Marriage Equality Ads And The Strange Case of the Missing Gay Person

In the upcoming election, marriage equality will be on the ballots in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington. Because of this, a lot of pro-gay marriage ads (and anti-gay marriage ads, I’m sure) are popping up during commercial breaks. If you think political ads are painful, I hear you — living in a swing state come election season makes me so happy I could stab my eyeballs out. Maybe you’ve seen one of the pro-gay marriage ads. Maybe you’ve noticed something… missing… from them.

Here’s a good one for marriage equality in Washington:
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Isn’t that touching? “Marriage is the way that we recognize a life-long committment that two people make to each other” and “When I lay my head down for the very last time, I need to know that there’s someone that loves them and taking care of them and thinking about them and that’s what happens in a marriage.”

Okay, don’t get me wrong. I’m sure my mother would say the exact same thing if she were interviewed about marriage equality and I know I’d find it adorable and very PFLAG of her, but I’d still be asking why they didn’t just interview me about my relationships in the first place. Doesn’t that seem weird? This is an ad about Sarah Boehler, Robin and Steve Boehler’s daughter, so why is she only shown in photographs?

It isn’t just Sarah Boehler whose marriage is being talked about behind her back. It’s almost universal within the pro-gay marriage ads. Six out of the seven pro-marriage equality ads running right now feature heterosexual people talking about their “journey” to accepting the gays. The one that does feature a gay man doesn’t feature a gay man and his partner, but a gay man and his firefighting brotherhood. Touching though it may be, why are gay couples strangely absent from this discussion about gay couples?

On one hand, we can look at these ads as a positive step forward. At the heart of the marriage equality lies this uncomfortable reality: the majority (straight people) are voting on the rights of the minority (queers). Considering this, it isn’t a completely negative thing if we have to use heterosexuals to get our message heard.

Matt McTighe, Mainers United for Marriage’s campaign manager, has been quoted as saying, “I’m a gay man, and the general rule of thumb for me is that an ad that meets my emotional needs is not necessarily the thing that’s going to change a typical voter’s mind about gay or lesbian people.”

Maybe he’s right. When I was speaking with Kristen earlier about this issue, she added, “Someone needs to tell Grandpa Gus his opinion is completely wrong. If he hates gay people enough, he’s going to tune out everything they say, so you kind of need straight people as an interpretor.” She went on to elaborate that challenging heterosexuals to accept marriage equality isn’t helpful if you only try to argue that the gays are all around them. Unfortunately she, says “I feel like we haven’t made enough progress to imagine we live in a world where homophobes listen to reason.” Amen.

These ads are using straight couples — or straight firefighters — to normalize or “interpret” the gay lifestyle for those that think the gay lifestyle isn’t normal. See? These people are still happy, married, and straight, even though they accept homosexuals as human beings. Let them hold your homophobic hand down the lane of compassion and understanding and all the way to the ballot box.

When questioned about whether future ads would feature gay couples themselves, Richard Carlton, manager of the Minnesota campaign for marriage equality, only said that future ads will “articulate why gay people want to get married… [Many straight people] are on a journey on this issue, and the most effective way to encourage them is to show them other people who have taken the same journey” in accepting marriage equality.

Americans, even Honey Boo Boo Child, are more supportive of marriage equality now than ever. According to a poll in May 2011 from the Pew Research Center, gay marriage and gay people in general are finding growing acceptance: “45% favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally while 46% are opposed. Two years ago, in April 2009, 35% supported same-sex marriage while 54% were opposed.” More recently, in a poll about how Democrats feel about marriage equality, the Pew Research Center found that 65% of Democrats support gay marriage, up 15% from just four years ago.

What has made people change their minds about gay people? In most cases, I’d say knowing a gay person is the best way to spread the message that we are human beings and not charity cases.

Bill Browning recently wrote in an article about the Boehlers:

Personally, I’m sick of seeing super happy straight couples with their arms around each other telling other straight people what marriage means. Fuck that. Let’s hear it from the people who actually want to get married and hear what it means to them.

It boils down to this for me: The whole point of coming out was to show people that the LGBT people they deal with on an everyday basis aren’t monsters or pedophiles or three-headed dragons. Instead, we’re just as good as they are and remarkably normal Americans like the majority of straight people. It’s been the most successful aspect of the modern LGBT rights movement.

PREACH.

Maybe he’s right, too. The LGBT rights movement has been remarkably successful in changing people’s minds by just knowing us. For example, in college, one of my good friends drunkenly admitted to me that before she knew me, she had bought a “Marriage Is One Man and One Woman” bumper sticker for her car. She said that she had thrown it away that day because I had changed her mind. Mind you, I had always avoided political conversations with her because she openly wept when Obama was elected, but just realizing I was a human being with thoughts and feelings changed her mind. We shift in her mind from being a special interest group into people, human beings. I’m sure we all have these stories from friends or family members who have told us that by knowing us, they have come to support marriage equality.

By excluding loving gay couples from the conversation about themselves, aren’t we shoving us right back into that “special interest group” area that we’ve been fighting so hard to overcome? Perhaps we shouldn’t be viewing this as a positive “means to an end” situation. These ads aren’t doing much to help the LGBTQ community feel safer and protected, that’s for sure.

We need to remember that marriage equality is one small step in our plight of complete equality. It’s important, of course, and of particular interest to me since I’d like to one day get married and have children and access to equal rights, but it’s still one minor part of what our community needs to be protected as a whole. Call it patriarchal, call it antiquated, call it a non-issue — it matters to our community, and we deserve it. We also deserve respect in the process of gaining marriage equality, and that means including us in the damn political ads.

So why aren’t these ads tapping into this tried-and-true method of changing people’s opinions? Is seeing a gay couple on a political ad enough to actually change the opinions of most Americans? Maybe we really do need the straight couple ambassador method — it’s safe, but it also encourages normalization. In the end, these political ads aren’t for us. They may be about us, but they’re for the majority of Americans deciding whether or not a minority of Americans deserve rights. And that’s the most upsetting part, anyways.

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Hansen is the DIY & Food Editor of Autostraddle.com and likes to spend most days making and cooking and writing. She is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at Colorado State University in her free time.

Hansen has written 186 articles for us.

35 Comments

  1. Thumb up 24

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    The ads are meant to move undecided voters to support marriage. If you test the effectiveness of a gay person delviering the message vs. a straight person that these undecided voters can relate to, there’s no comparison. Straight folks MUST see that other people are on a journey in their support of gay marriage.

    Remember, you aren’t the undecided voter here. They are. And if we want to win campaigns, we have to move them to be more supportive.

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      Agreed. About 95% of getting any message across is about who the messenger is. If the only messengers for gay marriage are those who will directly benefit from it (us, the gays), it delegitimizes the message. It’s messed up, but we need straight people advocating for us too in order to normalize and legitimize the issue.

  2. Thumb up 10

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    It’s called focus groups. That is how these things ads are decided. Focus groups are made up of clusters of likely voters, they then are shown a number of videos and from there they decide which one would encourage them more to vote in favor of marriage equality. I agree with Hansens points but thats what these big shot executives at these LGBTQ orgs decide… Anyhow — this is the best pro-LGBTQ ad I have seen so far, the best part is that its shown from a gay persons perspective. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_TBd-UCwVAY

  3. Thumb up 6

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    Why cant these ads feature both points of view? I agree about undecided straight people needing to see others like themselves taking this journey. But it would also be great to see ads showing how happy and loving gay couples are as well. I dont think it should be one or the other though. Since I’m afraid homophobic people will probably tune out the message if its just coming from a gay couple. A combination of both would show that we aren’t monsters plus provide comfort in knowing that there are straight people (“just like them”) who also believe in marriage equality.

  4. Thumb up 6

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    The main difference between these straight-PFLAG-parents ads and the tried & true “I have a gay friend and now think queers should also have rights!” strategy? Personal connections. Knowing that your friend is queer is so completely different than seeing a gay person on an ad, begging for our rights.

    You can throw a really likable gay person on TV, and it’ll bring some people along (hey, conservative moms who like gay people because Ellen), but not all of the undecided / homophobic hetero voters are going to connect to it. It’s not, unfortunately, what works for them. Seeing straight people who they think are like them AND like gay people? That works. A few people have acknowledged that this isn’t just a strategy just because; these ads are produced after LOTS of hours of focus groups and polling. It hasn’t worked yet, as we all know, but that’s not because it’s a bad strategy. It hasn’t worked yet because Americans have still voted like assholes or because the campaigns weren’t funded as well as their opponents. Or because the non-asshole Americans haven’t voted.

    Because yes, polls say that a majority of people think that marriage equality – or at least some kind of relationship recognition – should be an option for gay folks, but it takes a lot of work and a lot of dollars to turn those poll answers into actual votes on election day.

    And also? This is the shitty, ugly side of campaigning and of working on issue advocacy. I say this as someone who’s been in political nonprofitland for a while and worked in abortion rights, and you guys, people are assholes. You work with message polling for long enough and it kind of makes you lose faith in humanity. The messages that feel good in your gut and that align with your values? For the most part, those are not the messages that are going to win. I’ll admit that I’m cynical and jaded at this point, but it’s a difficult to accept fact that your best message may very well not actually be a social justice message. (See, for example, the “War on Women” message, which is really effective at bringing attention to attacks on repro health and completely erases trans* and genderqueer people from the equation, even though those attacks will actually probably disproportionately affect those groups.)

    We should be better, and we need to be better, but honestly? That’s the difference between working on a campaign and working for social justice. They’re two different types of work, and I’m not sure that right now, in 2012, we can actually fully combine them.

    • Thumb up 5

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      And oh god, that was such a long, mostly stream of consciousness comment, and I apologize for length and tangents, but your tl;dr summary:

      1) Campaign messages are not social justice messages because social justice does not poll well with Americans because an awful lot of American voters are assholes.
      2) Personal connections are much more powerful than campaign ads ever will be, and we’ll get to that more social justice based place through one-on-one conversations, not expensive TV/internet ads.

  5. Thumb up 6

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    It’s because a lot of straight people, specifically older straight people, feel uncomfortable with change and have been raised in an “us” vs. “them” mentality. The “us” is equated with the norm and the “them” is equated with deviants. When they’re confronted with change through love: loving a gay relative, a gay child, a gay friend, etc., they feel ambivalent about their personal love and their societal upbringing. So it takes baby-steps for them. And it takes an open mind. So I commend straight people to change their perspective and to slowly but surely see things the way we do.

    Just wish the baby-steps could go a little faster ;).

  6. Thumb up 2

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    “Personally, I’m sick of seeing super happy straight couples with their arms around each other telling other straight people what marriage means. Fuck that.”
    Umm, alright Bill Browning? I agree there should be more marriage equality ad’s that include gay people, but straight allies are JUST as important in my eyes. Traditional, maybe slightly older married heterosexuals need to see that straight and gay are not so seperate and marriage should not make it seem that we are, but also for gay people. With the majority of marriage equality ads showing heterosexual couples, baby mo’s get to see that it might just be ok to come out to your heterosexual parents, or any other heteros they might come across, because lots of them are rooting for you! And, most importantly, the ‘gay community’ / ‘gay lifestyle’ isn’t just a bunch of deviant gay men dancing / lesbians getting haircuts and cats, it’s someone’s brother or sister, whose parents want to see them walk down the aisle.
    I get where this article is coming from, and I agree on some level.

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      I realise reading this back that where I said “the ‘gay community’ / ‘gay lifestyle’ isn’t just a bunch of deviant gay men dancing / lesbians getting haircuts and cats, it’s someone’s brother or sister, whose parents want to see them walk down the aisle.” – this could equally be portrayed by having gay people showing how lovely and normal they are. I don’t think I’ve made my point very well here but I hope y’all understand the dangers of attempting articulacy with a hangover!

  7. Thumb up 2

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    Just my 2 cents here. I know it seems really wrong from our end, but I guarantee that these ads work. They come from years of trying and failing to win ballot measures.

    Ads used to try and convince people that gay people were “just like them”, and for some reason, that just doesn’t work. Focus group testing has shown that no matter how loving and heteronormative the gay couple is, the average undecided straight person doesn’t like being told that gay people are “just like them.”

    I’d love to see an ad with a gay person on it, but frankly, I’m already going to vote for gay marriage, so that ad would do nothing. I’d take ads that work over idealistic ones any day.

  8. Thumb up 4

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    The methods that these organizations, like Minnesotans United for Marriage, are using are far from universally supported in Minnesota. However, do whatever it takes, based on the campaign research from the numerous failures before us.

    As I type, some suburban church has dropped off canvassers in our neighborhood – with clipboards, materials and dark suits – to chat up my gay-friendly neighborhood to vote ‘Yes’ for the Amendment banning marriage equality. I cannot WAIT until they get to my house, and a couple other of my neighbors. :)

  9. Thumb up 4

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    i’m not shocked by this. This IS america, and america has a history of not taking people from marginalized groups seriously when they say they are suffering from injustice and discrimination. Civil rights are often ultimately legimitized by privileged people acknowledging that an inequality exists. By virtue of being part of the privileged group, their viewpoints AUTOMATICALLY carry more weight and authority then someone from a marginalized group. That is a basic part of being privileged.

    Secondly, someone from a privileged group acknowledging that an inequality exists puts people other people in the privileged group at ease because they seem familiar unlike “those people” in the marginalized group. They also dont appear to have any other agenda or personal stake in having discrimination be addressed, other then inequality being corrected (like getting away with being unqualified and getting jobs or getting into schools because of the color of their skin instead of “working hard” like more privileged people. ::EYEROLL::). black civil rights groups utilized white allies to put other white people at ease, and as long as we’re going to continue this farce of “states rights” and allowing bigoted dumbasses to vote on the civil rights of other people, heterosexual allies are going to have to be used to put other heterosexuals at ease. do i think it’s fair or right? no, but it’s expedient.

  10. Thumb up 1

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    these kinds of allies are important because a lot of people see gay people campaigning for marriage equality and perceive it no differently than mental patients pleading their sanity.

    this tactic is potentially very powerful for people on the fence about gay marriage. as a washington resident, i am excited to see this ad because i know exactly the type of people it caters to, and that is one fucking important demographic

  11. Thumb up 3

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    Great article, and there’s def a really interesting discussion here.

    Sort of unrelatedly though, I’m so impressed you managed to be good friends with a girl who cried when Obama was elected! (I mean I cried sooo much that day too, but in a happy way, which I’m guessing was the opposite of her?) I’m really bad at having conservative friends; I think I can’t help arguing with/offending them. Which is probably bad because knowing a gay person/liberal/feminist who you like personally IS the best way to change your mind on social issues. And you clearly were personally responsible for changing someone’s mind! So, yeah, maybe I should work on that.

  12. Thumb up 4

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    This article just feels really naive.

    “This is an ad about Sarah Boehler, Robin and Steve Boehler’s daughter, so why is she only shown in photographs?”

    No, it’s not. It’s an ad about Robin and Steve Boehler and why they want marriage equality.

    Yes, the most effective way of changing people’s attitudes is by coming out, but the key as you mentioned is that it’s someone they know personally and care for in some capacity. Adverts would not make that personal connection, and so another tack is taken that is more likely to get through to an undecided/doubting voter.

    “It’s important, of course, and of particular interest to me since I’d like to one day get married and have children and access to equal rights…”

    The most frustrating thing for me with this article is you say it’s of particular interest to you, but it’s of particular interest to you in the longer term, and to me your frustration is very short-sighted.

    Frankly, it’s of particular interest to me because at the moment I am lying in bed at half past midnight in the Midwest, not able to work and not able to be in the country – with my partner – for more than 90 days in 180 days because we can’t get married.

    Yes, the master’s tools aren’t going to dismantle the master’s house, but right now this is something that has a tangible effect on thousands of people lives. Yes, it depends on the majority voting on minority rights which is never going to be a good situation, but rather than venting about the ways with which we have to approach this (and it is of course queer people who are the driving force behind the vast majority of the campaigns), know that we are being put in this situation and be angry about that, and use that anger in some constructive way in the fight for full equality.

    This, though, is the issue at hand and let’s thank our straight allies rather than devaluing them, and let’s focus our anger and frustration on the reason we’re forced to render ourselves invisible rather than the people who are having to write themselves out of the scripts – however upsetting it is for you, I can assure you that it’s far more so for them.

  13. Thumb up 0

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    Makes sense to me.

    I’m sure a strategist decided that if the goal is to swing heteros to vote pro-gay. They should show heteros in the commercials talking about marriage equality.

    Means to an end. They probably submitted two versions to a focus group and the one’s focusing on heteros coming to realization that marriage equality is the only sensible action resonated more. I presume more relatable?

  14. Thumb up 0

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    Wow! So during class today in my graduate program, we were told to google ourselves to make sure nothing inappropriate shows up (for future employment purposes). You can only imagine my surprise in finding this post. I am Melanie Boehler, the now wife of Sara Boehler, and daughter-in-law of Robin and Steve in this video. I know this was posted nearly two years ago, but I have to say that I am a bit disappointed in the view presented in this post. The Boehlers sought out to make this video, because they were that passionate about doing whatever they could do to make a legal marriage an option for us. And guess what….it worked!! This video was a crucial turning point for Referendum 74, and I am damn proud to be apart of this family. And if you want to know the truth….Sara and I probably WOULD have been in this video, had we not both been away in Southern California for graduate school. I will forever be honored to have such passionate and active in-laws who make a point to stand up for what they know is right. Just keep in mind that these are real people you are writing about.

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