Messaging in the Movement for Marriage Equality

November 29, 2017 in inQueery

As with any social movement that has become well established, the modern gay rights movement is multi-faceted and is working a variety of issues.  Some of these include discriminatory practices in the workplace and the military, adoption rights for same-sex couples, heath-care deficiencies (especially related to AIDS research and treatment), homelessness, and violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT)-identified individuals. Perhaps the most prominent of these issues in the United States in the last 15 years, however, was the passage of legislation to allow same-sex couples the right to marry.

As most people know, the Supreme Court settled the legal uncertainties with their 2013 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which required all states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. However, in order to get there, the marriage equality movement spent years reaching out to legislative bodies and voters.

Although this work occurred primarily at the level of state legislative and judicial systems prior to 2008, between then and the 2013 court decision, voters were increasingly being asked to vote on whether same-sex couples ought to be allowed to marry.  Thus, the gay rights movement worked to develop rhetoric and strategies in order to appeal to different kinds of voters.  Initially, the language employed by the movement for marriage equality dealt primarily with the rights and benefits associated with marriage, and the discriminatory nature of the exclusion of same-sex couples.  However, the movement was unable to gain any traction using this language, and, prior to 2012, lost every ballot measure that dealt with the issue.  

Starting in 2008, movement leaders began to develop a new form of rhetoric and set of techniques for speaking to voters, which attempted to cultivate and engage voters’ emotional perceptions.  In keeping with this new form of rhetoric, the prior language of rights and benefits was largely replaced by a focus on love and commitment, and the changing of hearts rather than just minds.  

Prior to the 2012 campaigns for same-sex marriage in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington, the primary messaging being employed by pro-marriage equality campaigns focused on the numerous rights and benefits conferred by marriage.  Campaign staff and volunteers emphasized hospital visitation rights, adoption rights, and a myriad of other legal benefits and distinctions. This discourse of legalistic discrimination, of rights, benefits, and responsibilities, was the sum total of the campaign’s messaging.

In addition, pro-marriage equality organization’s canvassing efforts focused exclusively on supporter identification.  Campaign organizations typically had very little interaction with opposition voters related to marriage initiatives, and no concerted effort was made to convince opposition voters to change their position.

One of the pitfalls of the rhetorical strategy and voter interaction model being deployed by the pro-marriage equality movement was that they were not conducive to changing the hearts and minds of voters.  After all, the extent of the messaging seems to have been designed only to convince voters that withholding legal benefits constituted discriminatory practice, not to alter voters’ more visceral perceptions of marriage for same-sex couples or, for that matter, of LGBT-identified individuals in general.  

After a multitude of failures at ballot boxes across the nation, it became clear to marriage equality advocates that their strategy needed to be revamped. In 2009, marriage equality organizations, including Equality California, the Leadership LAB, and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, with the assistance of think tanks, such as Grove Insight, set about to study the problems facing the movement and to try to devise a solution.  The end result of this process is known as “persuasion canvassing,” which utilizes in-depth, one-on-one conversation and complex messaging designed to target voters’ emotions in order to alter the perceptions and attributions of supporters and opponents alike.


Leadership LAB training for LA canvassers.

To understand persuasion canvassing, one must first understand that it had a twofold goal: persuasion canvassers sought not only to change an individual’s vote, but also to leave the voter with a more positive view of gay and lesbian people in general. The focus of persuasion canvassing was on building a bedrock of understanding such that even if a canvasser was unable to convince a voter to support marriage equality, they would strive to leave the voter feeling more supportive of LGBT-identified individuals.

In order to achieve these tandem goals, the movement began to replace the prior rhetoric of rights and benefits with a rhetoric of love and commitment, emphasizing the power of emotional language to change voters’ hearts and minds.  This was the core of the persuasion canvass.  The hope was that, by using emotional language, the voter would be better able to relate to gay and lesbian individuals and would thereby achieve a more visceral understanding of why marriage is so important to same-sex couples.  The movement posited that this more visceral understanding would change people’s votes, or at least contribute to durable attitude change.  

Importantly, persuasion canvassing necessitated that opponents not be spoken with, but actively sought out and targeted.  After all, it was impossible to change the views of the community-at-large if canvassers were only talking to supporters.  Moreover, from a pragmatic perspective, the repeated failures at the ballot box indicated that some opponents were clearly needed as a swing bloc.  

In order to accomplish this task, marriage equality organizations hired canvassers, people to go door-to-door and talk through the complex, emotional issues surrounding marriage for same-sex couples with opposition voters.  Canvassers were taught that they were most effective when they both used their personal narratives of why marriage for same-sex couples was important to them and listened to and incorporated the personal stories of the individuals to whom they were talking. Persuasion canvasses focused on using individuals’ stories to elicit an emotional response.  Their job was to make the issue as human as possible, such that voters could more easily connect with it.  

Real stories connect better, so canvassers practiced crafting and telling stories about people they knew—whether about themselves, family, friends, or others—in order to appeal to many different kinds of voters.  Canvassers even received specific training sessions in which they practiced telling these stories to their colleagues to gauge the emotional impact.  All content has potential emotional impact, but knowing how and when to tell which pieces was important.  Some voters are deeply touched by narratives that involve the loss of a loved one, while others are moved more by the vision of two people trying to build a supportive, protective home for a child.

The most essential aspect of delivery, however, was the conveyance of authentic emotional ties that the canvasser had to a particular individual. People rarely want to discuss legal codes; instead, they want to hear human stories.  In general, the most effective stories centered on the themes of love and commitment, emphasizing that same-sex couples could and did have the same love and commitment for each other that some straight couples did.

Canvassers not only opened themselves up emotionally, but also tapped into and perhaps even manipulated voters’ emotions.  Crucially, the persuasion canvass was an interactive dialogue in which the voter and the voter’s concerns drove the flow of conversation.  As such, there were many possible avenues of discussion; however, the core questions that were used to initiate conversations and that were asked of nearly every voter generally centered around two main topics: questions about the voter’s experiences with gay and lesbian people and questions about their experiences with marriage.  

These were two basic areas to which most people could relate and which allowed for an opening up of discussion, the ultimate goal of which was to forge connections between these two arenas in the minds of voters. By drawing attention to and framing these personal connections, persuasion canvassers could both reinforce more favorable attitudes and, by  connecting those people to marriage, could help voters to achieve a visceral understanding of why same-sex couples wanted the right to marry.  Canvassers were taught to address all concerns in a down-to-earth, non-abstract, unstructured, emotional way so that the voter was thinking with their heart and not only with their head.  

The relatively small community of marriage equality activists came to understand that it had to make marriage equality about “everyone else.”  In other words, in order to convince voters, activists needed to draw direct connections between marriage equality, the lives of LGBT individuals, and the lives of (non-LGBT) voters.  This is part of the reason that the persuasion rhetoric focused so heavily on the voters’ own experiences with marriage and the people in their lives who were gay or lesbian.  Voters who were thinking about how happy they would be when their close friends were finally able marry were much more pliable and understanding than voters who were thinking abstractly and unemotionally about generic same-sex couples.  

Considered in a different light, the movement for marriage equality, in essence, realized that people do not make voting decisions on their own.  Instead, voters base their decision-making on their environment.  Thus social movements have had the opportunity to frame issues such as marriage equality if they were able to connect with voters.  The movement for marriage equality elected to do so by hiring persuasion canvassers to have one-on-one conversations with proponents and opponents alike in order to ensure that their messaging was reaching as many people as possible.  

In particular, the movement attempted to alter people’s attributions related to marriage for same-sex couples to create effects that reverberated in people’s personal lives and, hopefully, ultimately on the way they voted.  Persuasion conversations were solely attempts to elicit positive emotional reactions in voters, thereby reinforcing positive emotional reactions, altering cognitive beliefs, and shaping moral evaluations related to marriage equality and the LGBT community.   The end result, marriage advocates hoped, was the creation of a more positive cultural backdrop for marriage for same-sex couples, with the passage of marriage equality legislation as almost a side effect.  

Interestingly, negative emotions (i.e. anger related to discriminatory treatment) were insufficient to effect change.  This may have been because marriage equality advocates were unable to evoke sufficiently strong anger or because the case they were making was too legalistic, or perhaps because they were countered by the fear being evoked by opposition groups.  Regardless, positive emotions seemed to work much more effectively for the pro-marriage equality movement than anger ever did.

According to the marriage equality advocates, persuasion canvasses and the tactics that go along with them (e.g. positive emotional targeting) created a tipping point between losing at the ballot box and winning. Forging emotional connections with voters seemed to change both the hearts and the minds of voters, resulting not only in a more positive view of gay and lesbian people, but also changes in voting behavior.  

Clearly, there was a tremendous shift in pro-marriage equality movement’s approach to policy enactment.  It went from using the rhetoric of rights and benefits, which appealed to people’s intellects, to language surrounding love and commitment, which was intended to resonate with people emotionally.  It also went from trying to solely mobilize supporters to reaching out to opponents, especially those who supported some form of legal recognition, but who were initially hesitant to apply the term “marriage” to same-sex couples.  This shift was a product of greater experience in trying to pass legislation. The movement started with a moral vision, developed a particular political goal (i.e. marriage equality), and tried to create organizational forms and tactics that coincided with that vision and that would eventually bring about the realization of that goal.

As we know, in the end the Supreme Court decided to rule in favor of marriage for same-sex couples, and public support for marriage equality in the US gained 27 percentage points between 2001 and 2017 according to polling done by the Pew Research Center. The turning point between the majority of Americans being opposed to the majority being in favor of marriage for same-sex couples occurred in 2011, as persuasion canvassing was reaching its peak. However, subsequent sociological research has suggested that voters who spoke with persuasion canvassers did not evidence statistically significant changes in their voting habits, which differs with the data collected by campaigns.

Whether or not the shift in messaging was the catalyst for public opinion and legal shifts in the last 15 years may never be clear. What is clear is that LGBT advocates will never stop working on changing hearts and minds, and in this case, something worked.




Vivianne Swerdlow is a Visiting Writer at InQueery.