The marriage equality movement has been a success for a lot of reasons. One of them, no doubt, is branding and framing. And it's time to learn from that and apply it to other battles, like the battle against employment discrimination, which has been a dismal failure. For almost two decades we've tried but failed to get federal workplace protections. If we truly believe that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people should be free from fear of being fired at any moment or turned away from a job simply because of who they are, then we've got to, right now, get rid of the 20-year-old, dull and wretched terminology for the federal law we're trying to pass and replace it with something vibrant and real, something that captivates and connects with the lives of every American.
It's time for a rebranding. The president of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), Chad Griffin, following on the success of the "freedom to marry" movement that he helped advance rapidly, should get to work right away and change the name of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which will be voted on in the Senate in coming days, to the "Freedom to Work Act."
The group Freedom to Work, launched by its current president Tico Almeida in 2011 to end workplace discrimination against LGBT people, clearly understood, by the choice of its name, the importance of messaging today. The term "Employment Non-Discrimination Act" has been around since the early '90s, signed on to by HRC and congressional leaders who surely thought it was the hottest thing since Nintendo at the time, but like a lot of other things from 20 years ago, it is now outdated and, more importantly, out of sync with the American people. And the acronym "ENDA" just seems to make people's eyes glaze over. While ENDA proponents have towed the same line year after year, marriage equality activists completely reimagined their entire movement. And they're winning big. That's not a coincidence.
"ENDA is not as new, as sexy, and frankly, I think the branding around ENDA is just terribly bad," said Michael Crawford, director of online programs at Freedom to Marry and a man who's mastered the messaging on marriage, speaking on a panel I moderated at the annual progressive activist conference Netroots Nation, which aired on my radio program two weeks ago. Crawford, speaking for himself as an activist and not as a rep of Freedom to Marry, pointed out that marriage is something that most Americans are raised to believe they want to do, and so marriage equality activists tapped into the public's imagination. He said the same needs to be done on workplace protections.
"When we talk about it as discrimination, it's about bad things that are happening vs. reframing in a more aspirational way, framing it as freedom to work," he explained. "Everyone wants to be able to work and take care of their families. Framing it as something the general public can understand and connect to."
Crawford noted that it wasn't until recently that we saw marriage as a winning issue rather than a losing one.
"When you look at marriage, you see a strategic shift in messaging," he explained. "We stopped talking about it as 'rights.' When straight people want to get married, it's about love and commitment. How can we make that transition around ENDA? I think a much more interesting way to look at it is if we reconceived how we push for nondiscrimination at the federal level. A broader bill that was bigger, bolder, had the chance to captivate the public's imagination. Rebranding, talking about it in ways that resonate with the general pubic and puts pressure on elected officials."
Of course, it's important to recount the stories of those who've been horribly discriminated against, people thrown out on the street by bigoted employers who find out they're gay or transgender, or qualified candidates who are passed over for jobs because the employer thinks the applicant might be gay. And, no doubt, stories like that of Exxon Mobil shareholders continually refusing to vote for an LGBT nondiscrimination policy must be exposed.
But when we only talk about discrimination and what employers and government must do, we come off as finger waggers and outsiders rather than the guy or girl next door who wants the same freedoms as everyone else. Many Americans don't like banning this or that entity from doing something, but every American believes in freedom. So let's get to work -- and rename ENDA the Freedom to Work Act.