Protect Maine Equality Needs Effective Response to School Fear Mongering

Rings“Stand for Marriage Maine” has just released “Everything to Do With Schools,” the latest TV ad in their campaign to revoke marriage equality. Some of you may recognize the name from an ad used during the Prop 8 campaign. As Jeremy at Good As You has pointed out, not just the name is the same—the ad is almost identical, right down to the script and an appearance by the Massachusetts couple outraged that their son’s school taught him that boys can marry other boys. (As they can in Massachusetts!) The ad’s creators did put a new woman in the “teacher” role, Charla Bansley. Jeremy astutely notes, however, that she doesn’t teach at a public institution, but at Calvary Chapel Christian School, and is also the state director of Concerned Women For America.

From a marketing perspective, I can’t blame Stand for Marriage Maine for using the same formula. It worked in California.

I hope, however, that Protect Maine Equality has a better response than the No On 8 campaign did. When No On 8 correctly insisted that Prop 8 would not require schools to teach about marriage equality, they were in effect playing to the idea that there was still something “wrong” about discussing LGBT families in schools. Their ads also focused on the lack of harm that marriage equality would cause the children of straight parents rather than stressing the harm to children of LGBT parents and LGBT youth themselves. The former will lead to many straight parents not caring whether the measure passes; the latter has a chance of appealing to their protective parenting instincts.

Sound familiar? I wrote about it at length just after the election last year. Read the piece again after the jump.

(Originally published by Bay Windows, November 13, 2008.)

Many are blaming the passage of California’s Prop 8 on black voters, 73 percent of whom supported the measure. People have, however, mostly ignored another group that voted in a significant majority for Prop 8: parents. Sixty-four percent of voters with children under 18 voted for it, according to CNN exit polls. Among married voters with children, the yes votes rose to 68 percent. Only 44 percent of voters without children (and 45 percent of those married without children) voted for Prop 8.

The Yes On 8 coalition focused much of its campaign around the fear of what marriage equality would do to children. Schools would be required to teach that the marriages of same- and opposite-sex couples were equivalent, they warned. They also hinted at more vague threats. “Have you thought about what same-sex marriage means,” says the voiceover on one Yes On 8 ad, “To me?” says a young girl, turning to the camera as the ad ends. Her question is never answered, but the implication is that it means something dreadful.

Their strategy succeeded. In fact, when the No On 8 campaign responded by correctly insisting that Prop 8 would not require schools to teach about marriage equality, they were in effect playing to the idea that there was still something “wrong” about discussing LGBT families in schools.

What both sides made invisible by their actions were the 52,000 children being raised by 26,100 same-sex couples in California. The total number of children affected by the prejudice of Prop 8 is even higher, as 125,000 LGB Californians, including single parents, are raising children, according to the Williams Institute of UCLA, using data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2005/2006 American Community Survey.

LGBT parents are raising children in every California county, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. Interestingly, though, among the counties with the most same-sex couples raising children, the top six, and eight of the top 10, all voted in favor of Prop 8.

Would it have made a difference for parents to think about their children’s friends and classmates waking up on Nov. 5, feeling like their families were torn apart by the state? Having their self-confidence shaken when they were told their families were second-class? Hearing the hateful rhetoric from the right? Questioning the values that our country stands for? Would it have made a difference if parents knew that regardless of the curriculum, their children would learn about same-sex parents and relationships because they shared classrooms and playgrounds with the children of LGBT parents?

The No On 8 campaign, however, chose to reach out to straight parents with ads that featured other straight parents, such as their “Moms,” and “Parents” spots. In another, the California Superintendent of Schools assured parents that Prop 8 “has nothing to do with schools.”

There is some argument to be made for reaching like with like. These ads, however, focused on the lack of harm that marriage equality would cause the children of straight parents – an important message, but one that did not go far enough to spur people into action. How many parents saw the No On 8 ads, said, “Okay, keeping marriage equality won’t harm my children,” and then concluded their children would be fine whether Prop 8 passed or not? That’s hardly a decisive position.

The “Parents” and “Moms” ads also spoke of rejecting Prop 8 in order to teach one’s children that discrimination is wrong. Again, a good point, but more a touchy-feely argument than an energizing one.

What energizes parents? The fear of harm to children; our own first, then others. Prop 8 supporters spoke of harm to children of straight parents, without even fully explaining what that harm would entail. No On 8 tried to dispel that fear, but never conveyed the deep harm that revoking marriage equality would cause the children of LGBT parents. Without that additional argument, their case was weakened.

All three ads, moreover, came out in the last two weeks of the campaign. “Moms” was, in fact, produced independently and then picked up by the No On 8 campaign after they spotted it on YouTube. It seems that despite the right’s known penchant for scare tactics related to children, No On 8 organizers were slow in reaching out to parents in return. When they did, it was to soothe them about the absence of harm to children from equality, not to outrage them about the serious harm to children from inequality. Which approach was more likely to inspire action?

I do not want to speculate on why the No On 8 coalition followed the strategy it did, nor to cast blame on specific groups or individuals. The reasons for our loss are more complex than that. Who knows, too, what ads No On 8 might have produced if they had had more money?

I also know that many individual LGBT parents and their children spoke at length with neighbors and friends about what Prop 8 would mean to them. It is often those personal connections, more than advertising, that changes people’s minds. There are only so many people that an individual can reach, however. An effective strategy must pair this personal touch with broad messaging.

Whatever was done in this past election, heroic as some of it was, it was not enough. As the battle moves forward, we must remember how important it will be to reach out to parents, not only to say, “LGBT equality won’t harm your children” but also to insist, “LGBT inequality will harm our children, who are your children’s classmates and friends.”