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Gay marriage advocates draw from lessons of past as they press their case
by: © 1982 Matt McVay, A child holding a sign gets people’s attention. Early feminists drew on strategies used in the civil rights movement, and now Oregon gay marriage supporters are going door to door with similar strategies.

Thirty years ago, Candace Lightner's 13-year-old daughter was killed by a drunken driver while she was walking down the street near her Fair Oaks, Calif., home. Soon after, Lightner learned that the driver had previously been arrested five times for driving while intoxicated.


Enraged, Lightner, who had no previous experience in politics, decided she was going to change American attitudes about the dangers of drunken driving. Within three years, virtually every state in the country had a strict drunken driving law as a result of a hearts-and-minds campaign undertaken by the organization Lightner formed - Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

On an individual level, changing someone's mind can seem nearly impossible. But in politics, experts say, given money, passion and patience, nearly anything is possible.

That's exactly what the people at Basic Rights Oregon, the state's leading same-sex marriage advocates, are counting on.

When a federal judge ruled three weeks ago that a gay marriage ban passed by California voters in 2008 was unconstitutional, Basic Rights had fresh ammunition for a public education campaign it had begun last winter. The campaign includes direct-mail brochures to Oregon households, television and radio ads and hundreds of volunteers going door to door.

What those volunteers aren't doing is trying to convince Oregon voters to pass a gay-marriage ballot measure. Nor are they lobbying for legislation. What they're after, instead, are hearts and minds. And, much as Lightner did 30 years ago, they're using spokespeople, words and images that are about as mom and apple pie as they could be.

In one ad, straight parents Darrick and Cate talk about the importance of love and committed parents for families and children. In another, Jill is gay, but that fact is an afterthought to her 30-second speech about her lifelong desire to find love and marriage. The focus of the campaign isn't gay rights at all, at least not directly, but values to which hardly anyone could object.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT

TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT • Thalia Zepatos, of Freedom to Marry, says that finding the right words to frame a public education campaign can be as important as any images.

Good strategy, say a number of experts in the field of public persuasion. Tried and true, say organizers with experience in campaigns aimed at trying to change public attitudes.

And yes, the images are very different from what Oregonians have become accustomed to, says Portland resident Thalia Zepatos, director of public engagement for Freedom To Marry, a New York City-based nonprofit supporting the nationwide same-sex marriage campaign.

That's as it should be, says Zepatos, who has worked on a number of previous Oregon public education campaigns. She says the latest Basic Rights campaign is borrowing from a rich history when it emphasizes mainstream individuals and couples simply telling their own stories.

'I think for 20 years what people in Oregon have seen when they think of gay rights is 10 seconds of footage from a gay pride parade that year. A lot of people built their image of gay people around that footage …' Zepatos says. 'What I say to straight people is, what if the only image of straight people that ever came on television was an image of Mardi Gras or Girls Gone Wild? How would that create your image of who you are?'

The Basic Rights Oregon campaign keeps it simple and human, with little discussion of politics or religion, and plenty of discussion of values most Oregonians hold dear.

'This is an issue that fundamentally gets to the core of who we are as human beings,' says Jeana Frazzini, executive director of Basic Rights Oregon. 'It really has only been treated as a political football.'

And the timing, with no election looming, is right.

'Something we've learned from some of those movements is that … the last three months of a pitched political battle over a ballot measure in Oregon is not the ideal time to share new information and new ideas with a broad swath of the general public,' Zepatos says.

But it still won't work, says Peter Sprigg, policy analyst for the Family Research Council, a Washington, D.C.-based conservative Christian organization that opposes same-sex marriage.

'I don't think they are likely to be any more successful in Oregon than they were in California or any of the other 30 states that have voted to uphold marriage as the union of a man and a woman,' Sprigg says.

Sprigg concedes that public opinion polls year by year have been showing more acceptance of same-sex marriage, but he says that's because of 'generational change.'

'Every day, there are opponents of same-sex marriage that are dying and new supporters of same-sex marriage that are registering to vote,' Sprigg says. 'But they've made remarkably little gain in actually persuading people to change their minds on the definition of marriage.'

COURTESY OF MOTHERS AGAINST DRUNK DRIVING

COURTESY OF MOTHERS AGAINST DRUNK DRIVING • Candace Lightner founded MADD in 1980 after her daughter, Cari, was killed by a repeat drunk driving offender, which sparked a movement that has helped save hundreds of thousands of lives.

Using the right images

Lightner, however, says minds can be changed. And, she says, advocates of same-sex marriage may think that their battle is tougher than the one she fought against drunken driving, but that's only because people don't know or remember the attitudes she confronted starting out.

Judges, district attorneys, police officers and politicians - the people she was hoping to target - drove drunk because it wasn't thought of as a social evil.

Lightner recalls a friend saying, after Lightner's daughter's death, 'It could have been me.' But the friend, she soon realized, was empathizing with the driver, not the victim.

The counter strategy was to appeal to parents, especially mothers.

'We were mother, God and apple pie all rolled up into one. And I put a face on the victim; we were no longer a statistic,' Lightner says.

Lightner says smart public relations and using the right images were the keys to gaining public attention when she began, because MADD didn't have money for advertising. She held press conferences in bars, but it was always middle class mothers doing the talking. She organized picketing outside the state Capitol, but the pickets were all girls 10 to 14 years old.

Eventually, not only did Lightner get her legislation, but MADD affected a major turnaround in the attitudes of Americans. A 1980 national poll, Lightner says, had eight of 10 Americans saying they would drink and drive. A 2001 survey had seven of 10 saying they never would.

Lightner and her organization also figured out how to attract followers from previous campaigns, which experts say is critical. Most of her original donors, she discovered, had been Vietnam War protesters 10 years before.

'They saw us as the first cause (where) they could actually see their dollars making a tangible difference,' she says.

Making a connection to previous campaigns now viewed positively is one of three keys to successfully changing public attitudes, says Kevin Mercuri, president of Propheta Communications, a New York City-based public relations firm involved in consumer and government affairs. The other two are money ('the mother's milk of every campaign to alter or influence public opinion') and government backing.

Campaigns involving a public health issue such as smoking, drunken driving and even littering have an advantage because the government imprimatur can be brought to bear, Mercuri says.

On the other hand, if an issue becomes heavily aligned with one political party, Mercuri says, public opinion gets too bogged down in partisanship. It's helpful, Mercuri says, if a campaign doesn't have an organized opposition campaign, as same-sex marriage does.

'Drunk driving and smoking never became political issues, and there never was much dialogue back and forth,' Mercuri says. But gun control did, he points out.

'A political party used it as leverage to get people paranoid about a larger government taking over their constitutional rights.' And that, he says, is why efforts to move public attitudes on gun control haven't been more successful.

COURTESY OF LEGAL MOMENTUM

COURTESY OF LEGAL MOMENTUM (Formerly NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund) • Early feminists drew on strategies used in the civil rights movement and often made use of humor in their campaigning.

Humor can help

Connecting causes was one of the key strategies behind the feminist movement of the 1960s, says Muriel Fox, one of the founders of the National Organization of Women and its public relations specialist.

By the time NOW came along, the civil rights movement was well established. The feminist movement, in its early days, made every attempt to cash in on that.

'One of the things we stressed is, this is history, and history was on our side and it was moving after thousands of years of tradition in one direction. We were changing history, and we were part of the civil rights movement that was changing history,' Fox says.

NOW didn't have much money for a mass media campaign in its early days, but when it did have funds for advertising, it often made use of humor, Fox says.

Fox recalls one of NOW's first posters showing a college diploma with the text reading, 'Congratulations: You just spent $12,000 so she could join the typing pool.'

Another had what Fox calls 'a dopey-looking man' with his pants rolled up. 'Hire him. He has great legs,' read the copy.

'People pay attention when you use humor,' Fox says.

One of Oregon's most long-running public education campaigns belongs to Stop Oregon Litter and Vandalism (SOLV).

SOLV was started by then-Gov. Tom McCall in 1969, around the same time the state's historic bottle and beach access bills became law. According to SOLV executive director Melisa McDonald, McCall wanted a nonprofit, rather than a government agency, to push the public into taking responsibility for keeping public spaces free of litter.

That may sound like an easy sell, McDonald says, but it wasn't. Littering was still widely accepted. Also, McDonald says, the message was that Oregonians should take responsibility for each other's actions, calling out the litterers and vandals.

And SOLV wasn't asking Oregonians to pass a one-time ballot measure or bill, but to change attitudes and behavior for perpetuity.

'After 41 years, if it was an easy sell, everywhere you go would be beautiful,' McDonald says. 'We still have cigarette butts all over the place.'

And yet public littering is frowned upon in a way it wasn't when SOLV and similar organizations began public education campaigns. In 1984, the year SOLV first asked volunteers to participate in a beach cleanup, about 5,000 stepped forward. Last year, SOLV had close to 50,000 volunteers for trash pickups.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT

TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT • Campaigns to change public attitudes about women and drunken driving preceeded Basic Rights Oregon's current effort to sway Oregonians toward same-sex marriage. Pax Zetzer of Basic Rights (above) went door to door last week.

Something changed Oregonians' attitudes about litter, and one of the early lessons learned, McDonald says, was not to make pariahs of anyone. An early SOLV ad showed garbage strewn outside an RV campsite, after which RV owners protested that they were being singled out. SOLV's message morphed into a more inclusive one, and McDonald thinks it may have succeeded in reaching more Oregonians because the organization is not part of the government.

Zepatos, of Freedom to Marry, says that finding the right words to frame a public education campaign can be as important as any images. She says that, in the 1980s, the Oregon Citizens Alliance, a conservative Christian organization, began successfully using the phrase, 'No special rights for gays.'

For several years, Zepatos says, Oregon gay rights activists were unsuccessful in conveying a solid rebuttal to the special rights argument. The solution was to ignore that argument and portray the debate in terms of a different phrase - basic rights. Basic Rights Oregon came out of that discussion, Zepatos says.

If Zepatos and others are correct, the high ground in the battle over same-sex marriage will belong to whichever side gets its words and ideas publicly accepted. Zepatos, for instance, won't use the conservative Family Research Council's phrase 'redefining marriage.'

'Marriage is love and commitment. That's the definition of marriage,' she says.


COURTESY OF THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

COURTESY OF THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS • Prohibition led to scenes such as this of New York City agents in 1921 pouring liquor into the sewer following a raid. But instituting Prohibition first took 100 years of campaigning by the Temperance Movement.

Patience paid off for Prohibitionists

Smoking, drunken driving, feminism, gun control - the list of campaigns intended to change public attitudes is long. But in terms of persistence and surprising effectiveness, none can compare to Prohibition.

In 1820, virtually every American, including children, drank alcohol, according to Thomas Pegram, history professor at Loyola University in Maryland and author of 'Battling Demon Rum.' There was no refrigeration, and many people considered distilled drinks safer than their local public water supply. Also, whiskey was cheap.

Thousands of local temperance groups formed in cities across the country in the 1830s. The Women's Christian Temperance Union came along in 1874 and the Anti-Saloon League in 1893, first promoting temperance, and later outright abstinence.

In 1919 they managed to get the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ratified, banning virtually all alcoholic beverages, from beer and wine to hard liquor.

Now, that's changing hearts and minds. And livers, assumedly. And while Prohibition was enacted in an age long before mass media made it possible to reach huge numbers of people, many of the strategies used by its proponents are still guiding public-attitude campaigns today.

Kevin Mercuri, president of New York City's Propheta Communications, a public relations firm that works in consumer and government affairs, says some public-education campaigns make gains by demonizing a small group of outcasts, such as smokers, and encouraging the 'good citizens to help push the bad ones back in line.'

The campaign to ban alcohol did some of that, Pegram says. Saloon keepers and whiskey producers were labeled the bad guys, and so were European immigrant wage earners.

The campaign greatly focused on fathers who were stopping in saloons and drinking up their paychecks on the way home from work. Images of ragamuffin children and abused wives turned out of their homes were a staple in the temperance movement.

Connecting one cause to others is a strategy many experts recommend, and the temperance movement did that, pronouncing that crime, poverty and many diseases would disappear if liquor were abolished.

'There were a lot of claims that this was the mother of all reforms and if you had this reform a lot of other social problems would follow,' Pegram says.

Also, Prohibition advocates found themselves in the home stretch of their campaign during World War I, and made use of anti-German war sentiment by pointing out many breweries were owned by people of German descent.

A step-by-step approach often works in the long run, and one major step occurred when the Women's Christian Temperance Union managed to get legislation passed mandating public school courses on the dangers of alcohol. The Temperance Union, according to Pegram, provided the textbooks.

In Oregon, according to state archives, the state's provisional government enacted a prohibition law in 1844, which was repealed by the territorial Legislature five years later. But prohibitionists kept on pushing.

In 1914, five years before the 18th Amendment instituted Prohibition nationwide, Oregon voters passed a statewide liquor ban.

Prohibition only lasted 13 years. Most states provided inadequate funds to enforce anti-liquor laws. Most people were unwilling to give up drinking. Organized crime filled the void left by previous suppliers. But as a model of a successful public-education campaign it stands unparalleled, and as a testament to the powers of public persuasion, and patience.

'It didn't really come out of nowhere,' Pegram says. 'It was built out of a hundred years of activism.'

- Peter Korn


Same sex? Teens have different view

In a few years, says Vanessa Van Petten, people will be wondering what all the same-sex marriage fuss was about.

Van Petten, the 25-year-old creator of radicalparenting.com who refers to herself as a 'youthologist,' spends much of her time interviewing teens and 20-somethings, hosting teen workshops and talking to parent groups across the country. She says today's youth are already blurring the lines of sexual identity in ways their parents can't imagine.

A prime example is the current teen trend (OK, it's mostly white teens and mostly girls, Van Petten admits) toward declaring themselves bisexual. It's widespread and it's not primarily about politics, according to Van Petten.

What it's mostly about is the same thing teens have always been worried about - popularity. In most high schools today, Van Petten says, 'It's very sexy in a certain sense for women to be bisexual.'

Or at least to say they are bisexual, Van Petten adds. 'They can say 'Oh there's this other dimension to me, I'm bisexual.' And all of a sudden the category they were in - nerd - all of a sudden it doesn't fit anymore.'

What's more, Van Petten says, teens declaring their bisexuality have a politically correct means of rebelling from their parent's values. And for politically motivated teens today, Van Petten says, gay rights is the closest thing available to the civil rights and anti-war movements of previous generations.

'Gay marriage is a huge political issue, and there really isn't anything that takes its place for a young person looking to rebel against social norms,' Van Petten says.

That's what is going to make sexual identity almost irrelevant once these teens become middle aged, Van Petten says.

With so many teens experimenting with sexual identity today, proponents of same-sex marriage needn't worry, Van Petten says.

'All they have to do is wait,' she says.

- Peter Korn

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