As we watched New Jersey, Illinois, and Hawaii become the 14th, 15th, and 16th states to embrace marriage equality in the last 30 days, it’s worth taking a look back at how the U.S. Right Wing has continued to evolve their messaging around marriage. As equality pushes forward step by step, the Right—particularly the Christian Right—is continually refining their talking points in order to slow down the inevitable.
As recently as the mid 90s—I know it seems forever ago, but 20 years really isn’t that long—marriage for same-sex couples was virtually unthinkable. Now, the needle couldn’t be moving faster, and equal marriage is seeing success after success in the courts, legislative bodies, and even at the ballot box. But each success comes on the heels of countless defeats by an incredible skilled Right Wing PR machine, who have spent decades learning how best to counter human rights. Understanding their tactics, and how their messaging strategies evolve and where they come from is crucial to the LGBTQ movement’s future.
In January, 2013, David Dodge authored a report for Political Research Associates called The Right’s Marriage Message: Talking Tolerance, Marketing Inequality. The report culls lessons from how the Right has waged successful electoral campaigns in the past in order for LGBTQ rights groups to extend and defend their gains. In particular, the report tracks the effective media campaigns run by opponents of LGBTQ rights, such as the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), groups aligned with the Family Research Council (FRC), and Right-Wing spin masters such as Frank Schubert.
Perhaps the most significant point of the report is the evolution of the Right from blatant homophobic campaigns claiming that “gays are evil who will pervert your children,” and the Anita Bryant-style ads claiming that “accepting gays will lead to bestiality,” to the softer nuance of today’s lines of “we just want to protect our religious freedom.” The arguments are the same, but in the world of politics tonality and language choice is everything.
Being able to effectively counter the Right’s arguments is a massively simpler task if you understand the origins of their arguments, and are able to strip their messaging down to its foundation of misconceptions and intolerance.
Here are some of the great takeaways Dodge highlights in his report, as he highlights advertising used by the Right from 1998 to May of 2012:
- In states where they enjoy a large base of support, anti-LGBTQ advocates aired conservative Christian-oriented media describing the deep roots of traditional marriage between a man and a woman that is under threat. Seventy-five percent of the ads tracked used this argument.
- They reached moderate voters with advertising focused on the supposed harm to children that will occur if pro-LGBTQ ballot measures pass - particularly from the teaching of LGBTQ issues in schools. The California LGBTQ rights group Vote For Equality found this to be a potent argument for its opposition. Forty-eight percent of all media reviewed had this theme.
- Forty-two percent of the ads warned of elites like judges or powerful people from outside the state seeking to advance a “gay agenda” against the will of the people, resonating with existing Right-Wing populist arguments.
- In ten percent of the ads, the Right relays stories of Christians as “victims” suffering from religious persecution as same-sex marriage becomes legal.
- Twenty percent of the anti-LGBTQ media reviewed prominently features people of color, and were largely aired in California, Arizona, and Oregon. They tended to use arguments about “defending traditional marriage.”