When Thalia Zepatos joined the Freedom to Marry campaign in 2010, she had a big job ahead of her: she had to craft a totally new message about same-sex marriage that would convince Americans that supporting the issue was the right thing to do.
“It was looking for that statement that a lot of people could nod their heads to,” said Zepatos. “It wasn’t about who was participating in the marriage, it was about what it really stands for. And we were trying to elevate that conversation.”
Five years later on June 26, 2015, same-sex marriage was made legal in the U.S.
Martin Meeker, the director of the Bancroft Library’s Oral History Center at UC Berkeley, interviewed Zepatos and nearly a dozen others about the Freedom to Marry campaign for the center’s Freedom to Marry Oral History Project. Listen to Meeker talk about how a single message can help change a nation’s opinion.
Following is a written version of the podcast episode:
Three years ago today — on June 26, 2015 — same-sex couples were given the legal right to marry in the United States.
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.
But it didn’t happen overnight.
Martin Meeker is the director of the Bancroft Library’s 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.
He says few people know that Freedom to Marry was a big reason that same-sex marriage became legal.
“People tend to experience social change as this irresistible tide of public opinion,” he said. “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.”
One of the interviews that Meeker did 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.
“Yeah, Thalia’s interview is super interesting,” he said. “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.”
In one of the interviews with Zepatos, she talks about crafting the message of the campaign. “I mean, there’s kind of a campaign truism, which is whoever defines the campaign will win it,” she says. “If you get people to say, this is what this is really about. Yes, you’re setting the terms of the debate.”
Meeker responds: “Because I imagine there are a lot of heterosexual couples who say actually marriage is about love and commitment.”
“It was looking for that statement that a lot of people could nod their heads to,” says Zepatos. “It wasn’t about who was participating in the marriage, it was about what it really stands for. And we were trying to elevate that conversation.”
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.
The Freedom to Marry team even worked with President Obama to get him to announce his support of same-sex marriage in 2012. In an interview with Robin Roberts on ABC News, Obama used the journey narrative when describing his gradual realization that same-sex marriage was the right answer.
“Over the course of several years, as I talked to friends and family and neighbors,” said Obama. “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.”
It was the first time he announced his support for same-sex marriage.
“Right, yeah,” said Meeker. “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.”
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.
The interviews conducted by Meeker for the Freedom to Marry Oral History Project are available on the Oral History Center’s website. Learn more about the Freedom to Marry campaign at freedomtomarry.org.