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Where are the gay voices in ads for gay marriage?

Four states will vote on gay marriage this November, but gay people speaking for themselves have been noticeably absent from the TV ads promoting gay marriage. 

By Patrick CondonAssociated Press / September 26, 2012

John, (l.), and Kim Canny, Catholic Republicans from Savage, Minn., in a commercial in which they say they oppose a proposed constitutional amendment this November that would ban gay marriage. Some gay activists question an ad strategy that rarely puts actual gay people on camera, saying it contradicts their philosophy of openness and hasn’t worked.

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Minneapolis

In one TV ad, a husband and wife talk fondly of a lesbian couple who moved into their neighborhood. In another, a married couple speaks of wanting fair treatment for their lesbian daughter. A third features a pastor talking supportively about gay unions.

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Each of these ads ran recently in states with gay marriage issues on the November ballot. What's missing? Gay people speaking for themselves.

Four states are voting on gay marriage this fall, and gay rights groups are pouring tens of millions of dollars into key TV markets in hopes of breaking a 32-state losing streak on the issue. But even as gay people and same-sex relationships gain acceptance through pop culture staples such as "Modern Family" and "Glee," the idea is still seen as dicey by media strategists involved in the ballot campaigns, resulting in ads that usually involve only straight people talking about the issue.

The decision to keep gays in the background has been widely noticed in the gay community and debated on gay-oriented blogs, with some activists complaining that the move contradicts the central message of the gay rights movement for a number of years.

"If we don't show ourselves, people aren't going to get comfortable with who we are," said Wayne Besen, director of Vermont-based gay rights group "Truth Wins Out," one of many that presses gays to live openly with pride in who they are.

But others counsel deference for the complexities of public messaging, pointing out that the ads are designed to speak to the fears and values of the heterosexual majority, whose vote will decide the issue.

"The moderate tough guys we need to flip to win a couple of these races are still the ones who say that gays are gross," said Andy Szekeres, a Denver-based fundraising consultant who has worked on several state campaigns and had access to focus group data. "Pushing people to an uncomfortable place, it's something you can't do in a TV ad," said Szekeres, who is gay.

The definition of marriage is on the ballot this fall in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington. Beyond those, according to the Human Rights Campaign, 37 states prohibit gay marriage while six and the District of Columbia permit it. Gay activists and their allies are hoping that any wins in November would throw new momentum their way at a time when polls nationwide have shown growing acceptance for gay marriage.

Six of the seven ads broadcast in the contested states this year have featured only straight people talking about the issue. One ad, which played only in Maine, included a firefighter who talked of being accepted by his colleagues. The ads, along with most that ran in the 2008 campaign in California and in other past statewide races, rely on heterosexual family members and friends of gays talking about how the inability to marry has deprived their loved ones of rights and opportunities they should have.

Gay marriage opponents, who also have well-funded campaigns in the four states, plan to begin airing ads soon. In recent interviews, an organizer said the key message is aimed at parents, suggesting legal recognition could result in their kids being told in school and in society that it's OK to be gay.

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