The Chief Engine of Change: Conversation

by Evan Wolfson and Kevin Nix
Freedom to Marry

This piece originally appeared in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) as part of Making Ideas Move, a series on the power and potential of social sector communications produced by The Communications Network in partnership with SSIR.

With marriage cases back at the US Supreme Court and national resolution in favor of the freedom to marry possible as soon as June, many ask—somewhat in awe—how the LGBT community did it. How did we go from zero states with marriage for gay couples a decade ago to 36 states (and counting) today? How did the political wedge lose its edge, and America embrace as “inevitable” what 10 minutes ago it dismissed as “impossible”?

It took a many-decade movement with a central strategy—driven by the campaign entity Freedom to Marry—to get here, and the campaign’s investment in strategic communications played a central part.

From the beginning, we at Freedom to Marry believed that the chief engine of change would be conversation; thus, generating conversations was a critical objective. The right people delivering the right message—amplified across multiple media and advertising platforms, and, yes, millions of conversations—changed the American public’s understanding of why gay couples want to marry and of gay people generally.

Through exhaustive qualitative and quantitative research, we found that emphasizing only part of what was at stake—rights and benefits—wasn’t enough to reach the middle and gain majority support. What did resonate with many Americans were values-based arguments: love, commitment, and family. These are, after all, universal concepts that are simple, emotional, positive, and easily understood. We cracked the code on message, and then focused our work on message delivery.

The messenger mattered too. Gay and lesbian couples across the country humanized and dramatized their stories in the press, in television ads, and on social media. Couples from all walks of life swung open the window for all of America to get to know them. At the same time, we made sure to encourage trusted supporters—family members, labor and business leaders, military personnel, clergy, President Obama—to get out on the stump and be vocal. These heterosexual validators gave undecided folks and soft opponents permission to “evolve” their thinking, at their own pace, toward the freedom to marry.

With the message and messenger nailed down, we built our press and social media machine to convey the personal stories of why gay couples wanted to marry. Keeping a constant and creative drumbeat going paid off. In 2004, a poll by Washington Post/ABC News showed that 59 percent of Americans thought same-sex couples should not be able to marry while 38 percent thought they should. A decade later, those numbers literally flipped, with support for the freedom to marry skyrocketing more than 20 points. The needle began moving in various state polls, followed by state legislators—including Republican lawmakers in New Hampshire and New York—voting for freedom-to-marry bills in multiple states.

Educating ordinary Americans, however, wasn’t enough. We needed to make the case to elected officials on both sides of the aisle that: a) supporting the freedom to marry was no longer a risky proposition politically, and b) the momentum was with those in favor—the writing was on the wall. We did so quietly behind closed doors, as well as through reams of Beltway news accounts and reels of TV ads featuring high-profile Republicans and other unexpected allies, such as firefighters and a World War II veteran who has a gay grandson.

Evan was part of the world’s first-ever freedom to marry trial as co-counsel, back in the 1990s, in Hawaii. From that experience, we learned that the movement needed to make the case for marriage both inside and outside a court of law. We brought together litigators and other partners to build a communications strategy during the United States v. Windsor case, which ultimately struck down the Defense of Marriage Act and restored federal protections to legally married gay couples. We have worked with our litigation partners to drive similar media operations since June 2013 in the federal circuits where the same kinds of legal challenges have advanced and in the states that still discriminate.

With a mix of leadership and partnership, Freedom to Marry has driven a successful strategy and enabled others to bring their part to the work. To engage partners on multiple fronts, we provide central hubs of expertise—including a digital action center, press room, and field and opposition research—for all activists at national, state, and local levels to use as they do their part. We have won by galvanizing the multiplicity of a movement with the cohesion of a strategy guided by a central campaign entity.

Since its founding, Freedom to Marry has pursued a bold and clear goal: winning marriage nationwide through a ruling of the Supreme Court, enabled by a critical mass of states and support. Through stumbles and successes, we’ve continued working, and we’ll keep doing it until we have won. Then happily, we will put ourselves out of business. We’re working hard to make sure that 2015 is the year we close.