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.
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.
Gay activists who have worked on the marketing campaigns say that in this battle for public opinion, it's better for gays to stay in the background.
"The simple truth is that we are trying to win over the people that are not yet with us," said Matt McTighe, campaign manager of Mainers United for Marriage, which is pushing the ballot measure to legalize gay marriage in that state. "I'm a gay man, and the general rule of thumb for me is that an ad that meets my emotional needs is not necessarily the thing that's going to change a typical voter's mind about gay or lesbian people."
A May 2011 poll by the Pew Research Center found growing acceptance of gay people on a number of fronts, but still plenty of doubts. Fifty-eight percent of poll respondents said gays should be accepted in society compared to 33 percent who said they shouldn't. More people thought gays raising children was bad for society rather than good, though the largest number of respondents were neutral on the question. The same poll found 45 percent support for gay marriage rights, up from 35 percent just two years earlier.
The first ad broadcast by Minnesotans United for All Families, which is trying to defeat the state's proposed constitutional ban on gay marriage, is aimed at parents. It features Kim and John Canny — two straight Catholics, Republicans and parents of three daughters from a Minneapolis suburb who discuss coming around to support gay marriage after a lesbian couple with an adopted son moved into their neighborhood.
The lesbian couple is briefly glimpsed in the ad, but not heard from.
Alexander Zachary, a gay man from Minneapolis, complained that the ads he's seen reflect an "antiquated mindset."
"This isn't San Francisco in 1973, where all the gay people live in one neighborhood and all the straight people live everywhere else," he said. "We're not this hidden culture anymore, so why act like it?"
Richard Carlbom, manager of the Minnesota campaign, declined to say if future Minnesota United ads would feature gay people. Upcoming ads will "articulate why gay people want to get married," he said.
Many straight people "are on a journey on this issue, and the most effective way to encourage them is to show them other people who have taken the same journey," and come to accept gay marriage, Carlbom said.
Bil Browning, a Washington, D.C., gay activist and writer, recently called a straights-only ad that ran in Washington state "a heterosexual snoozefest" on his blog. He pointed out that gay activists seem to be using the strategy even though they've yet to win a campaign. In the 32 states where the issue has been on a statewide ballot, gay marriage advocates have lost every time.
"Maybe it's time to reevaluate these strategies and include our families, actual LGBT people," Browning said. "We're never going to win if we can't show our faces. It looks like we have something to hide, and we don't."