Marriage Equality and Public Opinion: A Victory for Grassroots Organizing

 

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The march toward marriage equality has seen significant progress thanks in no small part to the work of grassroots community-based organizations. Scanning the headlines on the drive for equal access to the right to marry for those in the LGBT community, one might think that legalization and acceptance of marriage equality is just around the corner. To continue along the current path toward full national legalization of marriage equality, however, will not be easy and will require a great deal more time, money, and community organizing. An exploration of strategic collaboration efforts among nonprofits across California exemplifies the role that organizations have played in shifting public opinion on this issue – and how much work still remains.

Shifting Attitudes on Marriage Equality

The marriage equality issue in California gained national prominence in 2000 with the passage of Proposition 22, a ballot initiative that restricted marriage to opposite-sex couples. Eight years later, the California Supreme Court ruled that Prop 22 violated the state constitution. By this time, however, marriage equality opponents were well on their way toward placing a new initiative, Proposition 8, on the ballot. Prop 8 introduced a constitutional amendment that overrode the Court’s ruling and again banned same-sex marriages by placing Prop 22’s language in the state constitution. In November of 2012, Prop 8 passed – narrowly – with 52 percent of the vote.

Following the passage of Prop 8, there was an outcry from organizations working outside of traditional gay enclaves that not enough attention was focused on efforts aimed at garnering grassroots support for marriage equality from straight allies beyond the traditional base of support (primarily from white, urban progressives). Inaccurately reported polling data initially attributed Prop 8’s passage to the attitudes of many African American and Latino voters, but that accounting of events was later disproven and it continues to be debunked. But for many advocates of LGBT equality, what was troublesome and surprising was exit polling that showed a large number of people who said they personally knew an LGBT person or had an LGBT family member, yet still voted in favor of Prop 8.

Since the passage of Prop 8, something big has happened. Public opinion on the issue of marriage equality has shifted dramatically. According to a January 2013 survey by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), 53 percent of Californians favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to be legally married and 41 percent oppose the idea. This change in public opinion represents a nearly complete reversal of attitudes since 2000, when 54 percent of Californians stated that they were opposed to recognizing same-sex marriage and 39 percent were in favor of recognizing it.

Reflecting national polling data on marriage equality, this shift in public opinion has been unparalleled. According to Sonja Petek, research associate at PPIC, “What has been remarkable is that we don’t often see an issue, particularly a social issue, in which attitudes change this dramatically in such a short amount of time.” Support for marriage equality has increased across the board, regardless of age, ethnicity, religion, or party affiliation. Even among evangelical Protestants, who remain largely opposed to same-sex marriage, support has increased by 10 percentage points over the past few years. What has turned the tide?

The Role of the Social Sector in Winning Hearts and Minds on Marriage Equality

While the mainstream press might have us believe that these changing attitudes are primarily the result of court rulings and openly gay celebrities, the role of the social sector should be not be underestimated. Over the past decade, a group of dedicated funders, advocates, and nonprofit organizations have been working to change the hearts and minds of people outside of the LGBT community, and this work has resulted in the greater levels of support for marriage equality that we see now.

For the past eight years, one such grassroots coalition, Asians and Pacific Islanders for LGBT Equality, or API Equality-LA, has been advocating for fair treatment of LGBT people and marriage equality for same-sex couples in the Greater Los Angeles Asian and Pacific Islander (API) communities. Eileen Ma, executive director of API Equality-LA, says her organization has made great strides in forging direct connections to change the local environment on marriage equality through workshops, public education, outreach at festivals, and press activities aimed at local ethnic media.

“We’ve seen a concrete and dramatic growth in the public support for LGBT equality in the Asian community,” says Ma. “We attribute part of that growth to increased dialogue among community members. We’ve done a lot of work in soliciting community endorsements from non-LGBT community organizations and state leaders, which has had a huge impact in our own community. Having organizations and individuals who may not be gay, but who have the respect of the API community, has built a great deal of support.”

Ma also acknowledges the impact of one-on-one outreach to individual members and their families. She recounts the story of one of young volunteer who became involved in the organization through outreach efforts and subsequently came out to her family. This young person then brought her mother to several local API Equality-LA events, where she was able to meet other LGBT people and understand what the community means to her daughter. “Family and the inclusion of the extended family are a critical part of our culture,” says Ma. “It’s really important that we equip people with the tools they need to communicate and gain acceptance in their families. This is tried and true community organizing – reaching out to people you know and making connections.”

Ari Gutierrez, co-founder of the Latino Equality Alliance (LEA), echoes this need to reach out to local communities and families. “LGBT people of color live in communities of color,” says Gutierrez. “We want LGBT people in our communities to live openly. We learned a lot from the Prop 8 campaign. There was a lot of misinformation on all sides – the mainstream media, the Latino community, and the LGBT community. But we were empowered and we couldn’t go back.” Through outreach to Spanish language media, local Latino organizations, and outreach to Latino family members of LGBT individuals, LEA began shifting the conversation about marriage equality.

“When we started out, it was being able to talk about marriage equality to a community that didn’t support who you were and was not accepting [of LGBT people] to begin with. We realized that the real issue is around family acceptance, tying our values to the values that the Latino community has toward family,” Gutierrez says. “The key is the moms – if you can get to the moms and help them understand why this issue is important and connect with the love that they have for their kids and their families.” Gutierrez also points to the work of her organization and other community partners in changing the narrative on Spanish language media. “People who were our family were primarily Spanish monolingual,” says Gutierrez. “Ensuring that [there were] positive messages about LGBT people in Spanish media was key to the work that we have been doing.”

Still, “People who think this has been one smooth upward trajectory are mistaken,” says Matt Foreman, program director of the Breakthrough Conversation initiative of the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, which was one of the first foundations to fund the marriage equality issue. Since 2001, Haas Jr. has made more than $60 million in grants to advance marriage equality efforts nationwide and has spearheaded funder collaboration such as the Civil Marriage Collaborative.

According to Foreman, “We’ve been at this for 10 years and there have been a lot of ups and downs and painful losses and some remarkable strides. There’s this meme out there that acceptance of marriage equality is just around the corner. Yes it is inevitable, but when it happens is very uncertain. There’s also this notion that the gay community is politically powerful, yet at the moment, there are 29 states that have no civil rights protections at all. I understand the media moment that we’re now in, but the day-to-day reality for most LGBT people is not as rosy as the media would have you believe.”

The Breakthrough Conversation is a $500,000 project funded by Haas, Jr. that was launched in 2012 and that is administered by Equality California. It encourages members of the LGBT community to enter into conversations with straight friends, family, and community members about LGBT equality issues – including the freedom to marry. Through research, messaging development, and in-person training via community partner organizations (such as API Equality-LA and LEA), the Breakthrough Conversation has been making strides in getting more LGBT people to talk about social justice issues with the people in their lives.

“It all comes down to these breakthrough conversations,” says Foreman. “It’s about figuring out how to get more LGBT people to talk to people in their lives about issues of equality. These are not ‘coming out’ conversations. They are about talking to people who know you are LGBT and having a serious conversation about gay equality issues.”

How to Win a Civil Rights Struggle: Make It Personal

Support for marriage equality jumps dramatically when an LGBT person has talked to someone they know about a gay rights issue. A poll conducted last summer in Minnesota, for example, found that 39 percent of voters who knew someone who was gay – but had never talked about marriage with that person – were opposed to a proposed anti-marriage equality amendment. However, 67 percent of people who knew someone gay and had talked about marriage with that person opposed the amendment, a remarkable 28 percent jump in support.

Despite this evidence, convincing LGBT people, en masse, to talk about civil rights issues with their families, friends, and community members is no easy task. A lot of gay people have discovered ways to be openly gay while tiptoeing around political issues that affect them personally. Many organizations that do door-to-door canvassing report that they have an easier time getting volunteers to canvas in the most difficult (Republican, older) neighborhoods than to sit down with their sister or brother or even their barista to talk about LGBT issues.

“Even for committed gay activists, having a conversation about our own inequality with people we know and like remains an incredible challenge,” says Foreman. “What if I ask my sister about an issue and she says, ‘I’m against it.’ Is that going to completely disrupt our relationship? A lot of what Breakthrough is about is about a conversation – not a debate – that leads to an honest understanding and not a rupture.”

Equality California Executive Director John O’Connor emphasizes the value in the Breakthrough Conversation project and similar community organizing coalitions. “We cannot legislate acceptance,” says O’Connor. “To achieve full equality in the broadest sense we must win the hearts and minds of people across the state and the country. That’s why public education is critical to achieving full equality.”

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling in June on the fate of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and whether or not to uphold a California Supreme Court decision that invalidated Prop 8 for essentially violating the state constitution’s equal protection clause. Grassroots public education plays a critical role in supporting the broader communications, political, and legal activities of national LGBT organizations. “The Supreme Court has a history of not getting too far ahead of public opinion,” says O’Connor. “But strengthening public opinion is helpful in whatever the outcome in June. Asking our parents to support our cause, talking to siblings about LGBT issues, and engaging allies within our community are important acts. They humanize and personalize the issue.”

What’s more, LGBT people who engage in these conversations feel personally empowered, regardless of the outcome. According to Haas Jr.’s Foreman, almost 90 percent of volunteers who spoke to people close to them about LGBT equality felt good about the conversation even if the other person didn’t move on the issue being discussed. Part of the messaging from the movement has been to talk to your family and friends about LGBT issues because it’s good for the movement. Now it seems as though talking about these issues will make our relationships with the straight people in our lives more honest, open, and enduring.