I never thought I’d be working as a gay advocate at the age of 40. My involvement in the LGBT movement began my junior year of college at the University of Florida. Each week, a group of openly LGBT students, as part of a speaker’s bureau, would sit in front of a sociology class and field questions from the students.
At times, it felt scary to be so vulnerable and exposed. It was invigorating, however, to watch our peers transform from opponents to allies in front of our eyes. There were times when students snickered at us when we walked into a classroom and then shook our hands by the time we left. The process of changing minds and engaging students was energizing — even addictive. It is this phenomenon of witnessing tangible progress in real time that has kept me fighting for equal rights to this day.
My senior year of college I started a non-profit organization, Sons & Daughters of America. The goal was to begin a conversation with the American people about who LGBT people truly were and what this group wanted. We began with simple messages, such as billboards proclaiming LGBT people to be “Valued Friends and Family” – which was important, because at this time Dan Quayle and the Christian Coalition were promoting the GOP as the party of “Family Values”. Another ad, placed in college newspapers, was headlined “Tony Is Gay” and told the story of two friends – one gay and the other straight – who liked to work out at the gym together.
What I learned from the speaker’s bureau and from my efforts at Sons & Daughters of America is that simplicity in messaging works. The majority of people I spoke to were ignorant of the most basic facts about the lives of LGBT people. These individuals would ask questions such as:
1) How do you know it isn’t a phase?
2) Can sexual orientation be changed?
3) Why do gay activists seem so angry?
4) Can children be taught to be homosexuals?
5) Are gay people against religion?
When you boiled all the questions down to their essence, people basically wanted to know three things:
1) Who are you?
2) What do you want?
3) Are you a threat?
Once these three questions were satisfactorily answered, opposition seemed to soften.
Of course, the task of answering these questions today is both easier and more difficult than it was in the late 90’s. It is simpler in the sense that more people know someone who is openly gay, which tends to obliterate myths and misconceptions. It is tougher because there is a tightly organized, well-funded opposition that has perfected the art of feeding fears by pumping noxious lies into the public square.
Last year, my current organization, Truth Wins Out, conducted focus groups with midwestern churchgoers. Sadly, the stubborn stereotypes and misinformation that I saw in University of Florida classrooms are alive and well today. Much of the public is still shockingly ignorant of Homosexuality 101. They have basic questions they want answered before they are comfortable supporting concepts such as marriage equality.
Unfortunately, the LGBT movement has jumped the gun and presumed that the American people are way ahead of where they actually are. We are asking a majority to vote in favor of marriage rights, when too many people still harbor irrational fears about the affect LGBT people have on children.
This point was painfully driven home in a new report authored by Dave Fleischer that examined how the Proposition 8 campaign, to prohibit same-sex marriage in California, was lost.
What he found was that in the last six weeks of the campaign, when both sides saturated the airwaves with television ads, more than 687,000 voters changed their minds and decided to oppose same-sex marriage. More than 500,000 of those, the data suggest, were parents with children under 18 living at home. Because the proposition passed by 600,000 votes, this shift alone more than handed victory to proponents.
The solution to this problem is twofold.
First, get back to basics and have an honest discussion with people. Let them know, in no uncertain terms, that gay people are actually less likely to molest children than heterosexuals. Introduce the public to straight children who grew up with LGBT parents with the message: Being around gay people does not turn one into a homosexual.
Second, we can no longer test market messages and ads during actual campaigns. To do so is the equivalent of a football team showing up to play in the Super Bowl without practicing. Try these ads out in various states without an LGBT question on the ballot. Learn from mistakes during this “dress rehearsal” and correct them in time for the “big show.”
It is time to get back to basics, before we basically keep losing referendums.
Wayne Besen is a columnist and author of the book “Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth.”