How Show Biz Helped Drive a Post-Prop 8 Public Opinion Swing Shift

The run up to Tuesday and Wednesday’s historic Supreme Court hearings on same-sex marriage is being greeted by an array of up-close-and-personal profiles of plaintiffs, change-of-opinion reversals from political leaders and polling that underscores a relatively rapid shift toward approval.

That swing of public opinion is a contrast to the much slower timing of past civil rights struggles, and explanations are open for debate. But more than a few have attributed the acceptance to entertainment, or the idea that the thruline of primetime shows, from “Ellen” to “Will & Grace” to “Modern Family,” brought gay characters and then same-sex relationships.

Vice President Joseph Biden said as much last year on “Meet the Press,” and on “Real Time with Bill Maher” on Friday, Maher said the same.

A Pew Research Center survey unveiled last week was yet another poll that showed the swing toward approval of gay nuptials: 49% to 44%, a reversal from the 58% to 33% split a decade ago.

More than a quarter of the recent poll’s respondents said their views had changed toward support, and of those, 32% said the reason was that they knew someone who is gay. Some 25% said they have “grown more open” and “thought about it more,” and 18% said it is “more prevalent,” “it’s inevitable” and “the world is just different now.”

Those who have changed their minds aren’t explicitly citing primetime programming, but it’s not too much of a leap to assume that the entertainment culture contributed to an atmosphere of acceptance.

The industry’s role extends to the case itself, as financial and organizational backers with a little bit of showbiz polish. As Rob Reiner recounted on Saturday at the Human Rights Campaign dinner, it was chance meeting with an acquaintance at the Beverly Hills Hotel that led him, his wife Michele, his political adviser Chad Griffin and his business partner Kristina Schake to former solicitor general Ted Olson, to make the conservative case for same-sex marriage. With David Boies coming on the case soon afterward, they had plans to pursue a challenge to the initiative at the federal level, with a case filed in late May, 2009. David Geffen and Steve Bing each provided $1.5 million for the initial legal fund, along with Norman Lear and others who would prove to be an eclectic list of donors from Wall Street and Washington, and across the political spectrum.

They set up a nonprofit to pursue the case, the American Foundation for Equal Rights, and this week the Reiners and two other board members, producer Bruce Cohen and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, will be in D.C. for the case.

Whether by timing or on purpose, the group of activists has helped foster a narrative of inevitability, particularly with the news value of unexpected Republicans and conservatives come forward in support. Ken Mehlman, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, came out in 2010 and joined the foundation’s board. He helped enlist many other Wall Street donors as well as members of the Republican mainstream to join the movement, with the divisions within the party highlighted in some of the debate on Sunday’s talk shows.

But what also stands out is how adept the foundation and other same-sex marriage activists have been at personalizing the issue, a contrast to a more muted P.R. strategy  waged by the backers of Proposition 8. As a video with Hillary Clinton and an interview with Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) got played over and over again in the past week, while opponents have had rather scant attention, one of the few stories in the mainstream press being a profile in the New York Times of Brian Brown, the head of the National Organization for Marriage, and coverage of a planned rally in Utah featuring some of the Osmonds.

On Friday, two of the plaintiffs in the Prop 8 case, Jeff Zarrillo and Paul Katami, appeared at a Los Angeles press conference to share their views on the coming hearings. Their message was about their hopes for victory, but also, in Katami’s words, that “they are pretty ordinary guys.” He has a ring on his right hand which he says he’s ready to put on his left when they can get married.

None of these moments in the build up to oral arguments may sway the justices, but they are perhaps a reminder of the importance of cultural consensus that follows a decision, with Roe vs. Wade a prime example of what happens with a wedge issue left with lingering divisions. The fact that only delayed audio will be available of the high court’s proceedings will leave much open to initial interpretation by pundits and legal analysts.

To that end, the story of the legal battle and the non-televised federal trial already has been tailored for the stage, with Black’s “8” having been performed at colleges and high schools, one or more documentaries in the works and even a potential feature film with Reiner, naturally, attached.  After this week, all that will be left is the cliche of a Hollywood ending.

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