Asking for Your Hand in Marriage

BY Advocate Contributors

January 11 2011 5:40 PM ET

“It’s going to happen. Whether you like it or not.” This quote from San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, among the nation’s fiercest equality advocates, became the tagline for one of the most frequently aired — and effective — ads run by marriage-equality opponents in favor of Proposition 8 during the 2008 battle in California.

Those last few words — “whether you like it or not” — are the key to why the ad worked so well. The phrase played into one of the biggest hurdles to increasing support for marriage equality: the American middle fears it is being forced to change, with no voice and no control.

In the last few months, Third Way has undertaken groundbreaking research, with the help of Apter Research International and Grove Insight, to dig deeper into the remaining concerns that are still holding the middle back from support for marriage for gay and lesbian couples. Our research is not yet complete, and from our initial work it is obvious that there are multiple concerns yet to be answered. But one major piece that is already evident is the middle’s desire for control. Because of its prevalence and intensity, we believe this control issue is one that marriage supporters will need to address head on in order to move the middle to support for marriage.

Our study, which consisted of unique, one-on-one interviews with Americans in the middle, probed deeply into their anxieties, fears, and psychological motivations, unearthing subconscious feelings impossible to illuminate in a traditional poll or focus group. Our research team built a psychological profile of the participants based on multiple-hour interviews about gay and lesbian relationships and marriage, which were conducted by our research psychologists. Throughout the interviews, the participants were consistently seeking a state of mastery over this issue — put another way, they exhibited a deep desire for control. But when they talked about their range of concerns, they overwhelmingly felt that things were out of their hands. They expressed metaphors like “stuffing something down somebody’s throat” and often voiced their loss of control directly through phrases like “everything is changing” and “you can’t stop it.”

The other side plays on this fear all too well. That’s why its ads and its advocacy are laser-focused on convincing the middle that things are spiraling out of control and making people in the middle feel that in order to regain power over the issue, they must “draw the line” at marriage. However, we believe that supporters of marriage can alter this dynamic, and we think there are three initial strategies to start addressing this control issue, so the middle won’t feel it necessary to continue to play the “just don’t call it marriage” trump card.

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