Framing marriage equality to win

On Wednesday night Parliament voted 2:1 in favour of marriage equality, as defined by Louisa Wall’s Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill, which would permit two people of the same sex to marry. I haven’t been involved in any of the organised aspects of this movement, but I have watched it closely and lent some ad-hoc support to it. Here are some observations on some of the symbolic and framing issues in the campaign for marriage equality, and some discussion of why, and how, it was successful.

Unity and commitment
This campaign had two features that many do not. First, its proponents worked to find common cause with their erstwhile political opponents. This iteration of the debate was sparked by Barack Obama’s “coming out” a few months ago (I wrote about this here.) It has been a bipartisan project; groups and people from across the spectrum worked together. As many National MPs voted for the bill as did Labour MPs (30 each), splitting the National caucus almost in half. The United Future, ACT, māori Party and Mana MPs also voted for the bill. That is a diverse ideological range.

Second, they committed to really making the case, even though they believed it to be self-evident. Too many many good causes fail because, believing them to be oviously right, their originators fail to organise and articulate their “rightness”. This was not so with marriage equality. They employed a broad range of complementary strategies to appeal to different demographics and constituencies. The campaign spoke to queer people, obviously, but it also spoke to straight people; to the families and friends of those who might benefit from it. It spoke to urban liberals and rural conservatives and Māori and Pasifika and other groups. It spoke to atheists, but it did not generally alienate people of faith. It spoke to peoples’ heads, and to their hearts.

These themes — unity and commitment — are central to marriage, and they were central to this campaign for marriage equality.

Naming rights
One of the great battlegrounds in the Culture Wars is over names, and marriage equality won this hands down. This framing was not the incumbent: early battles were waged for “marriage equality” to supplant “gay marriage”/”same-sex marriage” as the preferred term, and it was successful. One example of this was by Wellington Central MP Grant Robertson, who appeared on the TV show Back Benches and suggested the change in terminology, insisting that “I didn’t just do gay parking or have gay dinner”.* This groundwork was laid long ago — there’s a substantial discourse about this piece of terminology, and all Robertson and others did was articulate it effectively. But that was important to do.

“Marriage equality” frames the cause as being about non-discrimination, a universal civil right nominally guaranteed in law and accepted (again, nominally) by a vast majority of people. It’s also an emotively-neutral term, which in this case worked to exclude stereotypically negative or controversial words — words like “gay” and “(same)-sex” — from the frame. These terms may not be generally offensive, but they do retain some valence as insults and evoke an “ick” factor in some people. Largely for this reason, opponents of marriage equality continue to use “gay marriage” and “same-sex marriage” almost exclusively. (In other contexts these terms, and stronger terms, were used within the campaign to shock or challenge, or were owned & celebrated — I certainly am not suggesting that such terminology be erased from the discourse.)

Note that there’s no discussion of “civil union” as a frame here. This was rejected outright by proponents of marriage equality as being a half-measure, a technocratic institution, and simply not an equal form of marriage.

Hearts and minds
“Marriage equality” is a strong intellectual and symbolic frame with some emotional undertones. Its intellectualism played a key role: it provided a rights-based analysis of the issues, and that rights-based analysis, in turn, provided a platform for a broader, less threatening set of frames.

The rights-based analysis on its own would probably not have won this battle. Intellectual arguments rarely win on their own, particularly when the issues are emotionally-bounded and tied into deep non-intellectual sentiments of culture, history, identity, family, faith and the role of the state, as marriage is. But an emotionally-oriented argument would probably have lacked the necessary rigour to succeed, as well, since the reasoning that marriage ought to be extended to all couples is not self-evident. The “marriage equality” frame appealed strongly to people who were willing and able to articulate the rights-based analysis, to coordinate and disseminate it, and to establish it in the public consciousness. They did so forcefully, with flair and humour, they scored the points and won the policy battle.

This activist community, who mobilised in the social and mainstream media, on the streets and outside the electorate offices, were not themselves the target audience — there aren’t enough of them and they are not widely-enough distributed to strongly influence politicians’ sense of electoral self-preservation. But these actions provided cover for the less-intellectual, but ultimately more emotionally resonant frames — especially “legalise love” — to thrive, and to reach the wider non-activist community and make them care.

“Legalise love” framed marriage equality as being about the recognition of already-existing reality, of acceptance, and diversity, and contemporary family values. Whereas “marriage equality” made a case for what was just, “legalise love” made a case for what was right. Like the best Australian Greens campaign ad the Australian Greens never made, it asked people to think of marriage as being “about love, not laws”; it evoked peoples’ experience of the gay people in their lives — their parents and children, brothers and sisters, friends and colleagues — and asked people to identify with gay couples, not in terms of their practices in the bedroom or their sense of fashion, but in terms of the quality of their love. It asked people to consider how hard it would be for their own relationships to have been declared verboten by a state and society that just didn’t get it. These are deep, emotional arguments that strike people in ways that an intellectual policy debate, no matter how clever, cannot.

Another strength of “legalise love” was its breadth. Whereas the intellectual “marriage equality” arguments were focused and direct, arguments about love and the quality of relationships touched on more expansive religious and moral themes. Importantly, the cause was framed as being integral to conventional morality, not a subversion of it, and as modern “love thy neighbour”, “live and let live” Christianity in practice, the bloviations of a handful of self-appointed conservative demagogues notwithstanding. Marriage equality was not framed as a challenge to family values, but as a manifestation of family values; to paraphrase a number of politicians, including London’s Conservative mayor Boris Johnson: marriage is great, let’s have as many as possible. David Farrar made this case well, here.

Double-framing a cause like this — running complementary intellectual and emotional arguments in parallel — is quite hard to do without getting your narratives mixed up and turning incoherent, and too often the weakest aspects of either frame can be exploited by an opponent. But if you can pull it off, it really works. It worked for Obama in 2008 (“hope” and “change”), and it worked in this case. Where the cause came under attack from rational arguments (admittedly this was rare), rational arguments were able to be deployed in defence, and when it came under attack from moral and emotional arguments, those were available as well.

But while the intellectual arguments were effective at laying the groundwork, in my view it was these emotional and moral themes, rather than the logical, rational arguments that underpinned them, that did the heavy lifting of persuasion, of shifting peoples’ consciences, not just their brains. The diverse range of arguments and appeals permitted the campaign to reach a wide demographic range, to reach into faith communities and to appeal to people outside the activist clique. Most importantly, this reach made clear to the MPs whose job it was to vote on the matter that they could, but also that they should vote in favour.

Not done yet
I have used the past tense throughout this as my reference has really only been the campaign so far, but it cannot be emphasised enough that the battle is not won. An unknown but significant number of MPs have voted for marriage equality to go to select committee for further public discussion, but have made no guarantees to support the bill in future. As Jane Clifton argues, there is a coterie of socially-conservative MPs who saw which way the vote was going to go and decided to be on the right side of history as “both a tactful and a time-buying” strategy. There will be attempts to derail this cause, to minimise and distract from it, to dilute and to neuter it. The first of these may have already emerged: Whanganui MP Chester Borrows, perhaps seeking to reprise his role as the great diplomat who proposed the “sensible” compromise position on the Section 59 child discipline repeal, is said to have proposed a compromise position on marriage equality.**

New Zealand’s Parliament passed marriage equality legislation through its first reading, and the lower house of the Tasmanian legislature is set to pass its own. I have not followed that campaign closely, but from what I have seen, many of its framing and symbolic characteristics are similar to those observed here. It is a policy whose time has come, and this is a winning strategy to enact it. Marriage equality holds the high ground; now we must retain it.


* Not 100% sure about the phrasing of this, and since TVNZ removed old TVNZ7 episodes from their on demand site, the video is no longer available to check. I’va amended this to match Grant’s recollection. Another twitter user, Jessica Williams points out that it was originally American comedian Liz Feldman.
** I missed this announcement and have been unable to find any detail on Borrows’ proposed compromise but I understand it was announced on Wednesday — if you have details, I would appreciate hearing them.

20 thoughts on “Framing marriage equality to win

  1. The cynic in me makes me less likely to support something when supporters decide to change it’s name.

    I can see a concern with “gay marriage” but “same-sex marriage” seems a proper, fair, and accurate description. Using a euphemism(?) like “marriage equality” makes them seem dishonest or sneaky.

    Had the same feeling when a bunch of conservationist types started campaigning to “save Happy Valley” a few years back.

    I assume Borrows’ proposal is to beef up the bits of the law to ensure religious types can decline to take part. These aren’t as extensive as supporters imply.

  2. Hmm? I don’t think same-sex marriage is an accurate description of the campaign. Same-sex marriage is the means by which marriage equality can be reached.

    There is a brilliant article about the various claims about what the law is on this out there, some one just needs to write it. So many rich texts.

  3. Keir has it right. Moreover, the problem with “same-sex” is the ambiguity of the word “sex” — as a matter of framing it calls to mind rooting, not long-term loving commitment. Aside from the ick factor, this distracts from the point: marriage equality is about who you can marry, not about who you can have sex with.


  4. Related to the matter of legal claims, someone recently suggested a survey of all the weird analogical constructs and metaphors deployed by anti-marriage-equality campaigners. It’d be a riot. I wish I had the time.


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  6. @Graeme: “same-sex” is also a very narrow idea of what marriage equality is about. In the first place, people who are the same biological sex but different genders can already get married (if one of them passes the “requirements” of having had particular surgery).

    Secondly, if we allow “same-sex” marriage to actually mean “same-gender” marriage, it ignores all the people who don’t actually subscribe to a particular or a single side of the gender binary, but are forced into one or the other by official paperwork and biological-sex determinism.

  7. I just want to chip in and say
    (1) great post
    (2) I share Graeme’s generalized suspicion of frame-changing, but I can’t really fault movements for doing what it takes to win
    (3) what QoT said is, as so often, on the money. (It is ridiculously common for me to read a blog post, feel an urge to leave a comment, and then see that QoT has said *exactly* what I wanted to say.)

  8. Graeme

    Sure you’re a lawyer, I’m not. But s29 of the current Marraige Act is pretty clearcut I would have thought:

    “A marriage licence shall authorise but not oblige any marriage celebrant to solemnise the marriage to which it relates.”

    A celebrant can refuse. And who in their right mind would want to try to force an unwilling celebrant?

  9. Lovely post, but you’ve gotta be kidding. There was no “battle”; the subjects of the Keyster’s polling barely raiseed a sweat because this peg was posted years ago, if not with “Will and Grace”, then most certainly and finally with “Modern Family”.

    Dear old Poofter lies well dead and buried in the plot right next door to the one reserved for Welfare Dependency.

    And dear ole consumate populist and moron-suitor Borrows is merely going through the limited motions allowed by his mental and physical bariatrics and ambition.

  10. Interesting to see the GOP go the other way – pushing for a Constitutional amendment to define marriage as one man, one woman – on the exact same say the first reading went through… which democracy is the more advanced…?

  11. @Peanut: Let’s try not to turn this into a smug nationalistic competition of “we have marriage equality, ergo we’re more advanced than you”.

  12. Fair call – what is an advanced democracy anyway, right?

    The US system would never allow such an amendment of course, because the Constitution makes amendment so difficult. In that sense, the US is far more mature – as we know, we don’t even have a written constitution.

    I’m talking here about its willingness and flexibility to be socially progressive at the political level. It’s one thing to espouse or promote progressive values, its another to adopt them politically.

  13. “A marriage licence shall authorise but not oblige any marriage celebrant to solemnise the marriage to which it relates.”

    A celebrant can refuse. And who in their right mind would want to try to force an unwilling celebrant?

    The concern isn’t so much forcing someone to perform marriages they don’t want to, as ‘punishing’ those who won’t.

    A couple wishes to marry, they call up a celebrant who advises couple she will not officiate an same-sex/equality marriage (see how stupid that sounds!).

    Couple feels like they’re being treated like second-class citizens. Couple complains. Human Rights Review Tribunal agrees, orders damages.

    There is strong legal basis for concluding that Marriage Celebrants are public officials/performing a public function when solemnising marriages. There is also a strong legal basis for the proposition that when exercising general powers, public officials must do so consistently with human rights: e.g. when exercising general powers under the Trespass Act, the Speaker must consider protesters’ rights to freedom of expression and assembly. This would apply by analogy to the section you quote: a marriage celebrant has the power to refuse to officiate at any wedding, but if that refusal is discriminatory (e.g. a mixed race, or same sex, couple) that refusal will be unlawful.

  14. “advises couple she will not officiate an same-sex/equality marriage (see how stupid that sounds!)”

    I don’t see anyone using “equality marriage” in that noun form, so you could say it sounds stupid because you’ve phrased it stupidly. What’s wrong with plain language, like “she will not officiate a marriage of two men (or women)”?


  15. What’s wrong with plain language, like “she will not officiate a marriage of two men (or women)”?

    I wanted to write it simply, in a way it might actually be said (and then reported to have been said), but which covered off couples where both are male and where both are female. “I don’t officiate same-sex marriages” sounds like something that might be said in such circumstances.

  16. Yeah, I have no beef with “same-sex” or “gay” marriage in everyday usage, but campaign framing is different.


  17. Graeme: I know what you mean about movements renaming themselves or their goals, but I also think it’s only an actual problem if it’s dishonest or misleading. The goal of this movement is for same sex couples to have marriage rights equal to those of opposite sex couples. Hence ‘marriage equality’. I really can’t see the problem.

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