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Marriage Equality: Positive Messaging Wins Out

In the culture wars, sound bites matter

By Jack Drescher, MD

Should gay people be allowed to marry each other? Some think not. Why not? Apparently because God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!

Although clever, this sound bite’s sarcasm comes across as negative. And in culture war debates, positive messages are have been shown to be more effective than negative ones. For example, both sides in the abortion struggle now identify as pro, either life or choice. Saying what they are actually against (either abortion or government intrusion in a woman’s health care decisions) sounds negative.

In their effort to sound positive, religious opponents of gay rights have tried a more nuanced message: Love the sinner but hate the sin. This turns out not to be very effective since gay people, the sinners on the message’s receiving end, do not feel much love, nor does the message’s theological parsing travel well beyond fundamentalist circles.

Protect marriage and traditional marriage, are two often used catchphrases that try to disguise an underlying animus toward gay people. However upon close scrutiny, neither holds up. Biblical traditional marriages, for example, include those of Abraham, Sarah and the slave Hagar, not to mention Jacob, Leah, Rachel and two slaves who conceived the twelve tribal patriarchs of Israel. Obviously, protect traditional marriage as portrayed in the Bible after the Book of Genesis doesn’t make a great sound bite. Nor does extensive scholarship on the history of marriage’s many social purposes support anti-gay claims of what traditional marriage actually means.

Protect marriage sounds pro something, although many heterosexuals are often left wondering how the marriages of gay family members, friends and neighbors threaten their own. Those who do not share the messenger’s implicit anti-gay animus find the catchphrase meaningless. It is no small irony that last June conservative Supreme Court Justices Roberts and Scalia implicitly rejected this argument when they denied standing to appeal to the anti-gay supporters of California’s Proposition 8 who claimed they were harmed by gay marriage.

Another, newer sound bite, Every child needs a mother and a father, is not borne out by most social science literature showing kids do better with two parents, regardless of gender, than with one. A related sound bite is Gay marriage denies children a father and mother. Although many children in the foster care system have no parents at all, some states deny gay couples the opportunity to adopt them. The actual message is more like: Better no parents than gay ones!

Marriage equality, on the other hand, appeals to deeply held American beliefs in fairness. Over time, it has turned out to be the culture war’s most successful message to date. By replacing gay marriage and same-sex marriage in political discourse, it also avoids evoking any uncomfortable feelings about homosexual activity among heterosexual legislators and voters.

The message of equality carried the day last June when the US Supreme Court overturned Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act that prohibited federal recognition of legal same-sex marriages. The majority opinion was that “DOMA violates basic due process and equal protection principles applicable to the Federal Government.” The court’s decision now allows gay marriages to be treated as heterosexual ones for purposes of inheritance, taxation, social security survivor benefits, citizenship for non-US spouses, and more than a thousand other federal benefits.

Yet now with thirteen states, the District of Columbia, Canada, ten European countries, Argentina, New Zealand South Africa, Uruguay and several Mexican and Brazilian states offering marriage equality, we hear a new refrain: Passing gay marriage leads to discrimination against religious people who oppose it. Upon analysis, claims of victimhood come across as projections of the losing side’s own discriminatory tendencies. It illustrates once again the inability of marriage equality opponents to come up with substantive or coherent policy arguments.

Clever ripostes may score points in an afternoon debate and recent history shows that catchy political slogans like one man and one woman can even rack up electoral victories. Yet in the face of determined, principled opposition and lacking any substantive contributions to contemporary social policy debates other than biblical prohibitions from Leviticus, the furtherance of marriage equality seems a sure thing.

Jack Drescher, MD is a Training and Supervising Analyst, William Alanson White Institute. He serves on the World Health Organization's Working Group on Sexual Disorders and Sexual Health revising the ICD-11 and served on the DSM-5 WorkGroup on Sexual and Gender Identity Disorders. He is a frequent media spokesperson on issues of gender and sexuality.

Dr. Drescher will be speaking at the Unknowable, Unspeakable and Unsprung: Navigating the Thrill and Danger of Living amidst Truth, Fantasy and Privacy Conference on Saturday, October 5th, 2013 at the Mt. Sinai Medical Center and the NY Academy of Medicine in New York City. Click to register

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