Must pro-gay TV ads include gay people?

Journalist Rex Wockner (l) and advocate Matt Foreman (r).
(Photo by Rex Wockner)

As you may know, Maine is preparing to vote next month on whether to legalize same-sex marriages.

There’s been an ongoing controversy in the gay community over whether pro-gay ads should highlight gay people or straight allies. Some gay people feel that ads focusing on straight allies, and their acceptance of same-sex marriage, “ins” gay people, puts them back in the closet. They argue that this is one of the reasons we’ve lost on this issue in so many state referenda, because we don’t include more gay people in our ads.

Others, like Matt Foreman, the former head of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, disagree.

First the two latest ads, then a discussion of this issue between two gay thought leaders:

Here is a Q&A between gay chronicler Rex Wockner and Foreman.

Rex Wockner:

Question: What has been the single biggest factor in the gay movement’s success since 1969?

[Rex answers the question himself] Answer: People getting to know gay/lesbian people because gay/lesbian people came out of the closet to them.

Question: So how do TV ads featuring straight people help straight people get to know and understand gay/lesbian people?

Matt Foreman responds:

Getting people to know someone who is gay is not an issue: more than 70% of the public already does. Instead, the challenge is helping decent straight people who already know someone who is gay work through their internal conflict between not wanting to hurt gay people and their own religious beliefs or other deep-seated concerns. Messengers with whom these conflicted individuals can relate are the most effective and powerful. Why? Because they can see someone just like them who has moved to a place of support for marriage equality. (This isn’t rocket science; it’s human communications 101.) Gay messengers on TV are not as effective because they are (correctly) seen as not ever having had a similar conflict to work through and because they have something personal to gain from their advocacy.

Of course, the most effective way to move people on issues of LGBT equality is when LGBT people actually talk to straight people in their lives about these issues – as opposed to simply being “out.” Data indicate that straight people who have had these talks are 15-16% more supportive of marriage equality than those who only know someone who is gay. However, it’s the personal (not political) connection that counts in these conversations and that cannot be replicated by a stranger spokesperson on TV.

Matt Foreman

Rex then asks:

Why not go after the 30% who say they don’t know anyone gay?

Matt responds:

It’s a question of math – meaning where are you most likely to find that 3-4% and, therefore, where should you concentrate your resources? People who say they don’t know people who are gay are already 20 points less supportive of marriage equality, and the polls I’ve seen show only a tiny amount of them in the “movable” category (compared to those who do know gay people).

Of course, even if these people don’t know a gay person personally, unless they’re under a rock, they are certainly exposed to a lot of relatively positive portrayals on TV. (What was it Biden said about the impact of Will & Grace…?) I could be wrong, but my gut tells me that paid TV ads wouldn’t have any appreciable impact beyond what they are likely seeing in much greater quantity (a la Ellen, Glee, Modern Family, etc., etc.) In other words, I can’t see why they would relate to and be moved more by a (stranger) gay person talking about marriage in a campaign ad than by the many, many more pro-gay and pro-marriage-related stories in popular media.

What do you think? Are we inning ourselves, or are these ads what influence straight people the most?

Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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