The Marriage Plot: Inside This Year's Epic Campaign for Gay Equality

Freedom to Marry began field-testing a new type of campaign in Oregon in 2010. Mailers and television ads for the effort, dubbed "Marriage Matters" and undertaken in partnership with a local organization, showed gay couples and straight couples side by side, talking about how long they'd been together and the meaning of marriage to their everyday lives. ("We've been together for 31 years.... We share the laundry, cooking, vacations and the happiness we wish for our children and grandchildren," a beaming lesbian couple said in one mail piece.) The campaign urged people to talk to each other about the meaning of marriage in their own lives and the principle of the Golden Rule, as in this mailer featuring a dialogue between "Kate" and "Darrick."

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All of these approaches were rigorously tested in controlled experiments. One population would receive one message; another, similar population would receive another; another would get no "treatment" at all, and pollsters would follow up to see what effect the message had. One of the first such trials actually happened in the heat of the Prop 8 campaign. A small nonprofit called Let California Ring aired a single television ad in the Santa Barbara media market and studied it in comparison with the similar population of the Monterey market, which got no advertising. (The small buy was all the group could afford; a plethora of small, uncoordinated groups was one of the Prop 8 opponents' many tactical problems.)

In the ad, called "Garden Wedding," a bride walking down the aisle keeps hitting obstacles: Her veil catches, her shoe heel breaks, she trips and falls. At the end, her groom -- a man -- is waiting. A tagline reads, "What if you couldn't marry the person you love?" Polling before and after the ad aired found that while support for gay marriage stayed the same in Monterey, it rose 11 points in Santa Barbara.

On Election Day, Proposition 8 was wildly successful in Southern California -- except for a single county, where it lost by 10 points: Santa Barbara.

Building the Map

On January 23, 2012, hundreds of activists for and against gay marriage descended on the Washington state capitol in Olympia, a domed edifice with a pale limestone facade. They gathered in a wood-paneled hearing room of the state senate, where Senator Craig Pridemore, a Democrat from Vancouver, presided over a 10 a.m. hearing on Senate Bill 6239.

The first witness lawmakers would hear was one of their own. Senator Ed Murray, Democrat of Seattle, a veteran legislator and chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, took his place at the hearing table. A middle-aged man with receding gray-white hair, Murray has a broad nose and a pockmarked face, and wore a blue suit jacket and blue tie with diagonal stripes.

"Michael and I are going to split the five minutes you gave me, so if I go over two minutes, cut me off," Murray said. His smile vanishing, he glanced down at his notes, wetted his lips, and adjusted his microphone.

"I have waited 17 years to ask this body to consider marriage equality for gay and lesbian families," Murray said. "I realize the issue of marriage for our families is emotional and divisive. It touches what each of us holds most dear -- our families. For Michael and I, there is nothing more important, as I know there is nothing more important for everyone here today, than our families."

The bill Murray was sponsoring would, if passed, legalize gay marriage in Washington. It had the votes it needed in the state house and the backing of the governor. But it was one vote shy of the 25 it needed to pass the state senate.

Michael Shiosaki, Murray's partner of more than 20 years, spoke next.

"When I think of marriage, my model has always been the 56-year marriage of my parents, Fred and Louise Shiosaki," he said. "What I have witnessed over the years has been their lifelong commitment to love and care for one another as they raised their family, my sister, and me in the Spokane Valley. That commitment I see in the relationship Ed and I share, that same promise to love, honor, and care for one another." He talked about his attempts to make Murray more organized and Murray's potato recipes. He talked about how they'd supported each other during the deaths and illnesses of their parents. They were legally bound under the state's domestic-partnership law, he said. But, he added, "Ed and I cannot be married like my mother and father are married."

A parade of witnesses in favor of the bill to legalize gay marriage followed, including a gay state trooper, a gay Iraq war veteran, the adopted child of gay parents, and a straight, churchgoing home-economics teacher who cried as she spoke about her gay daughter. A self-described conservative Republican, married for 44 years, talked about how his gay son had been cared for by his partner after a brain aneurysm. A sweetly nervous 16-year-old said he dreamed of being able to marry another man someday.

Against the bill, the arguments seemed airless by comparison, and often wildly off-message. One lawyer said its provisions allowing churches to decline to perform same-sex weddings didn't go far enough to protect religious liberty; another insisted the bill ran counter to the notion of "humanity as a gendered species." More than one activist asked lawmakers to put same-sex marriage on the ballot rather than enacting it themselves -- a sign of the gay-marriage opponents' continued confidence they could prevail in a statewide vote. A man likened the bill to letting a small group of people suddenly decide everyone should drive on the right side of the road, and warned of the agenda of NAMBLA, the North American Man-Boy Love Association.

Two pastors, a Catholic archbishop, and a nun said the bill offended them on moral grounds, but a rabbi, a Unitarian minister and a Lutheran bishop spoke for the other side, in favor of the measure. Another man accused the bill's backers of "promoting homosexuality," destroying families, and spreading AIDS.

"History will not be kind to you," warned a California-based author and activist named Jennifer Roback Morse, clad in a bright yellow sweater and large bifocals. "I am here today to hold you to account for the predictable harms you've already caused and will continue to cause with your efforts to redefine marriage. ... When we come to our senses 30 years from now and realize that we have perpetuated a grotesque injustice, not a single child born motherless or fatherless within a same-sex marriage will get his missing parent back."

After the two-hour hearing adjourned, the activists dispersed to lobby their individual legislators. That's when Zach Silk, the operative spearheading the lobbying campaign in favor of the bill, got a text message: The 25th vote had turned. Mary Margaret Haugen, a conservative Democrat, announced that after years of praying about the issue -- and talking with Murray -- she'd made peace with her decision to support same-sex marriage.

As the activists cheered and whooped in the hallways of the legislature, the executive director of the Family Policy Institute of Washington vowed to the Seattle Times, "It's not done. In fact, it's just started." Opponents of gay marriage, he said, would start collecting signatures immediately to put the new law to a vote in that fall's election. Silk knew it was true -- they'd planned for a ballot fight from the moment they started pushing the legislation.

The Washington fight was the second ballot measure to come on the map for 2012. Minnesota's legislature, newly stocked with conservative lawmakers after the 2010 wave of Republican wins, had already moved to put an amendment to ban gay marriage on the ballot. Then, just as Washington was gearing up to pass its bill, gay activists in Maine submitted signatures seeking their own ballot initiative -- the first time proponents, rather than opponents, of gay marriage would be the ones to put the issue to a vote. Maine's legislature had passed a same-sex marriage law in 2009, only to have voters overturn it that November. The proponents wanted to try again.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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