Podcast transcript: How a tender message helped win the fight for same-sex marriage

[Music: “The Zeppelin” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Intro: This is Fiat Vox, a podcast that gives you an inside look at why people around the world are talking about UC Berkeley. I’m Anne Brice, a reporter for Berkeley News in the Office of Communications and Public Affairs.

Anne Brice: Three years ago today — on June 26, 2015 — same-sex couples were given the legal right to marry in the United States.

[Montage of news clips: Just after midnight, thousands celebrated what was once just a dream… bells ring… gay couples are tying the knot — legally — for the first time in Connecticut…]

AB: It was a really big deal. The issue of same-sex marriage had been long-contested and highly controversial. But after the Supreme Court struck down all remaining state bans on same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges, marriage equality was the law of the land.

[Music: “Lakeside Path” by Blue Dot Sessions]

AB: But it didn’t happen overnight.

AB: Martin Meeker is the director of the Oral History Center at UC Berkeley. He says Americans’ shift toward accepting same-sex marriage was a result, in large part, of a decade-long campaign called Freedom to Marry. He spent more than 100 hours interviewing nearly two dozen people about the campaign for the center’s Freedom to Marry Oral History Project.

AB: Martin, how many people do you think know that Freedom to Marry is a big reason that same-sex marriage became legal in the U.S. three years ago?

Martin Meeker: Not many. People tend to experience social change as this irresistible tide of public opinion. But there are always many people who worked countless hours to create the context for change actually happening.

It’s the same with Freedom to Marry. There were hundreds of deeply engaged people, many of whom we interviewed for this project, who worked to change the discourse so that people would feel that changing their opinion on same-sex marriage was actually the right thing to do.

AB: One of your interviews was with Thalia Zepatos, the director of research and messaging for Freedom to Marry. She was widely known as the “message guru” of the organization.

MM: Yeah, Thalia’s interview is super interesting. She played an essential part, I think, in changing the way same-sex marriage was being talked about nationwide. It had a lot to do with switching the discourse from talking about rights and benefits to talking about marriage in terms of love and commitment, universal values.

AB: Here’s a clip of Zepatos from one of the interviews with you in 2016:

TZ: I mean, there’s kind of a campaign truism, which is whoever defines the campaign will win it. If you get people to say, this is what this is really about. Yes, you’re setting the terms of the debate.

MM: Because I imagine there are a lot of heterosexual couples who say actually marriage is about love and commitment.

TZ: It was looking for that statement that a lot of people could nod their heads to. It wasn’t able who was participating in the marriage, it was about what it really stands for. And we were trying to elevate that conversation.

[Music: “Setting Pace” by Blue Dot Sessions]

MM: Part of what they came up with was not only this discourse about love and commitment, but Thalia and her team articulated what they called the journey narrative. And this was the idea that it was possible for people to change their position on an issue, while staying true to their own core values.

AB: The Freedom to Marry team even worked with President Obama to get him to announce his support of same-sex marriage in 2012.

Listen to how Obama uses the journey narrative in an interview with Robin Roberts on ABC News:

[Obama: Over the course of several years, as I talked to friends and family and neighbors. When I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed, monogamous relations, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together. When I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors out there fighting on my behalf and yet, feel constrained — even though “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is gone — because they’re not able to commit themselves, in a marriage. At a certain point, I’ve just concluded that for me, personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.]

AB: This was the first time he announced his support for same-sex marriage, right?

MM: Right, yeah. Remember, it was this thing when Joe Biden kind of got ahead of himself and announced his support of it and then Obama came out within a week or two. He was debating whether he wanted to do it before or after the election. But I think there was consensus in his camp that they would actually benefit by doing it before the election and so that’s what happened.

[Music: “Glass Beads” by Blue Dot Sessions]

AB: Since the court ruling in 2015 that legalized same-sex marriage, public support for it continues to climb. Last year, the Pew Research Center reported that 62 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage, while only 32 percent oppose it.

And it’s thanks to a determined group of idealistic realists who knew what it took to create lasting social change.

For Berkeley News, I’m Anne Brice.

The interviews conducted by Meeker for the Freedom to Marry Oral History Project are available on the Oral History Center’s website. A quick link is bit.ly/freedom-to-marry.

And learn more about the Freedom to Marry campaign at freedomtomarry.org.

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For more UC Berkeley News, visit news.berkeley.edu. If you have a great story idea, send us an email at news@berkeley.edu.