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To De-Emphasize Benefits of Gay Marriage, There’s a ’Third Way’

by Shaun Knittel
Contributor
Monday Nov 21, 2011
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Whenever I ask a heterosexual friend why he loves his girlfriend or why he decided to marry his fiancé, the answer is almost always the same. My friend looks me in the eye and says, "I love her." I’ve yet to hear a friend say, "I love her benefits."

In other words, most people get married because they want to spend the rest of their lives together, regardless of equality issues and benefits. In contrast, I believe that our messaging has gotten off track. The LGBT rights movement would rather say, "I do" to benefits than to a person. That’s a problem -- and I’m not the only one who thinks so.

Earlier this month, a group of high-profile Democrats and Republicans who back legalizing same-sex marriage called on advocates to shift the focus on the issue from an argument about equal rights to promoting the value of commitment. The group, dubbed the "Commitment Campaign," said their national effort is aimed at developing and deepening support among Middle American voters - moderates and independents - for marriage equality.

The campaign, created by Third Way, a leading moderate think tank, officially launched November 7 and has already enlisted the bipartisan support of prominent political leaders and activists. Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley (D), former Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee (I), and former New Jersey Governor and EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman (R), among others, are on board.

The goal of the campaign is to change the way we communicate about LGBT relationships. Commitment Campaign officials say they will work with policymakers and advocates to persuade the political middle that LGBT couples want to marry so that they can make a lifetime commitment, not simply for rights and benefits.

Support for same-sex marriage is increasing across the country; 53 percent of Americans now support marriage for gay and lesbian couples according to Gallup. The recent passage of marriage in New York State potentially signifies a tipping point on the issue. But the next handful of years will put that support to the test in states, in Congress, and in the courts.

This week, advocates of same-sex marriage in Washington State announced a coalition, Washington United for Marriage, to emphasize the make-or-break year of 2012. Because Washington voters voted to approve a measure that grants the same rights and responsibilities of heterosexual marriage to the state’s registered domestic partners, Washington United for Marriage will not be able to argue the equality route.

Other than the word "marriage," for all intents and purposes, same-sex couples in Washington State are equal to their heterosexual counterparts. The argument must be love, commitment, fairness.

Advocates on the frontlines of almost every major push for same-sex marriage have long made the case that legalizing marriage for gays and lesbians is a matter of equality, but those who frame the issue that way might be reinforcing a belief among many Americans undecided on the issue that gays and lesbians want to marry for different reasons from straight couples, say Commitment Campaign officials.

Jonathan Cowan, president of Third Way, said the New York State Legislature’s passage of gay marriage legislation this year marked a pivotal point and that the issue will be battled in the courts. Winning broad support will be crucial to winning the legal battle, Cowan said.

"There is no question when the Supreme Court makes a decision on an important social issue that one of the factors that they look at is where the country is," he said. "If we stick with a rights and benefits framework, we will ultimately not be able to win over enough of the middle of the country that we need to prevail."

Some prominent gay-rights organizations, including the Human Rights Campaign, have started reframing their messaging. Last month, the group launched an Internet ad campaign in which prominent African-American leaders such as former NAACP leader Julian Bond note that gay and lesbian couples "have the same values as everyone else - love, commitment and stable families."

Charles Moran, chairman of the California Log Cabin Republicans, points to a "fundamental flaw" in the way that the LGBT community has framed the issue in the past that has led to 31 straight defeats in ballot initiatives across the country. "This is a real radical way of changing the approach in communicating why gay marriage equality is important," said Moran, who supports the Commitment Campaign.

Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, who is pushing his state’s legislature to pass marriage in 2012, voiced his support for the effort, saying: "Americans of all walks of life want their children to live in a loving, stable, committed home, protected under the law. By focusing on these values, the Commitment Campaign will help broaden support for marriage across the country and help states like Maryland pass marriage legislation in the near term."

Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee, whose state looks like it may be the next gay-marriage domino to fall, concurred: "Third Way’s Commitment Campaign will play a vital role in helping to move the country towards allowing gay couples to enter into lasting relationships. It will also foster a shift in the way many Americans think about marriage for gay couples."

U.S. Senate Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who has emerged as a leading voice on LGBT issues, also endorsed the campaign’s framework and goals: "Taking this message of commitment to the American people will help us broaden support for marriage nationwide and ensure that other states follow in New York’s footsteps."

For his part, the former Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, who worked toward New York’s historic vote, noted the importance of bringing the campaign’s message to Americans across the political spectrum: "Third Way’s Commitment Campaign will be among the most strategic and effective national efforts to broaden support for marriage, with a unique focus on winning over moderates, Independents, conservatives, and Republicans."

Shaun Knittel is an openly gay journalist and public affairs specialist living in Seattle. His work as a photographer, columnist, and reporter has appeared in newspapers and magazines throughout the Pacific Northwest. In addition to writing for EDGE, Knittel is the current Associate Editor for Seattle Gay News.

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