Moving the Middle Towards Marriage Equality

July 16, 2012
Moving the Middle Towards Marriage Equality
Ellen D.B. Riggle, PhD
          In just a few months voters in several states will go to the polls and cast their vote on marriage restrictions and marriage equality.  While the vast majority of voters in these states (including Minnesota, Washington and Maine) personally know same-sex couples and gay men and lesbians, the votes are expected to be close.  We often think that knowing someone who is gay or lesbian will translate into support for LGBT civil rights, but it’s not that simple.  Coming out or being out is not enough to move the middle on this issue.  For LGBT identified individuals and same-sex couples, we have to be out, be visible, and be ‘in their face’ in order to move the middle towards equality.
          I have been involved in research on the impact of marriage restriction amendments on LGBT individuals and same-sex couples since 2004 following the passage of a marriage restriction amendment in Kentucky.  After the election, members of same-sex couples shared their stories of being angry, saddened, and frustrated because people who knew them and seemed supportive of their relationship – family, friends, co-workers — had voted for the marriage restriction amendment.
          Jump ahead 2 years to 2006, I was involved in an online survey of more than 2500 LGB and same-sex partnered individuals; once again we found that LGB individuals felt deep hurt because people who knew them and seemingly accepted them had supported and voted for marriage restriction amendments.
          Now jump ahead another 2 years to 2008.  A lot of people were surprised by the passage of Prop 8 in California.  California has generally been seen as a “gay-friendly” state, there are a whole lot of “out” LGB folks there, and California already had marriage rights for same-sex couples.  So, how could this amendment pass?
          The surprise seemed to stem at least in part from the traditional reliance on a derivative of the “contact theory” when thinking about public support for LGBT rights; that is, the thinking has been that if more LGBT people come out, then people around them will get to know them and be supportive, and policy outcomes will be positive — simple as that.  Unfortunately, it’s not so simple.
          In preparing to give a talk just after the 2008 election, my colleagues and I reflected on what could be done to “turn the tide” in the future to defeat marriage restriction amendments and increase support for marriage equality.  In thinking about what could be done, I went back to an insightful reframe of the same-sex marriage debate by Janis Bohan (in an interview with the APA Monitor): “The real issue is not similarity or difference; the real issue is power and its distribution…”
          Taking this reframe as a starting point I applied some of the research on intergroup relations and privilege.  I made an argument that the focus of the marriage equality debate needs to change from “same-sex couples are just like heterosexual couples” to “heterosexual privilege is unfair and the way same-sex couples are treated is unfair.” In order to effect changes in policy attitudes, and thus citizen votes, the arguments need to point out the very important differences between the ways same-sex couples are treated and heteronormative couples are unfairly advantaged.
          What this argument suggests may be somewhat confrontational and conflictual.  That makes some people uncomfortable.  But hear me out about the importance of speaking the truth about privilege.
          First, I want to briefly illustrate something about support for marriage equality and “knowing someone gay.”  Depending on which recent polls we look at and how the question is worded, 70-80% of the American public say that they “know someone who is gay or lesbian.”  Yet, on average, approximately 2/3 of the voters in states with marriage restriction amendments on the ballot have voted in support of those amendments — against equality for gay men and lesbians.  So we can fairly assume there is a significant overlap between those who “know” gay men and lesbians and those who vote against equality.
          Public opinion polls have illustrated this overlap specifically.  For example, a May 2009 Gallup poll found that 58% of respondents said they personally knew a friend, co-worker or relative who is gay; 88% of this group reported being “comfortable” around gay men and lesbians.  Yet, of those who knew someone gay, 47% opposed extending the right of civil marriage to same-sex couples.  These numbers are changing, but are they changing fast enough to prevent more losses in November?
          Clearly, coming out and “knowing someone gay” is not necessarily enough to get voters to support equality; there has to be something else in the mix to change votes.  I argue that research on intergroup relations and privilege suggests that an over-reliance on pointing out the similarities between same-sex couples and heteronormative straight couples is unlikely to change votes on marriage restriction amendments in a timely fashion – if at all. Research by Tamar Saguy and her colleagues on intergroup interactions between advantaged and disadvantaged groups finds evidence that the disadvantaged group members expected that the privileged group members would treat them fairly as a result of placing emphasis on how much alike they all were.  However, while the privileged group members enjoyed the benefits of lowered group tensions, they did not follow through with behavioral changes that required sharing resources.  Thus, changing the status quo of stratified privilege was met with resistance from the privileged group members who feared losing their “special” status.
          To effect support for social change, several researchers have suggested that there must be actual discussion of inequalities and that advantaged group members must learn to address their privilege in a critical way. In other words, it is not merely knowing someone from another group but actual discussion of group inequalities that increases support for change in the status quo among privileged group members.  Thus, it is important to have substantive discussions in order to reduce prejudice based on sexual or gender identity, and by implication increase support for marriage equality.
          Research also indicates that interpersonal confrontations are effective at lessening stereotype-based responses and prejudicial attitudes.  If we apply research on prejudice to support for marriage equality, then even low-prejudiced heterosexual-identified individuals may not recognize or reflect upon their privileged status unless prompted to do so; these unexamined beliefs may lead to resistance to policy changes that support marriage equality.
          And, further extending the research, I would argue that commonality focused interventions that “put a familiar face” on LGB identities may inadvertently support the status quo and leave inequalities and privileges unexamined, thereby lessening support and activism for social change.  This is not to argue that events like “National Coming Out Day” are not useful and important; they are, as a first step.  But it may not be enough in itself to change votes.
          Having substantive and possibly confrontational discussions is stressful.  For that reason, a lot of LGBT individuals and their allies focus on commonalities, or just fitting in and being “non-threatening.”  So, the challenge is for individuals and groups to engage in dialogues that confront privilege and emphasize the inequalities along with the commonalities.
           Marriage inequality needs to be reframed as a problem originating in the social context rather than in same-sex couples.  For example, in working with community groups, invoking the concept of the “similarly-situated” may help to reframe the marriage debate and reduce fear and prejudice while bringing attention to heterosexual privilege.  Asking “how would you want to be treated in this situation” helps to increase empathy and compassion.  Simulation activities that capitalize on the “similarly-situated” concept are effective in promoting perspective taking and more positive attitudes while reducing personal defensiveness.
          LGBT individuals and our families need to give voice to our experiences.  We also need heterosexual allies to play an important role in this dialogue and engagement.  Heterosexual allies, having heterosexual privilege, can support changing the status quo in part by resisting the “you are just like us” mantra and instead acknowledging their privileged status and engaging in critical and constructive dialogues about the illegitimacy of their privileged status. In their review of the literature on prejudice reduction, Paluck & Green (2009) concluded that mobilizing the positive influence of peers (through modeling and discussion) is one of the relatively few interventions that has consistently demonstrated efficacy in reducing prejudice.  President Obama’s personal statement in support of same-sex marriage is a good case study in the impact of using privilege to reduce prejudice.
          So, share your story.  Put it in their face.  Be out and speak out.  It just might change a vote and move the middle towards equality.
For more information on the research cited in this article, go to