October 31, 2006
'Marriage' Seems to Be the Hardest Word
Posted by: Chris
Why does the pro-gay side have such a hard time saying "the 'M' word" when the anti-gay side is trying to ban us from 'M'-ing?
Take Wisconsin, for example, which is shaping up as the top battleground state among the eight that have gay marriage constitutional amendments on the ballot next Tuesday. Both sides have sizable advertising war chests. Even Sir Elton John got into the action, donating $20,000 to Fair Wisconsin, the group that's fighting the measure, which would also block the state from offering civil unions.
Polls suggest the vote may be very close; a survey released Monday showed 50 percent favoring the measure and 46 percent opposing, within the margin of error. Unfortunately, polls have historically undercounted those who end up against gay marriage in the only poll that matters, on Election Day.
Even more unfortunately, both sides are reverting to their usual tactics, which will likely yield the usual result: a lopsided victory for gay marriage opponents, who are 19 out of 19 states thus far. As in the past, well-intentioned gay marriage advocates in Wisconsin are afraid to make their own arguments, so instead they try to convince voters that the measure goes too far. The Associated Press reports:
One Fair Wisconsin ad features a McFarland farmer named Arlyn, who says he's opposed to gay marriage. "But I'm not here to judge somebody else," he says. "I think this ban on gay marriage goes too far, affects too many people and is unfair. They're not hurting me, why should I hurt them?"
I've criticized this strategy ever since the Human Rights Campaign first tried it during the Hawaii marriage battle almost a decade ago, in an ad featuring a popular retired general who opposed gay marriage but also opposed "writing discrimination into the constitution." These amendments are about gay marriage, and we can't run from that fight. As Evan Wolfson, who won Hawaii marriage in court only to see his victory overruled on the ballot, has written:
So far, too many of our state campaigns — both the short-term election efforts and the longer-term public education work — fail to offer the voting public real content and an authentic engagement. Too often they have not used the airtime of an election battle to talk about gay people and marriage — the two things these ballot measures are most about — instead relying on generic appeals to fairness.
Too many of our side's campaigns have chosen to emphasize collateral effects on non-gay families, as if voters will really be persuaded that what the media will always refer to as "the marriage amendment" is somehow not about gay people's freedom to marry. Worst of all, many campaigns and activists have gone with the message that people should vote the measure down simply because it is "unnecessary" or "goes too far." That subliminally suggests — unintentionally, but in a way that is still damaging to our long-term movement — that some discrimination is OK and that it would indeed be a problem if we really did have gay couples marrying.
That's exactly the mistake they're making in Wisconsin, probably led astray by partisan political strategists who are really interested in making the marriage amendment about anything other than gay couples marrying because they're more afraid of motivating evangelical conservatives than they are of swaying moderates.
Worst of all, as Evan points out, this strategy of changing the subject leaves the education effort we must do on marriage for another day, when the public is focused on the issue here and now. Having ceded the real subject of the debate, all the anti-gay side has to do is play to the "yuck factor." In Hawaii, it was two men walking on a beach wearing tuxedos, holding hands. In Wisconsin, it's all about the children. Again, from AP:
One ad, which hit the air Monday, shows children struggling to explain same-sex relationships. "[God] should have created Anna and Eve," one child says, while another concludes, "I'm confused."
Yes it's political demagoguery at it's worst. It's also likely to be very effective, especially when the pro-gay side is giving over precious airtime to likable Wisconsinites who also oppose gay marriage. As Andrew Sullivan put it:
We will not win until we are unafraid. I believe civil marriage for gay couples is moral, it is right, it is good for society — and anything less is immoral, wrong and bad for society as a whole. … Let us make this case - calmly, honestly, openly. And we will win — for one reason only. Because we are right.
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