Why America Won’t Give You Gay Marriage: You’re Saying It Wrong

Did you know that the reason you don’t have same-sex marriage legalized in this land is because you keep referring to your goal as “rights,” rather than “loving commitments,” or some equally glossy phrase? Your attempt to brainwash Americans into getting behind your special rights is all about messaging, and you’re doing it wrong!

So claim Lanae Erickson and Jon Cowan of the progressive think tank Third Way:

“What do we want? EQUAL RIGHTS! When do we want them? NOW!” Catchy — but it doesn’t sound much like a wedding vow. When couples make that lifetime commitment to each other in front of friends and family on one of the biggest days of their lives, few of them cite the 1,138 federal rights they will gain by making the promise of marriage. And the words “tax benefits” rarely come up in the best man’s toast.

Yet “rights and benefits” are what the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender (LGBT) community has been using as its lead argument for decades. Recently, however, there’s been a significant shift in the movement, one that is evident in the debate around marriage in Maryland. Rather than focusing on the legal rights and benefits of marriage — such as Social Security payments, spousal health care coverage and joint tax filing — many advocates have begun to emphasize the personal aspects of the marital bond, like commitment and responsibility. This paradigm shift was based on more than just savvy intuition; it’s grounded in substantial public opinion research.

What sort of research might that be?

At Third Way, for example, we went beyond traditional polling and conducted a series of innovative and intensive one-on-one interviews — akin to the sort of market research tool used by the Fortune 500. Those interviews proved revelatory and have profound implications for extending marriage to lesbian and gay couples. We started with a simple question: “What does marriage mean to you?” People spoke of the kinds of things you hear in a wedding ceremony: lifetime commitment, responsibility and fidelity. They called marriage “a big step” and “the most important decision of one’s life.” Nobody talked about legal rights or taxes.

Then we asked them why gay people might want to get married. The overwhelming answer? “I don’t know.” But when we probed deeper, we found that they did have some idea — they had heard the messages from LGBT advocates. They would talk about how gay couples want rights, benefits, equality and fairness. Not surprisingly, that led them to the idea of civil unions, because they told us that if you want legal rights, you should have a legal contract. But that (in their minds) had nothing to do with marriage.

To them, all the talk about rights indicated that gay couples “just don’t get it” — that they couldn’t really understand the true purpose of marriage. This feeling was reinforced by images many had seen of gay weddings held en masse, some during raucous gay pride parades. One research subject was particularly upset by a picture we showed of a lesbian couple getting married because the women were wearing jeans. He observed that he and his wife had taken six months to plan their wedding, and said: “To me, it looks like they called up the day before and said, ‘Hey, do you want to go get married?'” Those interviewed saw a wedding as a joyful but weighty occasion, freighted with solemn, lifelong vows.

It’s not a foreign concept; it’s easier to get behind a civil rights issue when you are able to identify and find common ground with the group of people hoping to be freed from discrimination. And yet, something with this “rights and benefits” strategy must be working, at least just a tiny bit. The latest polling data has 53 percent of Americans supporting legal gay marriage, which is up from up from 47 percent last year.

Which doesn’t men I disagree with Erickson and Cowan’s theorizing. I agree the issue of marriage equality needs to be humanized, and not rooted only in semantics about filing tax returns and sharing child custody. But there’s also something very charged about removing love and romance from the marriage equality conversation entirely — given that many heteros don’t ever want to think about two guys kissing, or two girls pleasuring each other — and painting the debate very plainly: heterosexuals have something that homosexuals do not, and that’s not right.