From the Frontlines of Marriage Equality

How aspirational narrative helped win historic victories for marriage equality

The team at Hattaway Communications has worked with leaders on the frontlines of the LGBT movement for nearly two decades. We’ve been honored to work with organizations at the local, state and national levels, and we’re proud of our role in helping the movement make historic progress on the issue of marriage equality.

Our “aspirational” approach to communication helped the movement make a critical shift in its message about marriage. Dozens of battles were lost at the ballot box and in state legislatures when the issue was framed in terms of protecting the constitutional rights of same-sex couples. While marriage is a fundamental right in the legal sense, that message didn’t move voters and legislators away from their opposition to same-sex marriage. Pundits said that public opinion would be slow to change on such a controversial topic.

The Human Rights Campaign asked our team to help turn the tide. To explore new ways of framing the issue, we joined forces with psychologists who specialized in the emotional dimensions of decision-making and behavior. Researchers conducted one-on-one interviews, using a variety of innovative techniques to explore the emotional dynamics of the issue among people who said they favored equal rights for LGBT Americans, but opposed marriage equality.

Guided by our Aspirational Communication model, we began the interviews by asking people about their hopes and values surrounding the topic of marriage. The aspirational model suggests that connecting a cause to people’s hopes for their own lives makes it more meaningful to them, and helps create messages with maximum motivating power.

Our research found that most of these “ambivalent” voters didn’t think of marriage in terms of legal rights and benefits, but rather as a long-term commitment between two people. When they understood that same-sex couples held the same hope for their relationships, these voters were much more likely to support marriage equality.

This powerful insight led us to counsel our clients in the marriage movement to shift from framing the issue in terms of protecting legal rights to promoting the aspirational values of “love and commitment.”

We put that learning to work on the frontlines of the battle in Massachusetts, the first state to grant equal marriage rights. To defeat a constitutional amendment that would have taken those rights away, our team conducted message research and development, managed media relations and produced advertising for MassEquality, a grassroots advocacy organization that led the effort to protect marriage equality.

The campaign persuaded a majority of voters that “love and commitment deserve protection,” while reminding state legislators that “it’s wrong to vote on rights.” Our award-winning television ad showed the movement how to connect the cause with the hopes and values of the state’s voters. The campaign helped to persuade 60 percent of the state’s voters to support marriage equality and convince 151 legislators to defeat the discriminatory amendment.

The new “love and commitment” framework was employed to help defeat the Federal Marriage Amendment in Congress, advance marriage equality in state legislatures and win ballot measures in multiple states. It also contributed to an historic shift in public opinion: In 2011, for the first time, more than 50 percent of Americans said they supported marriage equality.

To build on that momentum, Freedom to Marry asked our team to help educate leaders in national politics and news media about the new politics of marriage equality. We asked President Obama’s pollster to join President Bush’s pollster in analyzing national survey data, produced a briefing at the National Press Club and reached out to our network of leaders in Democratic politics and political journalism. This work helped to open eyes in Washington—and change the political narrative about an issue that had long been considered a third rail in American politics. Most important, this shift in public opinion and conventional wisdom has helped create a climate for historic progress toward full equality.

This work helped open eyes in Washington—and change the narrative about an issue that had long been considered a third rail in American politics. In 2012, President Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage, and the Democratic Party added support for marriage equality to its official platform.

Using the “love and commitment” frame helped the movement shift public opinion on the issue of marriage equality. In 2011, for the first time, more than 50 percent of Americans said they supported marriage equality.

The new narrative was employed to help defeat the Federal Marriage Amendment in Congress, advance marriage equality in state legislatures and win ballot measures across the country. Soon same-sex marriage was legal in 17 states, and the Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act. With public opinion continuing to shift rapidly, the Supreme Court made marriage equality the law of the land in 2015.

Anticipating the Supreme Court decision, a coalition of foundations and nonprofit organizations hired Hattaway to “crowd source” a national conversation about the future of the movement. Our team created the Our Tomorrow campaign and partnered with more than 140 organizations to ask people from all walks of life about their hopes, fears and ideas for the future. More than 5,000 people submitted responses. Our team produced a linguistic analysis of the conversation and shared insights with the entire movement through an interactive data display on the campaign website.

The changes in public opinion, conventional wisdom and legal precedent surrounding the marriage issue have helped create a climate for progress toward full equality. The Hattaway team continues working to advance the cause by creating research-based strategies, content and campaigns to motivate and mobilize people in support of LGBT equality.