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Keli Goff

Keli Goff

Posted: November 17, 2009 11:30 AM

Why the Gay Marriage Message Is Misfiring: Part II

What's Your Reaction:

Below is the second part of my list addressing what I consider the messaging missteps that are holding the marriage equality movement back. You can view the first part of the list and story of what inspired me to write it, here. For your reference I have included the first two missteps on the list below, but due to space, they can be read in their entirety in my earlier post.

5. If you want diverse constituencies to hear your message, diversify your messengers.

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

3. Refrain from religious criticism -- period.

I identify myself as a Christian, which means I believe that there is an invisible, supreme being who reins over me and the entire universe -- even though I cannot see such a being or prove to you such a being exists. My point is that religious faith is not known for being rooted in sound, logical reasoning, so don't engage anyone in a debate over it as if it does, because such a debate is impossible for anyone to truly win. While I choose to attend a church that is inclusive of gays and lesbians, plenty of Americans do not, and every time one of those Americans sees their religious faith being ridiculed as bigoted that's one less American who may not have considered themselves an opponent of the marriage equality movement, but who is now less likely to ever become an ally. Remember, every time there is any sort of high profile, coordinated media campaign that appears to combine the quest for gay rights and issues of religious faith (whether it is the media frenzy surrounding the confirmation of Bishop Gene Robinson or the Rick Warren inauguration controversy) it negates one of the strongest arguments of the marriage equality movement: namely that gay Americans simply want equal rights under the law -- not to impede on anyone else's religious convictions, practices, or places of worship.

Gay Americans were right to take issue with some of Pastor Warren's more incendiary language, but the execution of the response to his participation in the inauguration was a perfect example of not seeing the forest for the trees. It sent a message to the tens of thousands of evangelical Christians who admire Pastor Warren for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with his politics, that if they admire him, and you consider him a bigot, that you must consider them ones too. Even if they, themselves, are undecided about "marriage" but disapprove of employment discrimination against gays and lesbians and "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Furthermore, protesting Pastor Warren when a cross section of Americans -- black, white, young, old and everyone in between -- were celebrating such a defining moment in our nation's history conveyed an aura of short-sightedness that was inevitably interpreted as choosing to put your community before your country. It is worth noting that President Kennedy allegedly pressured Sammy Davis, Jr. NOT to attend his inauguration with his white wife for fear of antagonizing Southerners at the start of his term. Do I find Kennedy's request personally saddening? Sure. Do I think that it was politically necessary to lay the groundwork for certain rights I enjoy today? Absolutely. Instead of denouncing Warren and the president on various television programs, what if gay Americans had announced a national LGBT Day of Prayer for Warren, a prayer that he might change his heart and mind? That could have sent a powerful and positive message to Americans of faith including, Pastor Warren and the president, that while they may be intolerant, the LGBT community is not, but that is not the message that was ultimately conveyed.

2. Attack the DNC, attack the Congress, but do not attack the president.

There are often comparisons between the Civil Rights Movement and the gay rights movement, but when it comes to finding a way to effectively leverage a relationship with a sympathetic White House into tangible gains, the gay rights movement clearly has a lot to learn from its predecessor. A Google search of "Gay rights activists angry with Obama" yields nearly 700,000 results, which is a problem -- a big one. Not for the president but for the gay community. For starters, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that plenty of black Americans feel politically protective of the first black president, so aggressive attacks on him -- from any corner -- are viewed with an extra measure of resentment and suspicion that has not existed with previous presidents. The lack of understanding of this reality reinforces a level of tone deafness among the gay activist community when it comes to efforts to build coalitions with communities of color; a level of tone deafness that frankly, the gay community can no longer afford. But this is a messaging misfire that is not only handicapping gay Americans with communities of color.

It's hard to say if significant, widespread, civil rights measures for black Americans ever could have passed and been implemented during World War II or the Great Depression. My guess is probably not. The reason? Because it would have been the last issue on most Americans' minds. While the White House can't say it, I can and will. Marriage equality is not a top issue (and likely not a top 5 issue) for the average voter. That's not to say it is not important. That is to say that in the minds of the average American it exists in the realm of other divisive social issues from abortion to affirmative action, essentially political "luxury" issues if you're worried about your house going into foreclosure. A vocal, passionate minority feels strongly for it. A vocal, passionate minority feels strongly against it. The other voters are busy thinking about words like "taxes" and "unemployment benefits" and never think about the marriage issue until a pollster asks what he or she thinks or when they have to make a decision in a voting booth. So when a swing voter turns on a television and sees someone attacking a president who is a little busy figuring out how to solve big global problems (Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the economy, to name a few) for what is perceived as a community specific issue, it ghettoizes the community in question, in this instance the gay community.

So continue to boycott the DNC, threaten and intimidate members of both Houses of Congress, but hands off the president. That's not to say the gay community should not keep up the pressure on the president, but keep it up privately, in White House meetings, and yes, when the Obama 2012 campaign calls you and asks you to write a check. I would suggest that any political activist who has not done so listen to the recordings of some of the White House conversations between Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Johnson. They are incredibly instructive on the delicate dance between effective private versus public advocacy.

And if you feel it is imperative to go after President Obama publicly every now and then, pick issues that are sure to resonate will ALL Americans. For instance, ask any American if they would rather encounter another 9/11 or have a gay linguist serving openly in the military to help prevent it. That's the kind of message that moves voters of all political and religious stripes, and as a result will move a president.

1. Change the language of the conversation. As Mad Men's Don Draper famously said, "If you don't like what's being said, change the conversation." Words matter, and for whatever reason, the word "marriage" is radioactive for some Americans. Not all of them, but enough to squash marriage equality in key states. Many Americans who support the rights afforded to married couples being afforded to gay couples simply refuse to budge on the word marriage -- at least for now. So continue the quest for marriage rights, but don't make the word itself the centerpiece of the messaging. Instead, in every single interview and press release, focus on the specific rights "it" will afford gay families, not the word itself. Keep in mind that anti-choice activists were able to make strides by simply finding the right language and using it as a weapon against the choice community. After all, there is no such medical term as "partial birth abortion," (which became the unfortunate media code name for late term abortions), but try telling that to the countless Americans who now think they oppose it.

Moving Forward

Here's what I hope. I hope that those in the marriage equality movement who are reading this will not prove me right. But here's how they could: By dispatching yet another white liberal activist (perhaps on this very site) to lecture me on how wrong I am and how right they are, at knowing how best to connect with various members of my family and others who do not support marriage equality yet. Instead, I hope members of the movement will actually take some of my suggestions under consideration and maybe even pick up the phone and call some of the people of color, and others, I have referenced in this piece, who do support their cause. It's taken us more than two centuries to go from a country in which black Americans were property, and a black man could be murdered for whistling at a white woman, to a country in which a Justice of the Peace is shamed into resigning for refusing to marry an interracial couple. Change doesn't happen over night, or even over a decade or two. As many segregationists once argued -- you can't legislate behavior. This is true. But we can help change the attitudes of our fellow Americans so that they are moved to change their own behavior.

But only if your message connects with them.

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