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‘Love,’ not rights

Winning recognition for gay marriage in America was all about spinning the right message

‘Love,’ not rights

Dominique Hernandez displays her rainbow-colored fist at a rally outside the Los Angeles City Hall. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

Wolfson at the Freedom to Marry office in New York

Associated Press/Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Same-sex marriage supporters hold up balloons that spell “love wins” in front of the White House on June 26, 2015, the day of the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision.

Associated Press/Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Ben Rhodes

 Pam Berry/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Edward Bernays

In 2012, President Barack Obama said in an ABC interview, “I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.” A White House statement added detail: “It’s no secret the President has gone through some soul-searching on this issue. … He’s sat around his kitchen table with Sasha and Malia, who have friends whose parents are same-sex couples. … ‘And frankly,’ [Obama said,] ‘that’s the kind of thing that prompts a change of perspective.’”

Evan Wolfson, founder of national gay rights organization Freedom to Marry, lauded the statement. He had helped the White House craft it using research-tested elements: “We were thrilled that President Obama came out in support of marriage for same-sex couples using the love and commitment and journey framework that was proving so effective elsewhere.” Not talk about rights. Focus-group-tested talk about love. Love sells.

It’s hard to remember now, a year after the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision declared a right to marry in all 50 states, how unlikely that result seemed just a decade ago. Gay marriage proponents had suffered one defeat after another at the ballot box. But activist groups and foundations turned things around with a strategic plan, a state-by-state strategy, and money—$153 million, they claim. Here’s the story of how that happened and what’s likely to happen next.

THE SUCCESS STORY BEGINS 16 YEARS AGO when the Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, established with the Levi Strauss fortune and eager to push for LGBT acceptance, approached Lambda Legal attorney Evan Wolfson for advice on where the foundation should concentrate its giving.

For Wolfson the answer was simple: marriage. The gay, Yale-educated, Harvard-trained attorney had been on the forefront of gay rights legal battles ever since he wrote his 1983 Harvard Law thesis—for which he earned a B—on the right to marriage. In that year the idea of gay marriage was radical, even among allies on the left. Feminists were tearing down marriage. Gay activists channeled their energy to fighting AIDS and employment discrimination.

The 5-foot-6-inch Wolfson, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Togo, Africa, thought differently. He believed “fighting for, let alone winning, the freedom to marry would propel equality and inclusion for gay people in ways nothing else could.” He had grown up with Democratic Jewish parents in Pittsburgh. He had so much self-confidence that he had invited President Richard Nixon to his bar mitzvah, despite his parents’ disapproval. (Nixon didn’t come, but he did send a note.) Wolfson was a practicing homosexual in Togo. If there’s a movie made of the marriage fight, an actor like Danny DeVito should play him.

After law school Wolfson moonlighted on gay rights cases and eventually worked full time with Lambda Legal. He acted as co-counsel in a challenge to Hawaii’s marriage law, defended a dismissed gay Boy Scouts leader, and challenged Vermont’s marriage law. By the time the Haas, Jr. Fund came calling, Wolfson had experienced both victories and defeats—and he convinced the foundation to give him $2.5 million to start a new organization, Freedom to Marry. By most accounts, Wolfson and Freedom to Marry led the fight that resulted in the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision.

IN A 2003 RULING, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court gave gay people the right to marry, and proponents of traditional marriage responded. By November 2004, 11 states had enacted gay marriage bans. The next year, nine more did. Public opinion was roundly against gay marriage, but that did not deter Wolfson and other gay rights activists.

Money made determination easier. Funders with deep pockets stepped up to form the Civil Marriage Collaborative (CMC). Eight foundations and an anonymous donor agreed to coordinate efforts to win marriage in all 50 states. They promised the resources to get it done—and they came through.

CMC funder philanthropist Tim Gill, founder of desktop publishing software Quark, had established the Gill Foundation to fight for gay rights causes. A 2004 Denver Post profile portrayed the wealthy Gill as obsessed with politics and extreme sports. He spent more than $67 million on gay rights causes during the foundation’s first 10 years, and chased snowboarding, paragliding, and mountain climbing thrills.

The Haas, Jr. Fund support of Evan Wolfson was crucial: “We knew if they, as a non-gay foundation stepped up, they would get other non-gay support.” But foundation support failed to translate into electoral victory. Freedom to Marry acknowledged that “by 2009 the marriage movement had lost every one of 30 statewide ballot campaigns.” Those losses included setbacks in Maine and California, both states LGBT activists expected to win.

If activists had lacked a commitment to marriage as the end goal, perhaps the movement would have changed course. But activists and funders knew that winning on marriage would convey “intangible and irreplaceable security and respect,” as a CMC brochure put it. Winning would break down every other barrier to full LGBT acceptance: “No single institution reaches so deeply into our national psyche, or so broadly across so many different areas of our lives as does marriage.”

As the movement went back to the drawing board, the CMC and other funders made sure resources were available for in-depth research, focus groups, and ad testing. Hundreds of thousands of dollars later, the movement had an “aha” moment. The research showed the key message had to change from rights and benefits to love and commitment. Love wins.

Focus groups, long interviews, and trial messaging proved that “journey” stories—showing how someone’s opinion changed—resonated with conflicted voters. The best messengers: straight parents and grandparents of gay people who had long, happy marriages and wanted something like the same for their LGBT kids and grandkids.

Wolfson’s Freedom to Marry group became a laboratory and clearinghouse for messages, materials, and media training. Its “Why Marriage Matters” campaign offered “state-of-the-art research findings, personal stories, and ready-made tools like videos, graphics, speakers bureaus and house party kits to reshape the national conversation on marriage.”

Then in 2012 Freedom to Marry, “working closely with” the White House, gained “a Messenger-in-Chief”: President Obama. Its field-tested message became Obama’s: “In a single day, the President modeled the journey for all Americans, and gave permission to those who were most conflicted to join in support.” The change in messaging to “love” worked. In 2012, LGBT activists won at the ballot box for the first time as three states voted for marriage and Minnesota rejected a gay marriage ban.

Last year, touting the campaign’s success, Freedom to Marry called itself  “a story-telling machine,” successful in pitching emotional stories to receptive reporters. Using well-placed advocates, willing members of the press, and “earned media”—news and feature stories by allied reporters, rather than ads—Freedom to Marry created a “national drumbeat for decision-makers throughout the country, including the Supreme Court.”

Here’s one example: Freedom to Marry created a pro-same-sex-marriage ad featuring former GOP Sen. Alan Simpson. It made only a small media buy in D.C., Wyoming, and other 10th Circuit states (where LGBT legal groups planned to file a case). It watched as cable stations and media outlets amplified the message at no cost to Freedom to Marry. Influential and sympathetic reporters from The New York Times, The Washington Post, Politico, NPR, and CNN attended Freedom to Marry briefings and transmitted the message.

After the Supreme Court victory, both the Civil Marriage Collaborative and Freedom to Marry published self-laudatory case studies. The Foundation Center’s “Glasspockets” column summed up the lessons this way: “Through the work of the Civil Marriage Collaborative, philanthropy learned that when it works collectively and engages in storytelling about its beneficiaries, it can accelerate the pace of change. … Key to this was a willingness to invest in media campaigns … and then to humanize the case by showcasing stories featuring the voices of parents and grandparents of gay children as part of the effort.”

WHO WILL TELL THE COMPELLING STORIES that win hearts and minds going forward? Some on the same-sex marriage side have shifted their attention and money to fight against religious liberty. In March 2015, reporters and activists gathered at a Haas, Jr. Fund–supported media gathering in Philadelphia to hear speakers lay out an agenda for attacking religious freedom bills.

The Gill, Overbrook, Ford, and Arcus foundations are now funding groups like the ACLU and the Movement Advancement Project (MAP) to develop the most potent anti-religious-liberty messages. MAP has already published a guide for talking about what it calls “religious exemption laws.” Matthew Vines’ Reformation Project received $100,000 from the Gill Foundation in 2014 to weaken Christian resolve at its theological roots. The Arcus Foundation gave $120,000 to the Religion Newswriters Foundation “to recruit and equip LGBT supportive leaders and advocates to counter rejection and antagonism within traditionally conservative Christian churches.”

Gay activist Marc Solomon describes the LGBT movement’s newfound confidence: “Our community is one that people don’t want to mess with because we know how to organize politically and we don’t take no for an answer.”

Nuclear messaging

Perhaps the LGBT campaign sounds familiar. Earlier this year President Obama’s deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes bragged about how the Obama administration sold the Iran deal to a wary American public. The Ploughshares Fund gave grants to journalists, experts, and influencers to amplify the administration’s message in favor of the Iran deal. Example: Ploughshares gave $100,000 to NPR for “national security reporting that emphasizes the themes of U.S. nuclear weapons policy and budgets, Iran’s nuclear program, international nuclear security topics and U.S. policy toward nuclear security.”

In its 2015 annual report, Ploughshares explained how “proactive media work by Ploughshares Fund grantees, partners and allies helped amplify support” by generating 811 op-eds, 352 letters to the editor, and 227 editorials designed to reach crucial subgroups, including evangelicals. —S.O.

Pulling the wires

The LGBT campaign to damage the nuclear family and the pro-Iran campaign that will end up spreading nuclear weapons have a common ancestor: Edward Bernays (1891-1995), nephew of Sigmund Freud and founder as a young man of modern public relations.

Bernays was 93 when I interviewed him in 1984 at his house near Harvard, with walls decorated by photos of famous clients ranging from Eleanor Roosevelt to tobacco industry executives. (Bernays convinced women to embrace smoking as an expression of their liberation.)

Bernays maintained in the 1990s what he had declared in the 1920s: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”

An atheist, Bernays proudly considered himself one of “the relatively small number of persons … who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses.” He was proud to “pull the wires which control the public mind” so that “vast numbers of human beings … live together as a smoothly functioning society.” —Marvin Olasky

Susan Olasky

Susan Olasky

Susan is a book reviewer, story coach, feature writer and editor for WORLD. She has authored eight historical novels for children and teaches twice a year at World Journalism Institute. Susan resides with her husband, Marvin, in Austin, Texas. Follow her on Twitter @susanolasky.


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  • Allen Johnson
    Posted: Fri, 08/05/2016 01:07 pm

    Susan Olasky points out the key strategy of shifting emphasis from "rights and benefits to love and commitment." Modern society gets part of that, the "love" part, but obviously not the "commitment" part as evidenced by serial divorce, cohabitation, and the hookup culture.
    From an anthropological viewpoint that surveys cultures throughout the world over recorded history, marriage seems to have evolved to protect paternity rights. Not unlike many animal species, human males are prone to fight for their females, and such violence has a propensity to melt down tribal groups (the precursors of larger societies). Marriage provides sexual exclusivity to couples with the implicit guarantee who will have sired the offspring. Societies developed out of these practices that built political alliances, bolstered family fortunes, and stabilized cultures. Such marriages were primarily not about romantic love or affection. Romantic love and affection as the primary basis for marriage enevenly sprouted alongside, but blossomed mightily in more recent centuries. 
    Now marriage is based upon romance, not perpetrating a line of progeny or building financial security or political alliances. And so, same-sex attracted people can step into this logic.

    One other thing. The LBGTQ movement gained popular acceptance and empathy when it turned away from the chains, studs, & leather image to the nice "uncles next door." And indeed, many are nice people. But western societies launched a new era in defining marriage even before gay marriage came on the scene, and the acceleration of that redefining through gay marriage will increase in rocking that core pillar of healthy societies, the transition of children into mature, altruistic, society-contributing adults.

  • William Miller
    Posted: Fri, 08/05/2016 02:29 pm

    World magazine. How about an article on how Christian leaders have failed to halt the progress of legalized moral decay.

    Before homosexual marriage, there was the removal of Ten Commandments from public schools. The Johnson admentment on restricting what could be said from the pulpit, no-fault divorce, and many others that little reasearch could line up in a progression.

    For example, before homosexual marriage nothing was said from my church's pulpit. Aferward, the congregation was advised to be more righteous. This hasn't been very effective.

    The next issue is probably pologamy. It appears the church leadership will give an ineffective reaction after the fact.

    I believe it is up to the church leaders to lead and not to lay the blame on the congregation.

  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Fri, 08/05/2016 09:42 pm

    Can you please clarify what you mean by "lead?"

    My thinking is that church leadership needs to do a more effective job of actually teaching what the Bible says and how to apply it to current issues.  Is that what you mean?

  •  Greg Mangrum's picture
    Greg Mangrum
    Posted: Wed, 08/10/2016 07:26 pm

    If one follows the homosexual agenda philosophy to its logical end, one will find that it ultimately leads to the extinction of the human race. If anyone can love any other person (read: those of the same sex because that is what is meant by this statement) or if there is a "right" to marry for same sex attracted people, then having a same sex attraction and acting on it must be totally ok and completely normal. If that is true and if every human being was homosexual (and that wouldn't be odd because it is apparently perfectly normal and good) and were 100% consistent with their "identity" (no cheating with the opposite sex) then there would be no procreation, no children to propogate the human species, and therefore, the extinction of humans in one generation. There are tragic consequences associated with believing evil is good.

    Being celibate, one may ask, would lead to  the same end, however, celibacy was never meant for everyone for this very reason. Homosexuality does not work this way. It is either healthy and good or not; those who teach that homosexuality is fine never mention that it is only good for some (it's not good for anyone).

    It is one thing to struggle with a sin. We all do. However, it is a totally different thing altogether for a government (or a church) to promote and celebrate that sin due to a twisted sense of compassion.

    Two men and/or two women can be close, share friendship, laughter, hugs, and care for one another deeply and not have sex with each other. In this case, the aforementioned couples are not homosexual, they are human, and they happen to have an healthy intimate relationship with someone of the same sex. Society needs to relearn--or learn for the first time--about the human relationship called romantic (also known as passionate) friendship.

    Again, there are many different types of attitudes, feelings, and actions, but there is only one identity: human.

  • Laura W
    Posted: Sat, 08/06/2016 07:36 pm

    I'm not sure the reasoning is sound here. If everyone was single and celibate for their whole lives, then humans would also be extinct in a generation, but we know that there's nothing wrong with some people choosing to remain single and celibate. There are other reasons why homosexuality is wrong, and we can even say unnatural, but I don't think this is one of them. I doubt many people are so short-sighted as to wish that everyone was homosexual, and thus no children, and only a small percentage of people actually wish to live as homosexuals, so it doesn't pose a practical problem in this regard.

  • DakotaLutheran
    Posted: Sat, 08/06/2016 10:58 am

    Rhetoric is as old as civilized society. My suspicion is that Bernays or the LGBT community have discovered nothing that hasn't been known and applied for thousands of years. What they did was to apply it to today's media and context. What makes these tactics more interesting is what makes them persuasive and what exactly they are persuading people to believe. It began by having homosexuals "come out." When I was a kid in the 50s, homosexuals were frightening. Today they are everywhere, as commonplace as apple pie. Other "marginalized" groups have been doing this for a very long time (Jews, Irish, Italians, and African Americans). What is generally not shown is what they do that makes them homosexuals.This education that I have recieved over the past 60 or more years has taught me a great deal. Homosexuals are "like us," and if we don't believe they are "like us," then we probably know, are related to, or like a homosexual. This is a good thing. We are all creations of the same God; all needing redemption. To appreciate what it is like being a homosexual most of us will have to imagine that our desire for our spouses is sinful and an abomination. Sexual attraction is a powerful influence upon our lives, far more powerful than I think we realize. It seems to me that over millennia sexuality has been tamed, perhaps even covered up, leaving us with the impression that it is easily controlled. There are distinct contemporary signs that this is changing. What is more, I believe, that sexuality can be attached to many and myriad behaviors, heterosexuality and homosexuality being but two. But this does not entail that the two ought to be considered equal or abirtrary. I trust Scripture that there is something about homosexuality that needs to be avoided, both for societies and individuals. The problem is that the Christian community and America in general could not say exactly what that is. We cannot easily see the dangers of our freedoms; we cannot easily see our individual connections with a wider society. The pasture seems open and unfenced to us, and cannot see why we would not want to wander and graze upon it. We are living on a kind of blind inertia set in motion by millennia of a Christian revolution. It turns slowly, too slowly for us to recognize or resist. So the warnings and resistance of "traditionalists" seem exaggerated and unfounded. And this is so because these same "traditionalists" do not themselves feel the essential cause for their own tradition. They are traditionalists because it is what has gone before, not because of the specific form and shape of that tradition. As such, they were low hanging fruit, and could put up little fuss. We could not pass onto our children what we ourselves did not possess. For the most part we do not trust Scripture today more than we trust ourselves. We do not tremble at not doing so. What shall we say to our own children when they tell us (if they ever do) of a same-sex attraction? What if were to say, "So what?" And they can see no reason why they should deny themselves. What if they can see no difference between your orgasm with your spouse and the one they might have with a "partner"? Our society and schools teach an equality of orgasm, anything else would be unrighteous and an abomination. Fences need to come down for we can see none but aribitrary or oppressive justification for their maintenance. It is a moral injunction, fired by the sense that tradition's position is indefensible, held merely because it is our tradition. Gay marriage is a hardly noticeable historical footnote in comparison to losing the sense that homosexuality is a sin, and this perhaps because we had long lost the sense of what sin is. 

  •  Neil Evans's picture
    Neil Evans
    Posted: Mon, 08/08/2016 12:26 pm

    Human life is the cumulative story of rebellion, consequence and rescue (and non-rescue).  In the middle of every individual story we discuss (and argue) the pros and cons of nature's (God's) rules.  Imagine Adam and Eve discussing the forbidden tree.  The only negative was God's warning.  To the rebellious heart there are a million good reasons to "do what is right in my own eye."  It is interesting that Satan's challenges to Adam and Eve are still the foundation of every individual and cultural rebellion.  Satan asked: "has God said?" And he proudly concluded: "surely you won't die!"  As Christians (the rescued) we must not be sidetracked (as we are prone to be) by entangeling discussions of the pros and cons of God's rules.  We must answer quickly and live boldly that "God has spoken, and He tells the Truth."  Captives of Satan's lies are not won by discussions of our struggles with God's veracity but by the transformations they see in our lives as we believe and obey what God has said. 

  • Janet B
    Posted: Wed, 08/10/2016 07:56 am

    Bernays maintained in the 1990s what he had declared in the 1920s: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”

    “the relatively small number of persons … who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses.”... “pull the wires which control the public mind” so that “vast numbers of human beings … live together as a smoothly functioning society.”

    This describes perfectly why "democracy" always ends in tyranny.

  • Hawkdriver
    Posted: Wed, 08/10/2016 09:06 am

    A very well written and timely article.  Thank you for the research and detailed information.  This puts into perspective how this major shift of morality in our nation occured so rapidly.  Now, how do we, as children of the one true God, turn back the tide, spread the salt and light of His Word to this lost and dying world?  What is our strategy?  Lift up Jesus Christ with His message of salvation, I'm sure we all agree on that, but, delivery, how do we deliver His message in a way the lost will understand.  We must pray like the early church in Acts 4.  God will give us His direction and power to deliver.  We can't do it alone, in the power of our own flesh.  We need air support or in this case prayer support.

    Posted: Wed, 08/10/2016 09:17 am

    Thank you for the article, Susan. When we allowed romantic love to replace covenantal commitment as the primary ground of heterosexual marriage in our imaginations (think romantic novels for the past 100+ years), we exchanged the biblical soil of marriage for a lie. We imported the kudzu that is now choking the life out of marriage.

  •  William Peck 1958's picture
    William Peck 1958
    Posted: Thu, 08/11/2016 03:57 pm

    Overall, it's a denial of the creator and creation. With the bathroom bill, this is an in-your-face reminder multiple times a day of this blatent and blasphmous denial.

    According to this article, NC school will stop referring to students as "boys" and "girls". Welcome to Bizarro world !!! Boys and girls will now be referred to as "students" and "scholars".

  • Joe M
    Posted: Mon, 08/15/2016 08:05 pm

    Matthew Vines... Bingo. That is where the battle will be fought in terms of the minds of rising Evangelicals. We waste our time on public policy: we need to worry about Subfay School teaching.

  • Laneygirl's picture
    Posted: Wed, 08/17/2016 10:01 am

    Was it more important to Hitler to create a "master race" or to annihilate the Jews? Is it more important for the homosexual movement to gain equal rights and respectability in our culture, or to annihilate the Church? According to this article, the end game has been exposed as they "lay out the agenda for attacking religious freedom" in America.

    What can we learn from the steamrolled Nazi Germany that would have this turn out differently?

  •  Cavanaugh's picture
    Posted: Sat, 09/10/2016 12:24 pm

    I may have seen a further reveal in the University of California, Riverside Spring 2016 Magazine.   On page 14 {describing the new "School of Public Policy"} is the following summary of a study by Columbia University's Mark Hatzenbuehler: ... communities with a structural stigma on the gay and lesbian community - for instance, an official ban on gay marriage - have a higher incidence of anxiety and other mental disorders.  [emphasis mine]

    While there are probably non-believing individuals that have some level of displeasure with sexual deviance, I suspect that the "communities" that have a structural [AKA stuck on "truth"] problem with "gay marriage" are in fact the Body of Christ".  So I must conclude that holding to truth is the next "mental disorder" and that some folks would like to help with this via public policy.