Insights from insiders of the marriage equality movement

I’m writing a book about six years of running GlobalGiving’s Storytelling project and the story-centered learning method it spawned. This is a transcript from an amazing 2014 NTEN lecture from the people who changed minds of a nation. Learn what it took during the years leading up to that day when Facebook was taken over by red Human Rights Campaign logos.

marriage equality emergence

My comments appear inline in [brackets].

I’m going to talk about how we got from where we were ten years ago, with 38% support, 59% opposed, to where we are now, and what’s happened over the last couple of years.

In 2012 marriage equality won at the ballot four times. In 2013 we doubled the number of states where same sex couples have the freedom to marry. And in that year the supreme court struck down DOMA, the defense of marriage act. Last week a Washington Post poll showed we have 59% support, with 34% opposed. In under ten years we reversed the percent opposed to be percent in support for the freedom to marry. The LA times said that this was the fastest moving civil rights movement in American history.

What changed?

I’m gonna show you an example of the kind of ad we were using ten years ago. At the time this was based on our best research on messaging at the time. The fault doesn’t lie with the folks to created the ad.

Face of an old white male judge:


The constitution is supposed to protect everyone. That will change if constitutional amendment 36 passes. Whenever we meddle with the constitution, there are onforeseen consequences. 36 could deny gay and lesbian couples the right to visit one another in the hospital, or the right to keep their family home if one of them dies. That is not fair.
Don’t use the constitution to hurt people. Vote no for constitutional amendment 36 [in Oregon].

What did you notice about that ad? Comments from audience included:
– old white guy
– only talking about rights
– other people
– looked like a political ad
– said constitution five time.

At that time, the opposition was running images like this screen shot here, which features an adorable family, with an even more adorable little baby, which you can’t really see against the warm overlay of sunshine which is hazing all around this adorable family. So at the time we were talking about rights, the constitution, and speaking for other people, the opposition was talking about it in the context of family, taking care of children, and everything was wrapped in this hazy glow of mom, the flag, baseball, and apple pie.

After 30 consecutive losses over that decade, we did a serious analysis of what we were doing. We were going in ready to radically tear everything apart. Around 2010, we joined a broad coalition of groups working on this topic and studied all the information we’d gotten before from focus groups, surveys, forms, etc, and hired a firm to dig into it. We knew how our side talked about marriage bans, but we needed for find out how Americans at large were talking about marriage. It’s not just about being able to talk to gay folks, cause they’re on our side. We needed to speak in language that resonated with those most strongly opposed to us.

We needed to respond to concerns of conflicted voters. Among those concerns were, “are my kids going to be taught about homosexuality in school?” And “will this affect my marriage?” – as if somebody else getting married would affect your marriage. We developed new messaging and tested it.

We found we needed to tell stories of gay people who wanted to marry. We asked straight people – our target market – “why did you want to get married?” They gave reasons such as love, commitment, family, e.g. all those warm positive things reflected in that image from the opposition. We also asked them why gay people wanted to get married. They said it was for the rights, for the benefits, for what they could get out of the system, or to further their own political agenda. They saw themselves wanting to get married because that’s what you do when you find a person that you love, and they thought gay people were in it for what they could get out of it.

We also found that couldn’t just say, “gay people want to get married for the same reasons as straight couples.” It didn’t work. We had to say, “for a similar mix of reasons.” That worked. But after years of this message, after many more straight Americans started to see gay people as just people, we could simplify that message. [This messaging had not only secured rights, but also humanized gay people to the country.]

We also found that core values like freedom and the golden rule were also really important. This is how you talk about the issue with my conservative Republican dad in Texas – the Tea Partier – that makes for fun family conversation.

We also needed to tell journey stories. How people who started off being opposed or unsure on the issue, and how they got to where they support marriage equality. The most famous journey story to date is the story of president Obama coming out in support of marriage equality.

We needed to reassure parents that they would still teach children their values at home.

This next ad ran in New Mexico in Jan 2014.

[Opens with an image of a mother]
“My husband and I were married for 56 years. He was in the service, and we raised 6 children to have the freedom to decide their own lives.”
[Cut to her lesbian daughter]
“It’s just amazing how happy someone can make somebody else, and I believe that gay and lesbian couples should be able to marry.”
[Cut to a man, father?]
“In New Mexico we live by the Golden Rule-”
“-which means to treat others the way you’d like to be treated.”
“-Which includes the freedom to marry.”
Mom: “I want you to have the freedom to marry, just like your sister does.”
[end commercial]
“Okay, I love that mom so much!”

What was different in this ad?
– showed a gay person
– much more colorful imagery
– intimate story from a multigenerational Latino family
– no old white dudes

Our model is Research, test, refine, and scale.

There was a marriage bill that failed in 2009, because we weren’t doing what we needed to. So we formed “New Yorkers United for Marriage” in 2011.
Rather than this being just individual groups going about their thing, trying to pass a marriage bill, we brought together state organizations (both LGBT and non-LGBT) to leverage their individual organizational skills as part of a coordinated strategy with the soul goal of passing the freedom to marry bill.

We all worked together in a campaign that included earned media, grassroots organizing, digital media, high level political contacts and lobbying, as well as third party validators.

We focused on winning over conservative people in key districts in order to win. We elevated those messages of the Golden Rule, Freedom, etc using third party validators – independent non-gay elected officials – and used their constituents to engage them and win them over. And we won.

We realized that the kinds of messengers that we needed to amplify our story are people that other people can identify with. They can’t be seen as activists.

We highlighted key categories.

Gay military families – to show how DOMA hurts people, we put gay military families on display. Freedom to marry ran a campaign – Freedom to serve, freedom to marry.

Binational couples – because nothing shows just how harmful DOMA is to families than showing that couples could be separated simply because one person was born in the US and one person was not.

We put on display couples with kids – families – because one of the arguments that the opposition had been putting out is that its just these hedonistic gay people wanting to fulfill a political agenda and achieve some kind of rights. But marriage is not about achieving an agenda, it’s about taking care of our families.

Older couples – who speak to, in the public imagination that gay people are usually 20-something white men, when we know there are couples like Richard and John who’d been together to 62 years. And we elevated elected leaders like mayors and public officials.

And we created “Young conservatives for the freedom to marry” to start to move the Republican Party from within.

[Each was chosen to counter a public misconception with a specific target auduence. Each ad featured a compelling story about the issue being life and death important.]

We used journey stories.

In May of 2012 the president gave an exclusive interview to Robin Roberts (who later came out as a lesbian) to announce his support for the freedom to marry. In order to get the president from where he was to where he wanted to be, we started with a sign-on letter which allowed both the general public to participate as well as key celebraties like Ellen Degeneres, Jack Dorsey (twitter co-founder) and Chris Hugh (Facebook co-founder), a former President Bartlet from New Hampshire, and others. By choosing groups with influence in each of those target categories, we were able to get coverage in tech, business, and Hollywood entertainment media – earned media. We ran Facebook ads with these celebrities to engage their fans. We could then talk about this ground swell of support to get Obama to “come out” in support.
One key argument we made was that Obama needed to energize progressive and millennial voters to win that November, so we got letters from both Bush and Obama making that case – that this was the way to energize millennial voters. We got Senators to call the president. Once the President came out in support, we switched to the Democratic Party and got its platform changed.

We perform best in coalitions.

We formed the respect for marriage coalition as we were heading into supreme court oral arguments. We provided opportunities to our supporters to act on an almost daily basis over social media, as well as in person. We chose the color red as the color – the color of love – to unite all of our messaging under one umbrella. It was easy for people to connect with. Visually you just get it. “Tell us why you’re going red.”

Just before the supreme court hearings that we would take our ubiquitous equality logo (Human Rights Campaign) and change it to a red logo everywhere – including facebook – on March 25th. Next morning, our site was down. I thought it was just a few supporters that had followed our lead and people in our liberal bubble. It wasn’t until I saw grumpy cat change its logo to the red equality sign that I said, “guys, I think we did something here. This is really something.”

Later in California the Facebook data scientists wake up. They realize all of their profile photos have been taken over by a red equality sign. They had no idea what was going on. That day 120% more people changed their logo than on any other day – making it the biggest Facebook campaign up to then. They sent up a map of the world, and where people had changed their logos. We had wide scale support. Every back yard was touched by this logo – from Texas to Arkansas to Minnesota to California – people went red for marriage equality.

For about a week the red logo poured into living rooms across the country. This was important because it was engaging families who otherwise felt completely untouched by the marriage equality debate. I just love the idea that people sitting around the dinner table that have never talked about gay people before have CNN on in the background and see the red logo and it starts a conversation. We’re in the business of changing hearts and minds.

I’ll share one of those many stories. This one is about Justin, a gay Arkansas soldier. When Justin came out to his mom, they didn’t speak for months. On that Tuesday Justin’s mom posted the red logo to her Facebook page, with this message:

“As Justin’s mom, I may like his lifestyle choices. But he knows he has my support in whatever he does. We may not agree on his choices but he’s still my baby, and you don’t mess with one of my cubs. I love you so much Justin, and I’m proud of who you are.”

Justin wrote to us. “This is the first time I’ve felt true love from my mom.”
[End Transcript]

Play All Delighted People (hybrid remix)

Full audio of this is available at

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