The marriage equality movement in the United States was transformative. It not only changed the laws of the land, but also hearts and minds. Winning required three core components: a wholehearted embrace of political action, targeted funding of smart strategies, and a universally resonant message.
It also took time and endured significant setbacks. In late 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that same-sex couples have a legal right to marry. But by the end of that same year, 11 states passed constitutional amendments via ballot initiatives banning same-sex marriage. And even as recently as 2008, a majority of California voters approved a measure making same-sex marriage illegal. Ultimately, the US Supreme Court didn’t make marriage equality the law of the land until 2015.
During that lengthy process, proponents were forced to ask themselves—and honestly answer—three difficult questions that any serious, winning advocacy campaign should ask:
- Have we moved out of our comfort zone and become political enough to build real power? Answer: Not really.
- Have we asked philanthropic leaders to join together to fund robust, coordinated education and advocacy campaigns designed to win? Answer: No.
- Have we done the right research with people outside the LGBT movement to find out what moved the most people? The answer again: No.
Embracing political action
Realizing their approach wasn’t working, movement leaders created a checklist of new steps. This involved holding “friends”—almost entirely Democrats, most of whom weren’t willing to hold a political hot potato like marriage equality—accountable. It meant creating a political reality over time where people were winning elections because of their support for marriage rather than losing because of it. It meant expanding outreach to right-of-center leaders. And it meant admitting that the movement’s leadership was stale and—like its messaging—spending most of its time communicating with supporters who were already convinced instead of with the moveable middle.
Funding targeted campaigns
The major decision that grew out of this checklist exercise was to persuade funders and activists that, to achieve their goal, they needed to run this effort like a political campaign. Or, as one supporter put it, “We told ourselves that politics wasn’t a bad thing.” The enormity of the challenge demanded that the movement create a new way to integrate public education, advocacy, political, and legal strategies. With that acknowledgement came a strategic shift based on a master plan to pass new laws—a mix of domestic partnerships, civil unions, and marriage equality in a significant number of states, over a relatively short period of time.
This culminated in a complex combination of political, cultural, and philanthropic work involving countless organizations, activists, donors, and strategists who, despite setbacks and mounting opposition, fought tirelessly until they succeeded.
As The Atlantic magazine summarized these tactics:
The marriage campaign’s major innovation was fusing litigation with a political campaign, using lawsuits and state-level political victories to reinforce one another. The combination worked to create an impression of momentum even as the tide of public opinion gradually turned.
Beyond campaigning, the leadership also took a hard look at the message they were delivering. As a rule, few social sector donors invest enough in polling, message testing, and focus groups to hone emotionally resonant messages to target audiences. But the Gill Foundation’s Tim Gill and other philanthropists who supported LGBT rights understood this building-block approach. With the encouragement of movement leaders like attorney and Freedom to Marry Founder Evan Wolfson, they began devoting significant resources to the focused objective of legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide rather than the more diffuse goal of “advancing LGBT rights.” By achieving marriage equality, the leadership believed that the broader rights cause would also advance dramatically.
Choosing words that compel
Yet even this new approach had significant messaging challenges it needed to overcome. Supporters of same-sex marriage floundered until they devised a core message with emotional appeal to the voting public.
In the aftermath of a 2008 ballot initiative loss in California, funders supported polling and focus groups to help the movement understand why their core message wasn’t resonating. Results showed that many voters perceived the movement as driven by same-sex couples’ desire for access to the government benefits and rights related to marriage. That insight was pivotal. The leadership’s uncomfortable realization was that they’d created an echo chamber: The messaging that marriage rights would lead to other rights worked with gays, but fell flat with straights, who talked about marriage in terms of love and family instead of a collection of rights.
The movement rebuilt its communications strategy around a universally appealing message that marriage matters to gay people in similar ways that it matters to everyone. Gay and lesbian couples want to get married to make a lifetime commitment to the person they love and to protect their families. This altered approach appealed to a wide swath of the American public. State victories began to pile up over the coming years, including state legislative wins, four ballot victories in 2012, and a rapid number of court victories, each growing public and political support for marriage equality. This culminated with the US Supreme Court’s ruling in 2015 that granted marriage equality nationwide. The marriage equality victory simultaneously advanced the broader LGBT rights agenda in ways that were faster and would not have been possible without it.
As to the messaging that emerged, it turned out that appealing to the heart proved even more important than changing minds based on facts and data. Following the ruling, Justice Anthony Kennedy captured this sentiment in his majority opinion:
No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.