Advocates for and against same-sex marriage have learned what resonates and what doesn't with voters and lawmakers after more than a decade of debate in public hearings, ad campaigns, street demonstrations and lobbying state legislatures.
Demands for equal rights by one side and criticism of a homosexual lifestyle by the other side have given way to a more controlled and calculatingly civil discourse that focuses on family, love, commitment and children — by both sides.
To be sure, both sides remain worlds apart in defining a family and determining what's best for children and society at large. But as voters in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington prepare to vote on marriage referendums in November, the campaigns for and against same-sex marriage are employing carefully crafted tactics and talking points from lessons learned in previous campaigns.
This year won't be as sweeping as 2004 — when 12 states, including Utah, passed constitutional amendments defining marriage as between a man and woman — but it could mark a turning point in the marriage debate where the winners gain considerable momentum going into the next election cycle. And the pressure is on the same-sex marriage movement to gain some real traction beyond public opinion polls.
"For 2012, the same-sex marriage supporters have to win and if they don't it will show there is difficulty going forward," said Jamie Chandler, a political scientist at Hunter College in New York who has monitored the marriage debate for several years.
Officials from both sides speak optimistically about their prospects in November.
For the first time, same-sex marriage proponents have proposed a constitutional amendment in Maine that would allow same-sex couples to marry. The opposite is happening in Minnesota, where a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage will be on the ballot. In May, voters made North Carolina the 30th state to pass a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
In Washington and Maryland, opponents to same-sex marriage have gathered the necessary signatures to put before the entire electorate marriage equality laws previously passed by lawmakers.
Despite the defeat in North Carolina, Michael Cole-Schwartz, a spokesman for the Human Rights Coalition, sees the tide turning for same-sex marriage because supporters have gone on the offensive reaching out to voters on the doorsteps of their homes and community gathering places, talking about relationships and what marriage means to them.
"More and more people are getting to know gay and lesbian couples in their communities at a very baseline level," he said. "As people share their stories and wrap their heads around what marriage means for gay and lesbian couples, support increases."
Cole-Schwartz explained that past tactics of focusing on legal arguments about equal rights didn't resonate with undecided voters or opponents because those aren't the reasons people get married.
"There's a disconnect," he said. "You can get off track when you focus too much on the rights and benefits of marriage and don't effectively communicate the true reason (for marriage), which is to make that lifelong commitment."
Those personal stories about commitment and family played a role in Maryland's legislature passing a bill legalizing gay marriage, according to Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council, a lead organization advising groups against same-sex marriage.
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