The Limits of Pop Culture: Same-Sex Marriage at the Ballot Box

This has been the TV season of gay couplings — what may be “The New
Normal,” to use the title of NBC’s sitcom. The Gay Alliance Against
Defamation recently reported that the number of LGBT characters this
year is the highest ever recorded. And shortly after Vice President
Joseph Biden spoke to a showbiz crowd in April, he went on “Meet the
Press” and credited the sitcom “Will & Grace” for educating the
American public about gay and lesbian issues.

Even Mitt Romney, who
has said he opposes same-sex marriages, and even civil unions, when
asked to name his favorite TV show, pointed to one that features a gay
couple, “Modern Family,” perhaps trying to soften his stance on the
subject.

So why wouldn’t a spate of ballot initiatives — four
this year concerning same-sex marriage — be certain to turn out in
favor of liberalization of the laws?

While polls show a shift in
public opinion on the issue, with showbiz helping to shape perceptions
in myriad ways, there is still an aura of caution when it comes to the
ballot box.

Reasons for this can be found in “Question One,” a new
“War Room”-like documentary from Joe Fox and James Nubile opening this
week in New York, about the 2009 fight over a Maine ballot initiative to
restrict same-sex marriage in that state. The pic shows that opponents
of the initiative, despite seemingly doing everything right —
canvassing and calling voters with political precision — had their
hopes dashed on Election Night, when the ban on gay nuptials passed by a
52% to 48% margin.

“Question One” may leave viewers vexed, but
it will also make them a bit cynical. While the pic devotes plenty of
time to the Faustian bargain made by Marc Mutty, an employee of the
archdiocese of Portland who appears to want nothing to do with the issue
but was instructed by the local archbishop to chair the campaign to
restrict same-sex marriage in the state, it also provides insights into
the arguments that may have resonated with voters.

In one scene, a
radio talkshow host argues that pop culture already provides ample
examples of gay unions. But later, an ad aired by those who oppose
same-sex marriage conveys the sense that even if a voter accepts gays
and lesbians wholeheartedly, it’s still OK to oppose same-sex unions.

While
it’s anyone’s guess as to whether that spot made the difference in
Maine, it’s telling that Frank Schubert, the uber consultant who guided
California’s same-sex marriage ban Proposition 8, and acted as a kind of
puppet-master in the Maine campaign, is looking to use similar
commercials in the four states — Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and
Washington — in which the issue is being considered this November,
according to the New York Times. “Everyone has a right to love who they
choose,” an ad for the gay-marriage ban in Minnesota says, “but nobody
has a right to redefine marriage.”

What arguments work and what do
not are far from certain. There’s still a debate as to what went wrong
among gay marriage supporters in the campaign to defeat California’s
Prop. 8 — including that showbiz’s support came too little and too
late. This year, there’s concern among some LGBT activists that not
enough same-sex couples and families are featured in ad spots, even more
perplexing given the prevalence of such couples in primetime.

But
the biz certainly is not arriving late: Stars are doing PSAs, some
industry money is coming in , and there is a bit more optimism, as polls
show there’s a very good chance that at least one state will break
through and favor same-sex marriage. Brian Ellner, senior strategist in
the Human Rights Campaign’s successful effort to win legislative support
for same-sex marriage in New York in 2011, enlisted Julianne Moore,
Sean Avery, Joan Rivers, Ethan Hawke and a host of political and sports
figures in PSAs to call for passage.

The stars “created a feeling
of constant momentum and widespread support,” Ellner says. This year,
he’s among the co-founders of TheFour.com, a social media campaign with a
daily dose of messaging, often from showbiz, on the ballot initiatives
(which support same-sex unions in Washington and Maine). Pink, Lady Gaga
and Josh Charles have appeared in content, and a photo of Bruce
Springsteen along with a quote of support was “enormously effective,”
Ellner says. (The HRC’s efforts also include a sweepstakes in which
entrants — and donors — can win a dinner with Eric Stonestreet and
Jesse Tyler Ferguson, the stars of “Modern Family.”)

If those in
the four states vote to allow greater freedom, surely primetime and the
bandwagon of famous figures will be given credit for having played a
role in establishing a kind of inevitability on the issue. If they fail,
it will be more consternation, even wonderment, of what went wrong.

One
thing is certain: The string of losses by gay rights supporters on
state ballots has hardly stopped the movement, which may be even more
emboldened in adversity. Knowing that there will be anger if the
anti-same sex marriage side prevails, Mutty says near the end of
“Question One,” “I think the biggest price to pay is winning.”

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