I had the lucky opportunity to attend Netroots Nation in Providence over the weekend, including a panel on all the marriage equality ballot initiatives coming up, complete with leaders from this year’s state campaigns to defend (or in Maine’s case, restore) marriage equality.
The campaigns are all in full gear, with lots of emphasis on the grassroots. There was a lot to like about where they’re heading. That said, I’m not going to lie. I wasn’t completely happy.
Why? After a decade of lousy ads, in which our pro-equality groups feared putting gay people on tv, to talk about how these draconian initiatives will impact their lives in ways that anyone could understand, I asked the panel if any changes were going to be made in the media campaign going forward.
That’s when Maine’s campaign representative led a vociferous defense of these ads, emphatic about their effectiveness. /facepalm
I’ll be fair and explain his reasoning. He insisted that featuring straight allies is the only way to reach undecideds, the straight people on the fence — and undecideds are, in large part, the people who will decide these elections.
Well, fair enough. Those people are incredibly important; we’re not going to win an election without a lot of them. No one doubts that.
Here’s the problem: if the way to get these undecideds was through ads featuring straight allies or other ads that don’t feature gay couples, wouldn’t it be working? It’s not.
Here’s the uncomfortable truth: Gay people and our straight allies have never won a marriage equality ballot initiative. Not even once. Even worse, the far more draconian anti-anything laws that ban all benefits and protections for gay couples, like sharing health care, are all but undefeated, losing in Arizona an election cycle before they won again.
Obviously, the ads we’ve been pushing year after year aren’t working. It’s well past time to go back to the drawing board.
To do that, let’s take a look at what’s happening on tv in these elections:
Our opponents are spending tens of millions on ads basically telling voters that gay people are unsafe around kids. I’m not even exaggerating: that’s literally the opposition’s strategy, and it’s worked, time and time again.
We, on the other hand, are showing the public, by not featuring gay people in our ads, that we’re afraid of what people think about us — that we’re embarrassed to be gay. Does anyone else see the disaster there?
While most people aren’t ‘high information voters,’ that doesn’t mean they aren’t savvy at reading these ads and seeing one campaign that’s strong and confident in what it says, and the other afraid and tepid. Most people may be too busy or lazy to pay attention to the facts, including study after study that proves us right and bigots wrong, but they aren’t dumb.
If we don’t come out loud, strong and proud, we’re not going to win. At least not in 2012.
So, I know the Maine campaign — like all the other pro-equality campaigns before it — think they’re doing the right thing, but they need to realize that while their strategy is right (going after straight people on the fence), their tactics in accomplishing it are a dismal failure.
They need to understand a universal truth to any message: The messenger is only as effective as their ability to deliver it.
Grandma talking about how she loves her gay grandson is nice, but it isn’t as effective as a gay person talking about how his beloved partner has cancer and will lose his insurance — and possibly life — if equality is defeated.
The people who are most impacted by a decision are most capable of delivering the message in a thirty second ad. We don’t make that Grandma the center of a candidate’s TV campaign to win an election; we shouldn’t be doing it with marriage equality, either.
Don’t get me wrong: If you are a straight ally, THANK YOU. I am in no way discounting your role to play — including your stories. They are incredibly important.
If we win in Maine or anywhere else, it’s going to be because you straight allies — our friends and family — love us so much that you’re crazy enough to spend hours on end knocking on doors, calling people up on the phone and huddling around the water cooler to tell your stories.
But when it comes to TV, candidates are the only ones capable of getting out their message, commercial after commercial — and, whether gay people such as myself like it or not, we’re the ones appearing on the ballot. We’re the candidates in this thing, drafted against our will by bigots who want to strip us of our rights.
With only 30 seconds to spare, we’re the only ones capable of expressing how important it is for us to have civil marriage in being able to stay in stable and loving relationships. We’re the only ones who can lay waste to the arguments and insinuations of our persecutors in between corny CBS sitcoms.
The Maine campaign is incredibly well organized, with the best shot at winning that we’ve ever seen. However, if they don’t put out the right ads, the chances go down. Way down. History has proven it, and it’s time for a family intervention, the grassroots telling them to get it right.