When Our Supporters Surprise Us: What We Can Learn from the Marriage Equality Campaigns

"What do you think I fought for at Omaha Beach?" 
World War II veteran Philip Spooner was quoting himself during recent testimony before the Maine Judiciary Committee. He was recalling his answer to a woman's query at the polls on Election Day. She asked if he believed in equality for gay and lesbian people. In his powerful statement (here on YouTube.com), Mr. Spooner talks about how he believed he was defending freedom and equality during the war. He also speaks of how he and his wife raised four sons, one of whom is gay, never thinking that one would be denied the opportunities of the other three.

Mr. Spooner might be considered unusual in his commitment to equal rights for gays and lesbians, being an elderly VFW member and Republican. But that's where those of us working on issues considered "liberal" or "progressive" often make a mistake. We forget that few people fit neatly into liberal and conservative boxes.

Like Mr. Spooner, my 90 year old grandmother strongly supports gay rights, and did so well before she knew one of her grandchildren was gay. She's also a lifelong Catholic who supports the full spectrum of reproductive rights, including abortion, because she remembers how hard it was before women had the access to reproductive care we do now.

As the demographic research of the advertising world has spilled over into nonprofit issue campaigns, I fear that we sometimes lazily conflate "likely" with "always." I have liberal friends here in Washington who get tired of people being shocked that they are from conservative states like Mississippi or Kentucky. No state is monolithic, as many people discovered when Proposition 8 passed in California. Famous for its liberal areas, the state has sharply conservative ones as well.

Planning campaigns with target audiences determined by geography, party affiliation, age, race and gender can help decide where and how to spend our resources. But let's make sure that we are working from knowledge, not assumptions. We can't convince people to support our causes if we don't talk with them, and we need to reach the people who do agree but have never been asked to take action.

Mr. Spooner is far from the only person in Maine who supports equality despite not fitting into the liberal box. Protect Maine Equality has been running terrific ads demonstrating the support for their cause, as in this ad with a Catholic mom who's proud of her son, son-in-law and grandson.

What do you think? Where do we get it right, and how can we do better?

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    # by Larry Smoot - October 22, 2009 at 3:19 PM

    Anent Mr. Spooner - People like him have laid it on the line. I know that in their mind they believe that this country is "theirs" more deeply than many others because of the sacrifices they and their generation made in war to truly defend what the future of this country was to be. When he speaks, his words are intertwined with a tangible thread of "this is mine to decide because I have pulled that right from the bloody soil of war". What a wonderful guy - he truly understands "equal".