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State took national dialogue and mind-set beyond rights, to 'love and commitment'

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - There have been more anti-gay rights ballot measures in Oregon than in any other state. That led to a battle-tested gay rights movement here that helped forge new tactics for the national movement.   As the nation waits to see if the U.S. Supreme Court legalizes same-sex marriage across the land, Oregon gay rights leaders are ready to take a bow.

Unbeknown to most Oregonians, the state became the national laboratory for crafting ways to change peoples’ minds about same-sex marriage. Many credit that effort for helping to shift national public opinion and bring about majority support for gay marriage.

Oregon activists and political consultants helped “move the dial” by creating campaign messages that appealed to voters’ hearts rather than their intellects, and talking about “love and commitment” among same-sex couples rather than equal rights, says veteran Portland pollster Lisa Grove, who now resides in Hawaii. “There’s absolutely no question that we completely changed the conversation on marriage and made it succeed nationally,” Grove says.

“I’m more than happy to give Oregon the shout-out it deserves,” says Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, a national group pushing for same-sex marriage. Wolfson worked closely with Portland-based Basic Rights Oregon, hiring three Portland political consultants for his national staff and retaining Grove as a pollster.

Huge turnaround

Just 11 years ago, things looked bleak for the gay-rights movement. In 2004, voters passed Measure 36, amending the Oregon Constitution to ban gay marriage, and they rejected gay marriage in 10 other states.

“When we lost Measure 36, I thought it would take 25 to 30 years to turn the country around,” says Thalia Zepatos, a Portland political consultant who works on messaging campaigns for Freedom to Marry.

Fast-forward three years, and Basic Rights Oregon scored a double win at the Oregon Legislature. Lawmakers passed a domestic partnership law, enabling same-sex couples to enjoy the same marriage rights as other couples under state law, and a law barring discrimination against lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered people, or LGBTs.

While the movement was piling up victories among liberal state legislatures and courts, it was unable to score wins at state ballot boxes. In a stunning 2008 defeat in California, voters approved Proposition 8, overturning a judicial ruling that had legalized gay marriage. In 2009, Maine voters repealed a gay marriage law approved by lawmakers.

During the 2008 campaign in California, Zepatos tested out a new media strategy via the Let California Ring project. It ran a television ad in Santa Barbara County that used a more emotional approach to the gay marriage issue, and print ads targeting African-American, Latino, and Asian/Pacific Islander communities that emphasized gay marriage as a way to nurture families.

Though the strategy wasn’t adopted statewide, Santa Barbara was the lone Southern California county to reject Measure 8, Zepatos says.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Jeana Frazzini, co-director of Basic Rights Oregon, has helped make it one of the nations most respected gay rights groups. Its multicultural work and refined communications strategy became models for the national movement.

Lon Mabon’s legacy

Oregon has experienced more ballot measure fights over gay rights than any other state, starting in 1988. That’s when the Oregon Citizens Alliance convinced voters to overturn then-Gov. Neil Goldschmidt’s executive order banning discrimination in state government based on sexual orientation. The conservative Christian group, led by Lon Mabon, followed that with a string of other state and county measures. The group cited anti-homosexual passages in Hebrew scripture to lend a moral tone to its efforts, and fostered images of gays and lesbians preying on children in schools and elsewhere.

“The LGBT movement cut its teeth politically fighting against those attacks,” says Thomas Wheatley, a former organizer for Basic Rights Oregon and Freedom to Marry. Gay rights activists built Basic Rights Oregon into perhaps the most formidable and sophisticated political operation of any such statewide group in the nation.

After the California and Maine defeats, national leaders and campaign donors turned to Oregon to help find a new way of talking to Middle America about the issue, Zepatos says.

In 2009, she urged Freedom to Marry to hire Grove’s firm to do polling, research and focus groups. “I felt to the core of my being we were having the wrong conversations with people,” Grove says. “We’re having this head conversation where we have to have this conversation that’s about heart and gut.”

The Civil Marriage Collaborative, which pools donations from multiple sources, helped fund the Oregon work, part of the $2.6 million it has granted here — more than any other state — says Paul Di Donato, director of the New York City group. From the start, the Oregon project was seen as an investment in the national movement.

Grove Insight researched academic journals and polls conducted around the country. It conducted a series of focus groups in Oregon, small group discussions that probed deeply into how people felt about issues. Her staff asked participants why they wanted to get married, and if they thought it should be any different for LGBT couples.

New findings

Some people supported gay rights, but relayed that the old “Sunday school teacher” in the back of their mind was saying gay marriage was wrong.

Prior campaigns for civil unions and domestic partnerships had stressed that LGBT couples merely wanted the same rights and responsibilities as other married couples. Many people figured if gay and lesbian couples achieved those equal rights, why would they need to get married?

“We realized that those kinds of arguments could only get us to domestic partnerships or civil unions,” says Jeana Frazzini, co-director of Basic Rights Oregon.

Her group organized door-to-door canvassing, with the help of Bus Project volunteers, where they engaged people on their doorsteps for their thoughts on gay marriage. They targeted neighborhoods in East Portland and Washington County that hadn’t shown strong support for past gay rights measures, Wheatley says.

Out of that research, the team forged and tested new messages, stressing terms like “love,” “family” and “commitment,” and references to the Golden Rule to lend a moral element to their crusade and counter their adversaries’ use of religion. They created “journey” ads, highlighting how straight individuals came to change their views on gay marriage by realizing gay and lesbian couples just wanted the same things they wanted.

Mailers and media ads were targeted narrowly where people had talked to folks door-to-door. Follow-up surveys were conducted to see if the efforts changed any minds. Grove compared the results to areas where no such activities occurred.

For the first time anywhere in the United States, she could provide solid evidence to the national movement that the new tactics were working.

“It was like we uncovered the key and the door just swung open,” Zepatos says.

Basic Rights Oregon also was undergoing a profound change to sink deeper roots into communities of color. That, too, became a model for gay rights groups around the nation, Di Donato says. Basic Rights Oregon created a tool kit called Coming Out for Racial Justice that was shared with the national movement.

Zepatos was able to get 35 state and national gay rights groups to sign on to using the same messages in new electoral and other campaigns. The data was so sound, “there wasn’t a lot of convincing to do,” Frazzini says.

Ironically, polls still showed a gay marriage measure wouldn’t fare well in Oregon in 2012, in large part because the state has a larger share of older voters than other states, Grove says.

But Basic Rights Oregon freely shared its pathbreaking work with the four state campaigns that ran gay marriage measures that year. In a total turnaround from 2004, all four passed, using journey ads and much of the new language developed and field-tested in Oregon.

Oregon project leaders also shared their findings with lawyers around the country who were trying to win gay marriage through the courts.

Clearly public opinion has shifted in response to other factors as well: a growing number of younger voters; influential Republicans and Democrats endorsing gay marriage; and an increasing number of LGBT characters in television and movies. But polls now show that two-thirds of the new gay-marriage supporters are people who have changed their views, Zepatos says, and one-third are young voters coming of age.

“We’ve seen public opinion shift dramatically in a historically short period of time,” Wolfson says.

So even if the U.S. Supreme Court doesn’t legalize gay marriage in all the states, many see it as just a matter of time.

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