As the same-sex marriage debate gains momentum, Anita Chabria finds that groups on both sides are boosting their communications efforts to attract new supporters.
The debate over same-sex marriage is one of the dominant stories on the news landscape today. Both those opposed to the concept and those fighting for it are entrenched in a war of ideologies and words, knowing that the outcome will have a significant impact on US culture one way or another. And unlike some political and social issues where compromise is the eventual result, this fight will have a winner and a loser. It's a zero-sum game.
With stakes that high, it's no surprise that it's a heated battleground where communications tactics have evolved from simple organization and unity to crisis plans meant to refocus the debate entirely. Is it civil rights, equal rights, or special rights? Religion or government? Something old or something new?
While the two sides don't agree on much, they do agree that 2004 is the critical year, when the debate will be pushed in new directions and maybe even to resolution. That reality has brought new energy to both camps.
And despite the great divide separating their goals, both sides share similar communications challenges in reaching out to educate their supporters and draw new voices into the debate.
"Hope and crisis motivate, and for the first time in my memory, they are both working simultaneously," says Connie Ress, head of pro-same-sex marriage group Marriage Equality USA, of the current climate around the issue.
Two sides of the issue
For the concept's supporters, developments like the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision in favor of their cause and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's issuing of marriage licenses have brought a new optimism and urgency to their fight. Only a few years ago, civil unions seemed radical, and even those faced a tough battle for acceptance.
For those against same-sex marriages, the exact developments that have buoyed the pro camp have created crisis in their groups, softened only by the hope that a constitutional amendment can give them an end run around a growing body of judicial and legislative decisions in favor of such unions.
The challenge is turning the issue from a cold political debate to one that matters to individuals, say activists on both sides.
"You have to answer, 'What does this mean to me personally?'" says Tom McClusky, director of government affairs for conservative group Family Research Council. "How does this affect marriage? How does this affect my state?"
For McClusky and others against gay and lesbian marriages, that means speaking out not only about what they believe marriage is - the special union between a man and a woman - but also uniting around President Bush's proposed Federal Marriage Amendment. That measure is a central rallying point for conservative groups and, says McClusky, much of their internal-communication efforts have gone toward gaining support for it across groups.
The efforts also have sought to educate conservative brethren and sympathetic politicians on why it presents their best option.
That leaves conservative opponents of same-sex marriage focusing more on political and grassroots outreach, and giving less energy to media relations. Peter Brandt, director of Focus on the Family, says that is a conscious choice based on the conservative opinion that the media is not giving their side a fair hearing.
"The problem of course with that is the media by and large is not only not supportive of what we would stand for - they are hostile towards it," he says. "There is no question about it. With the exception of Fox News and occasionally MSNBC and a lot of the AM radio talk hosts, the level of bias on this issue is absolutely incredible."
Looking for support
McClusky adds that conservative groups also are making a push to include other voices in their fight, drawing support from unexpected supporters, such as Jewish, Muslim, and minority leaders. While these contingents have traditionally not had alliances with the right wing, conservatives are making a push to find common ground in an effort to expand the issue beyond their Christian base by reaching out at the local level to community leaders.
"Locally you ask who among the Jewish community, who among the Muslim community would be willing to step up and speak out," says McClusky.
In fact, one of the most contentious debates between the two sides centers on whether same-sex marriages are a civil-rights issue, a debate sparked by conservative allies in the African-American community. In recent weeks, black leaders like Jesse Jackson have spoken out, saying that the battle for African-American's civil rights should not be compared to this fight. Other African-Americans have spoken out in support of the comparison.
The media has covered both sides, but same-sex marriage advocates say that the civil-rights issue is a ploy perpetuated by the opposition to refocus the debate and create a crisis for them to deal with.
"I think it is actually a very orchestrated message point from the right wing," says Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry and one of the leaders of the movement.
Ress agrees. "It's not us," she says. "We are not sitting here saying we are like slaves. I'm not suggesting that nobody is saying that, but we are not collectively saying that. This is coming from white-based conservative groups because they want to divide groups. All we are saying is that we have a lot to learn from the civil rights movements."
Groups fighting to legalize gay and lesbian marriage say that their challenge is also to make the issue personal, but their tactics have involved a great deal of media outreach along with grassroots and lobbying efforts.
When it comes to speaking to their support base, one of the challenges has been to educate them on why marriage should be important to them and why civil unions don't cut it. Ress says her group has focused on explaining the difference between civil unions and marriages in specific contexts to specific constituents, such as elderly couples who might not have the same health and security benefits, or AIDS patients. That education also extends to the media.
"There was a time when reporters didn't know the difference between civil marriages and civil unions, not even The New York Times," says Ress.
Both sides are also acutely aware of the election season. As the presidential race heats up, conservative forces say they will make sure the public knows where the candidates stand. When it comes to Kerry, "we want to make it perfectly clear what his position is," says McClusky.
The scrutiny many politicians will face around this issue in coming months, however, makes many nervous about committing to a position. McClusky says that conservative groups plan on putting pressure on elected officials by encouraging constituents to make their voices heard through letters and other contact.
"A lot of the congressmen are reluctant to address the issue unless there is a groundswell of support," he says.
But that political pressure doesn't worry pro-same-sex marriage activists.
"Politicians have never been at the forefront of civil rights movements, although certainly there are voices of leadership," says Wolfson.