anti-Prop 8 protest reported that the gathering, "was like being at a klan rally except the klansmen were wearing Abercrombie polos and Birkenstocks. YOU NIGGER, one man shouted at men. If your people want to call me a FAGGOT, I will call you a nigger."

Despite being debunked by the marriage equality advocacy group Freedom to Marry, the myth that black Americans (all 13 percent of us) are the primary obstacle standing between gay Americans and marriage became media gospel and lives on among the misinformed, including the caller I spoke with on NPR. As I told him, playing the blame game is rarely an effective strategy for winning new allies, but building strategic partnerships with existing allies can be. Julian Bond, Chairman of the NAACP, Congressman John Lewis, Rev. Al Sharpton, Governor of New York David Paterson and many other influential black Americans do support marriage equality. Instead of letting so much of the media narrative focus on those who do not support it, spend time and resources nurturing relationships and visibility among those who do. Blogger Jasmyne Cannick, who is black and a lesbian was less diplomatic in her assessment: "If gays want to blame someone for Proposition 8, they can start with their leaders -- also known as the gay mafia, whose egos, white superiority complex, and misunderstanding of black people's priorities for this election season guaranteed certain outcomes."

4. Take a page from the interracial marriage playbook -- the right page.

Question. Any idea how many Baby Boomers supported interracial relationships twenty years ago? The answer? Less than 60 percent. That's right. That means that while The Cosby Show was one of the most popular programs in America, more than 40 percent of Baby Boomers watching it thought, "Gee. They're great but I would still never let my daughter date Theo." To put this statistic in context that means that there were Americans who marched for the right for me to vote who still preferred that I not date their son. My point is that when it comes to activism, the "with us" or "against us" mentality is not always a winning formula. Too often in the quest for marriage equality the gay community has shamed and shouted down potential allies whose voices and votes they need on other issues -- issues that presently have greater widespread support, according to polls, than marriage, from adoption rights for gays and lesbians to protection from employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, to the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
Which brings me to my second question. Can anyone tell me when there was a March on Washington for interracial marriage? Or when Martin Luther King, Jr. mentioned interracial marriage in the "I Have a Dream" speech? The answer, of course, is no, because he didn't. If he had I would still be sitting at the back of the bus. Remember, fear of miscegenation was long one of the cornerstones of the foundation on which racism and racial violence in this country was built, in essence America's worst fear. There were thousands of black men (if not more) lynched because of this very fear. (Never mind the countless African-American family trees that include stories of miscegenation at the hands of white slave owners including the First Lady's and my own). My point is the reason there was no aggressive public advocacy behind the issue of interracial marriage at the height of the civil rights movement is because it would have set the entire movement back -- and other rights might never have been secured. African-Americans mobilized around the right to vote and educational equality, to name a few, and after winning these battles, interracial marriage became one of the final legal hurdles that was secured for all Americans in 1967.

So continue to make marriage equality the focus of the gay community's legal campaigns in the courts, but not the cornerstone of its media efforts. Instead, let these other issues, along with positive openly gay role models, both real (from Ellen to the soon-to-be first openly lesbian Mayor of my hometown Houston) and fictitious (such as positive gay characters in film and television programming), be the defining faces and focus of the movement in the media, at least for now. Think I'm being glib? Then just consider the countless articles that have referenced the role that "The Cosby Show" (not to mention the depiction of Black presidents on screen) played in laying the groundwork for Barack Obama's election. But I would argue they also played a role in the fact that now, more than twenty years after The Cosby Show aired, 84 percent of Boomers support interracial relationships, and 94 percent of their kids do.

The second part of my list will run tomorrow, as will my final thoughts on moving forward.

An earlier version of this piece was originally published on for which Goff is a political writer.