Barack Obama’s speech last Monday cheered marriage-equality activists, less in terms of any specific commitment to their agenda than in its avoidance of euphemism. The president was the first to use the term gay in an inaugural, just a few sentences after offering a casual shout-out to Stonewall. But it was the fact that Obama stopped there, without a call to action, that was the clearest signal to advocates that he is on their side. In a break from their old tactics, some gay-marriage strategists are forgoing trying to convert opponents in favor of trying to convince them that the battle is already over.
In 2004, the Human Rights Campaign, following the old playbook, worked to squash a federal anti-marriage amendment with ads that played up Dick Cheney’s reservations about a gay marriage ban. But such efforts at persuading voters may have done little to move public opinion in their direction. “I’m not sure we’ve done such a fabulous job convincing people to change their minds,” Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg says of the marriage movement. In 2009, Greenberg was polling on behalf of a coalition fighting a Maine ballot measure to undo the state’s new law authorizing same-sex unions. Voters would end up returning marriage to its traditional definition, but she wanted them to look beyond the referendum in considering the issue. So she asked people if they agreed with this statement: “Regardless of what happens in November, marriage between same-sex couples is inevitable in Maine and the rest of the country.” Greenberg has since posed that question time and again, and results keep pointing in the same direction: Regardless of their views on the issue, Americans expect the country to change. Greenberg found in 2011 that more than 60 percent thought gay marriage would be widely legalized within a decade. That number includes half of those who opposed rewriting laws to make it possible.
Based on that finding—and buoyed by four state-level ballot wins in November—the Human Rights Campaign shifted its messaging earlier this year in an ad narrated by Morgan Freeman. “With historic victories for marriage, we’ve delivered a mandate for full equality. The wind is at our back, but our journey has just begun,” the actor intoned in the spot, which aired in New York, Washington, and L.A. and aspired to ratify the “general Zeitgeist,” as HRC communications director Michael Cole-Schwartz puts it. “It’s making people comfortable with the inevitability,” he says. The new rhetoric is not a plea to fairness as much as a psychological tactic to demoralize opponents. “It just deflates them,” says Greenberg, who handles HRC’s opinion research. “People who may disagree with [gay marriage] but believe it may happen anyway are hard people to mobilize.” By summer, the Supreme Court will have its own say on the issue, of course, when it rules on cases involving Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act. In the meantime, the Human Rights Campaign is trying to foster the sense that, whatever the justices decide, history has already ruled in favor of their cause.