In 2004, the outlook for marriage equality was bleak. The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act restricted the definition of marriage to one man and one woman for federal purposes, and 60 percent of Americans opposed same-sex marriage. Framing the issue in terms of protecting the constitutional rights of same-sex couples—though ultimately vindicated by the Supreme Court—consistently failed to move enough voters and legislators. Advocates were searching for new solutions.
After decades of losses in legislatures and at the ballot box, advocates for marriage equality needed a new message.
The Human Rights Campaign asked our team to help turn the tide. We began by exploring the emotional dynamics of marriage equality among a crucial segment of the population: those who favored equal rights for LGBT Americans but remained opposed to marriage equality. Research showed that most of these voters thought of marriage not in terms of legal rights and benefits, but as a long-term commitment between two people. When these voters understood that same-sex couples held the same hopes, they became much more likely to support marriage equality.
Armed with this powerful insight, our clients in the marriage movement began to shift their messaging from protecting legal rights to promoting the aspirational values of “love and commitment.” In Massachusetts, our team worked with MassEquality—a grassroots advocacy organization—to protect marriage equality by defeating a proposed constitutional amendment that would have denied gay and lesbian couples the right to marry. The campaign helped persuade 60 percent of the state’s voters—and the 151 legislators who voted down the discriminatory amendment.
Ads such as this used the love and commitment frame to help defeat a discriminatory amendment in Massachusetts.
Advocates subsequently employed the “love and commitment” framework to help defeat the Federal Marriage Amendment in Congress, advance marriage equality in state legislatures, and win ballot measures in multiple states.
A focus on “love and commitment” won over voters who were skeptical of marriage equality but favored equal rights for LGBT Americans.
Building on that momentum, Freedom to Marry asked our team to help educate leaders in national politics and the news media about the new politics of marriage equality. We brought together pollsters for President Obama and former President George W. Bush to analyze national survey data, produced a briefing at the National Press Club, and reached out to our network of leaders in Democratic politics and political journalism. This work helped open eyes in Washington, D.C. and change the narrative about an issue that had long been considered a third rail in American politics.
Ultimately, the “love and commitment” frame helped create a climate for historic progress: In 2011, for the first time, more than 50 percent of Americans said they supported marriage equality. And in 2015, the Supreme Court made marriage equality the law of the land.