< The Messages Behind the Gay Marriage Battle


Friday, June 28, 2013

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  This week in Washington, the world’s geekiest foot race, as reporters, or their interns, sprinted to the cameras with two landmark High Court rulings.

MALE CORRESPONDENT:  Now, Shannon Breen just out from the US Supreme Court. She's got her gym shoes on, she’s runnin’ toward our camera. She has the decision now in her hands.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  The Court struck down a key provision of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which blocked federal recognition of gay marriage, and then let stand a California decision that struck down a gay marriage ban there. The rulings came as American acceptance of gay marriage accelerates.

AMY MITCHELL:  We have now hit a point here in the US, where more than half the population, 51 percent, say that they favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  That’s Amy Mitchell, acting director of the Pew Research Center's Project For Excellence In Journalism.

AMY MITCHELL:  That compares to 42 percent who say they oppose it. And if you look back to 2009, the breaks at that point in time were just 35 percent that favored it versus 54 percent that opposed.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Mm. Do you have any notion of what changed in 2009?

AMY MITCHELL:  Specifically, a lot of what we heard were things like, “I know somebody personally who is gay or lesbian or homosexual, in some way. I have a personal connection to somebody.”

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Did you happen to see the Tonys the year before this one, when Neil Patrick Harris did a big routine about how the gays own Broadway?

AMY MITCHELL:  I, I saw clips of it.





If you feel like someone that this world excludes,

it’s no longer only for dudes who like dudes.

Attention every breeder,

you’re invited to the theater.

It’s not just for gays anymore.


AMY MITCHELL:  Not that Broadway was kind of a holdout but, you know, it is a national broadcast designed to get people to go to Broadway, so there must have been a high degree of confidence that this wasn’t going to be a turn-off.

One of the questions that was asked, you know, how would you feel if you had a son or daughter that came to you and said that they were gay or lesbian. And, there too, we see much greater acceptance. I believe it was 55 percent that said they would not be upset if their son or daughter came to them and said that, that he or she was gay or lesbian.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  So with victory in the courts, and in many state votes on the issue, and those polls, you might assume from the media that the war is over. And, in fact, Pew found that most Americans, whether for or against same-sex marriage, believe it is now inevitable. But is it?

Crucially, both high court decisions throw the onus for gay marriage back to the states, many of which have strong voter opposition to it, and where the battles between advocates and opponents will likely go on and on.

David Dodge is a researcher and gay marriage advocate who has studied the messaging from both sides and doesn't think his side has done all that well.

DAVID DODGE:  But you don’t need to look any further than our track record. [LAUGHS] And before this past November, of the 40 state-wide LGBT ballot measures that I looked at in my report, only three went our way. So, regardless of the media, regardless of anything else going on, we clearly [LAUGHS] – we’re having a hard time connecting with voters.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  As you observed, there were a handful of  strategies that the anti-gay marriage campaigns were using. One was an appeal to traditional marriage.



ANNOUNCER:  The most precious gift of all, a man, a woman, a child, a family. The way marriage should always be. Please, vote yes on Measure 36.


DAVID DODGE:  And of all of the media that I looked at for this report, 75 percent contained this kind of traditional marriage theme. It will show this happy nuclear family. And it could be as simple as two or three words, “One man, one woman, for God’s design,” and that’s the ad.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  What’s the most effective strategy?

DAVID DODGE:  This messaging that targeted children and, and specifically in the school system, that tried to convince voters that if same-sex marriage were to be legalized, that children in schools would learn about LGBT relationships and that children will be encouraged to experiment with an LGBT lifestyle. We found it’s very, very effective. So there's this ad that is very familiar to most voters in California and to anyone that’s worked on any of these LGBT ballot measure campaigns called the princess ad.


YOUNG GIRL:  Mom! Guess what I learned in school today?

MOM:  What, sweetie?

YOUNG GIRL:  I learned how a prince married a prince and I can marry a princess!


PROF. RICHARD PETERSON:  Think it’s can’t happen? It’s already happened. When Massachusetts legalized gay marriage, schools began teaching second graders that boys can marry boys. The courts ruled parents had no right to object.


DAVID DODGE:  The messaging is not true. There’s no correlation between where same-sex marriage has been legalized and whether or not schools teach about gay marriage or about gay relationships. It’s completely independent.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  You took this ad door-to-door?

DAVID DODGE:  Right, I worked with this fantastic organization called Vote for Equality that’s based in Los Angeles. And since Proposition 8, they have just been trying to figure out, okay, so clearly our strategy up until now has not been working. [LAUGHS] We’ve lost every single campaign basically that we’ve, we’ve tried to win.

So since 2008, they have been going door-to-door in neighborhoods in, in Los Angeles, trying to find voters who voted in favor of Proposition 8 and to have long extended conversations with them to try to figure out why. And they would do a little bit of a survey with them - it was over 1000 surveys – and after that they would have little video players and they  would show the voter the “Princess” ad, in particular, and then ask them to rate their position after that. So 15 percent of all voters were negatively impacted by this ad; 26 percent of all undecided voters were negatively impacted. And 14 percent of our supporters were negatively impacted. So these are people that in theory would be planning on voting in favor of same-sex marriage and then changing their mind after seeing this one ad.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  So strong evidence that this harm to kids argument was a winner, but what you observed is that the anti-gay marriage campaigns began to adopt another strategy.

DAVID DODGE:  Yes, since the documents that were court ordered to be released by the National Organization for Marriage in March of 2012, the two major things that came out of it that – was that they were using a race baiting strategy, where they were literally trying to go into communities of color and pit them against LGBT communities.

And the other was to try to flip a prominent pro-LGBT messaging strategy, and one that’s actually not that effective in getting people to support same-sex marriage that says that LGBT people are victims of discrimination and are persecuted against. Anti-LGBT advocates developed a concerted strategy to try to co-opt that messaging and to say that it’s actually people that are opposed to same-sex marriage that are persecuted against; they’re the ones that are the victims.


ANNOUNCER:  Question 1 means consequences as has occurred elsewhere, like Vermont.

MAN:  A lesbian couple sued us for not supporting their gay wedding because of our Christian beliefs. We had to pay $30,000 and can no longer host any weddings at our inn.

ANNOUNCER:  Vote no on Question 1 to avoid this in Maine.


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  But last year was a losing year for anti-gay marriage people.

DAVID DODGE:  It was. [LAUGHS] And it was pretty fantastic for us. I don't want to claim that it was just a change in media strategy on both sides that got us to victory, but I do think it played a, a prominent role. They gambled on this different media theme, and it didn't pay off. It didn't connect with voters in the same way that this kids in school messaging really does.

And, on the opposite end, pro-LGB advocates have been doing a much better job at developing ads that were much more emotional and able to connect with voters in a way that was able to win their support.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Okay, so now let's go back to the very bad job that you say the pro-gay marriage people did, up until last year.

DAVID DODGE:  Sure, yeah.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  When you were active in this issue in Florida, you turned on your TV and went, uh!

DAVID DODGE:  I would turn on my TV and watch these ads that were developed from my side, and we would try to trick people into thinking that –


- this has nothing to do with the LGB community.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Well, what do you mean? How?

DAVID DODGE:  There’s really no other way to say it. The ads that we ran in Florida really focused on the potential for senior citizens to be impacted by the loss of gay marriage.


DAVID DODGE:  [LAUGHS] I’m - senior citizen in civil unions would lose their benefits.


MAN:  Had I not had domestic partner, Helaine would have had to wait on a gurney for four and a half hours before the surgery happened, alone. That’s not right.

ANNOUNCER:  Amendment 2 takes away rights and benefits.

WOMAN:  I don’t want the State of Florida and Amendment 2 to take away the rights of Wayne and I to be together.


DAVID DODGE:  Again, this is a potential, but this is not the point of these amendments.


DAVID DODGE:  People are not trying to target domestic violence victims, they’re not trying to target senior citizens. In Arizona, I think it was in 2006, we didn't skirt the same-sex marriage issue completely there, but we did say that this was going to have an impact on all unmarried couples. And we actually won that campaign, by saying that straight people that are in civil unions would be impacted.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  And in those ads, you had no gay people?

DAVID DODGE:  No. In most of our ads, we have no gay people; 18 percent of our ads, going back to 1998, prominently feature LGBT couples. Even fewer ever had a speaking role.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  You mean, you just had happy, smiling faces?

DAVID DODGE:  Exactly.


That’s actually still true to this past November. Grandparents talk about how proud they are of their gay children or our coworker or our neighbor or, or someone else besides an actual LGBT person. [LAUGHS] I should say we’re at least not afraid of talking about same-sex marriage with people anymore.

There is this really interesting research that was done by this organization called Third Way and an LGBT group in Oregon called Basic Rights Oregon. In 2010, they did a survey to try to see what kind of came to mind when they thought of marriage for different groups.  When asked why LGBT couples want to get married, 42 percent responded “for rights and benefits. When they were asked why couples like you want to get married, 72 percent said to publicly acknowledge their love and commitment to one another.

So [LAUGHS], so we, we ourselves have created this dichotomy in people's minds about what marriage is for LGBT people and what marriage is for straight people.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Does this suggest where the next strategy lies for Phase 2?

DAVID DODGE:  Absolutely. And the ads that we saw this past November did a much better job expressing these sorts of emotional reasons why LGBT people want to get married.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Gay Grandma is what one of our producers is suggesting –

DAVID DODGE:  [LAUGHS] Gay Grandma, that’s a fantastic idea. We should find a gay grandma.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  [LAUGHS] David, thank you very much.

DAVID DODGE:  Thank you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Media researcher and gay rights advocate David Dodge.


After the high court ruling on same-sex marriage, the conservative media watchdog site NewsBusters compiled a montage of what it saw as CNN's pro-gay marriage buy-in.


ASHLEIGH BANFIELD: History making in the – look at that.


That is jubilation, folks.

JOE JOHNS:  A pretty extraordinary moment here, quite frankly, Ashleigh.

JEFFREY TOOBIN:  We now know what the first line of Anthony Kennedy’s obituary, many years in the future, will be. He is the justice who is the author of the three most important gay rights decisions in the history of the Supreme Court.



BROOKE GLADSTONE:  NewsBusters has this right. The mainstream media does seem to be acknowledging what the Court seems to be acknowledging, and a majority of the public seems to be acknowledging that it’s somehow unseemly to deny some people the right to marry. True, the Court chose to punt the issue to the states, many of which are disinclined to extend that right. But there is momentum, and you could hear it on CNN.

The media tend not to rush ahead of the public, even on rights issues, as any student of newspapers knows. On women's rights, on mixed marriage, even on slavery, they edge into consensus, with the rest of the nation, region by region, amid conflicting claims to conscience. We’ll hear how opponents of same-sex marriage plan to frame their argument, next. This is On the Media.


David Dodge and Amy Mitchell

Hosted by:

Brooke Gladstone