Here is a collection of resources from many varied sources about marriage equality campaigns from across the world. It includes lessons learned about:
- the power of stories – framing and language
- the power of who is telling the story
- inclusivity, diversity and community
- focusing on values
- the power of positivity and emotions
Note: There have been some minor edits from quotes such as the removal of footnotes and citations or paragraph lines added. To see the full text please see the resource link.
If you know of any more resources to include please contact us.
Stories, Framing and Messaging
Lessons From the Frontlines of Marriage Equality, Hattaway Communications, 2020
“Using the ‘love and commitment’ frame helped the movement shift public opinion on the issue of marriage equality. In 2011, for the first time, more than 50 percent of Americans said they supported marriage equality. The new narrative was employed to help defeat the Federal Marriage Amendment in Congress, advance marriage equality in state legislatures and win ballot measures across the country. Soon same-sex marriage was legal in 17 states, and the Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act. With public opinion continuing to shift rapidly, the Supreme Court made marriage equality the law of the land in 2015.”
Framing Equality Toolkit, Public Interest Research Centre PIRC, ILGA Europe
Campaigners reported watching people change their mind simply because they were heard in a non-judgmental way. They said it felt like the best way to allow people to really work out their own minds. – p.64
“They also decided to frame the campaign positively: rather than saying Finland is a backwards country, they tried to maintain the position that we can do it—there is a positive future ahead. They centred their campaign on inclusivity and used the term ‘we’ ubiquitously to connect and include. They enlisted the support of 1000 (!) Finnish companies and organisations in using the rainbow flag in their materials and logos for the duration of the campaign, which also creates a sense of shared identity. Lastly, the campaigners drew heavily on the Finns’ shared sense of identity with other Nordic countries in encouraging this move.” p. 64
“Love is Love” and Other Stories: The Role of Narrative in Winning the Freedom To Marry, Evan Wolfson, The Forge, 2020
“There were several different kinds of stories we encouraged people to bring forward and then sought to amplify. One was the reality and diversity of gay people’s lives — the idea that gay people were not just whatever stereotypes people had, but gay people are part of families, form couples, raise children, care for aging parents, get sick, break up, have medical problems, have needs, are together for thirty years or forty years or fifty years, and celebrate golden anniversaries.
That was one category: all those diverse stories humanizing gay people in the language of marriage and the vocabulary of love, family, commitment, and inclusion.
Other stories were important as well. It was important to hear from non-gay validators. We enlisted family members, friends, and coworkers to talk about the couples, their families, and their dreams…Another category of story came from surprising messengers: the 70-year old grandparents, the conservative Republican veteran, people of faith, rural families, and so on. We worked very hard to encourage people to make the case for the freedom to marry in ways that would resonate with the audiences they could reach and the audiences we needed.
We found, through research and analysis combined with sifting through years of our own experience and anecdotal evidence, that those people would not be convinced by a case that was mixed, which talked about love and commitment but also talked about health coverage or the Constitution.
What they needed to hear was the empathy case, the values case, the “love is love” case.
So we worked very hard to get our own team, our partners, the media, and politicians to shift to emphasizing that particular authentic message, the one this next swath of potential supporters needed to hear. That was the famous shift from benefits to love. And that shift did indeed build public support from about 53% in 2010 to 63% by 2015, not because what we had done before didn’t work, but because it wasn’t what the next people needed to hear….
…They hold up the freedom to marry as an example of transformational change because advocates set a goal that seemed unattainable, out of reach —and figured out how to get there — as opposed to setting a goal according to what was immediately attainable and simply going for that.”
It’s all in the frame: winning marriage equality in America, Kevin Nix, Open Democracy, 2015
“For decades, the gay rights movement emphasized the countless rights and benefits that came with marriage. But that legal frame, including the word ‘rights’, didn’t work. It was sterile, materialistic and unpersuasive…
The purpose of this research was twofold: first, we wanted to understand what the conflicted middle’s reservations were to same-sex marriage; and second, we needed to figure out how to meet those folks—and onetime opponents—where they were in their own mental template and help get them on board. With a mountain of polls and focus groups as our guide, we settled on a values frame that hit on why most people get married: love, commitment and family…
But the messenger matters as much as the message. Advocates put the human face on the policy issue of same-sex marriage with loving gay couples from all walks of life. It was especially important to humanize and dramatize their stories. Also essential were third-party validators, like moms and dads standing up for their kids’ right to marry and unexpected public champions…
Yes: Marriage Equality’s Path to Victory in Ireland, Eric Brown, The Communications Network
“As co-director of the Yes campaign, Healy observed,
Our communications started with values. Our research told us that the electorate believed in love, equality, fairness, generosity, and being inclusive. These were what it meant to be Irish.
“The campaign agreed at the very beginning to commit to a non-confrontational approach in which Yes proponents engaged others in conversations that were productive and positive. If they saw that their supporters were engaging in negative campaigning or using social media to attack their opponents, they would contact those supporters and request that the posts be removed. ‘We understood how Irish people absorb change,’ said co-campaign director Brian Sheehan. ‘We never lectured and we never alienated. We understood that change happens progressively.’ Yes proponents sought to find areas of agreement with those who had not yet made up their minds about how to vote. As Healy observed…
The wonderful thing about putting out those values is that it’s what people want to be. They want to come and be part of that.
Case Study: Yes Equality – Using Digital and Social Media to help secure a Yes Vote
“For the referendum campaign to succeed, it was critical to establish and maintain a positive tone throughout and to manage control of the message, particularly online. Creating a campaign that people wanted to be a part of was vital in reaching the ‘movable middle’, those who had yet to make up their mind – a key target audience…
Disrespectful language was commonplace on both sides of the argument, with much of this debate taking place on social media. Opponents were using examples of such language to claim that supporters of marriage equality were refusing to engage in open, respectful debate. Those leading the Yes Equality campaign feared that the existing tone and language would work against achieving a positive result….Yes Equality played a part in moderating the tone of the debate and coverage on social media, encouraging its supporters towards positive messaging. By creating content and responding to online developments, Yes Equality set the upbeat and respectful tone of the debate.”
Yes Equality describes Ireland in 5 words, ‘Loving’ ‘Equal’ ‘Fair’ ‘Generous’ and ‘Inclusive’.
YesEquality2015 (@YesEquality2015) April 17, 2015. This gave the campaign a head start in the conversation.”
Varieties of Constitutional Experience: Democracy and the Marriage Equality Campaign, Nan D. Hunter, 2017, 64 UCLA L. Rev. 1662
“In the marriage campaign, voter-tested messaging led to two major discursive innovations. The first was the jettisoning of rights arguments in favor of storytelling models that were grounded in emotions rather than rights.”
Advocates stopped enumerating the legal benefits of marriage and talked more about the bonds of commitment exemplified by same-sex couples.
“Second, ballot question campaign ads increasingly featured the construction of a storytelling arc centered on how opposition to same-sex marriage of older or more conservative voters could morph into acceptance (even if not endorsement) of it..
The single most important communication change was the adoption of the “journey story,” which became known as “J stories.” J story ads featured family members and other non-gay messengers telling the story of how they changed their minds about same-sex marriage.
“The focus was less on the arguments and more on the process of changing one’s mind. The speakers identified themselves with demographic groups not usually associated with predictably liberal positions: clergy members, Republicans, grandparents, elder veterans.” p. 1710
J story ads became marriage equality’s not so secret weapon… J story ads did not engage morality debates head on. The speaker did not argue that homosexuality was good, but communicated how the viewer could be a good person without changing her opinions completely. J story ads were geared less to persuading people to endorse same-sex marriage than persuading them that the time had come to allow it. The goal was to develop paths that let movable middle voters use their own values, whatever those were, to manage their conflicted feelings and reject campaigns to block marriage equality.” p. 1711
The J story approach provided marriage equality advocates with their first credible version of a morality argument, one built (knowingly or not) on what Walter Fisher called the “narrative paradigm.” Fisher recognized that individuals were often more persuaded by stories than by formal logic.
The Importance of Public Meaning for Political Persuasion, Perspectives on Politics , Volume 16 , Issue 1, March 2018 , Deva Woodley, pp. 22 – 35
In this article, I show that the massive shift in support for same-sex marriage was likely not the result of large majorities changing their underlying attitudes regarding gay sexual relationships, but was instead the result of activists inserting new criteria for evaluating same-sex marriage into popular political discourse by consistently using resonant arguments. These arguments reframed the political stakes, changed the public meaning of the marriage debate, and altered the decisional context in which people determine their policy preferences.
Everybody Wants Somebody to Love: Emotion, Rationality, and Framing LGBT rights Brian F. Harrison, Melissa R. Michelson, Western Political Science Association, Prepared for delivery at the 2015 annual meeting of the Western Political Science Association, Las Vegas, NV.,2015
“One possible driver of recent attitudinal shifts is the change in messaging by mainstream advocacy organizations. Earlier campaigns focused on rational, abstract legal rights—for example, the “No on 8” campaign against Proposition 8 in California—and traditionally, there has been more emphasis on rational, rights-based frames compared to emotional appeals.
Some organizations, however, have recently shifted their focus to love and commitment. The assumption of these more recent campaigns is that framing marriage equality as about love is most effective at generating support.”
In other words, decisions have been made by several prominent advocacy organizations to frame marriage equality in terms of love, families, and children in contrast to previous efforts that emphasized rational, rights-based appeals. pp. 4 – 5
Individuals may be more supportive of marriage equality when the issue is presented as about love, commitment and family because that frame evokes a positive emotional response, compared to when the issue is presented as about the dispassionate values of rights and equality…pp. 8 – 9
The Path to Marriage Equality In Ireland: A Case Study, Susan Parker, The Atlantic Philanthropies, 2017
“Campaign organizers also based their approach and messaging on research, both their own and that of previous referendum campaigns both in the US and Ireland. That research showed that initiating conversations and telling stories was the most effective approach. A series of focus groups, meanwhile, revealed insights that the campaign incorporated. For example, a focus group of middle-aged men who were ‘soft’ Yes voters revealed that they were susceptible to the suggestion from the No side that civil partnership should be adequate for gay and lesbian couples.
That finding provided more urgency to articulate why marriage was important to the gay and lesbian community. Finally, research showed another important insight that the campaign took on board. Voters who were soft on the issue could be persuaded by people like themselves including parents, neighbors, and those their age.
‘The fact that there were many voices promoting the referendum was important,’ Garrett said. ‘This wasn’t for gay people. This was for people’s sons and daughters and brothers and sisters and friends and neighbors.’ ” p. 13
Find a simple message that will resonate with people. After a number of iterations, the campaign focused on the simple Yes Equality because it connoted a message of fairness and positivity. p. 18
The Marriage Equality campaign inspired Australians to get out the vote and say “Yes”, Jane St John, Nationbuilder
“On the specific goal and impact of supporter stories on Marriage Equality, Knobel says,
What people didn’t have was hope, and that’s what we were trying to create through everything that we put out. We did not lean into anger, and it wasn’t because we weren’t angry. It was because if we acknowledged that anger, we needed to move then into hope in order to get people to action.
ChangeMakers Podcast, Series 2, Episode 5: Marriage Equality, ChangeMakers, 2018
They also needed a language that was inclusive of the whole LGBTI community – not just homosexual couples.
“…So they settled on the term marriage equality. Doing this had an immediate impact on the LGBTI community. They weren’t that interested in marriage. But equality… Locking in the language allowed a series of strategies to unfold. The first was storytelling. Several brave LGBTI couples began talking publicly about their desire to be married. The second was good old fashioned organising. Australian Marriage Equality started encouraging people all across the country to set up local groups to begin a local conversation about marriage equality.
ADAM KNOBEL: The campaign did extend past the LGBT community. Parents and grandparents of LGBTI people were active in the marriage equality campaign from very early on. And in fact some of the leading regional campaigners are just mothers of gay or lesbian children who wanted to see their son or daughter marry the person that they love.
HOST: And slowly, public opinion started to shift…
ADAM: So we try and make the campaign as much about every yes voter in the country is the expert. Every yes voter in the country is the best person to speak in their communities about why they’re voting yes that they are the person who should face the campaign…
Good Practice Guide on Values Based Campaigning for Legal Recognition of Same-Sex Partnerships Written by: Dr Gráinne Healy, Council of Europe 
“An important aspect of the campaign was to convince supporters NOT to spend time making factual or legal arguments about marriage equality, but to use personal stories and personal statements instead.” – p.4
Campaign supporters were trained to use opening sentences with others such as, ‘I’m voting Yes, can I tell you why?’ These personal statements helped to mobilise the moveable middle million voters. These were the voters who needed to be moved to a definite Yes voting position in order to win the referendum. – p.4
“For the campaign this meant a move away from listing sets of rights and entitlements which marriage would bring same-sex couples. It meant a move to becoming a campaign that was about emphasizing belonging, fairness, justice, equality and inclusiveness as core values.” p.5
A secret weapon used by the Irish campaign was to successfully train supporters to use personal stories to gain campaign ground. This approach was grounded in values based campaigning. Personal stories increased the visibility of LGBT couples and their families in Ireland. They also acted as an invitation to others to reflect on the values being displayed by supporters – love, inclusion, fairness – these were values to which the general public were attracted. p.5
“Central to this approach was the understanding that when conversations touch upon values such as the importance of family, love, commitment, kindness or inclusivity, people are more likely to be engaged. The Yes Equality campaign became a vehicle for promoting these positive societal values – values which voters held close to their hearts.” p. 5
The Marriage Equality campaign inspired Australians to get out the vote and say “Yes”, Jane St John, Nationbuilder, 
“Another vital part of Marriage Equality’s progress was storytelling—specifically personal, authentic stories crowdsourced from their supporters. People circulated the campaign’s emotional videos of LGBTQ supporters calling their older relatives and asking them how they were going to vote, parents advocating on behalf of their LGBTQ children, and same-sex couples calling for recognition of their relationships in their home country.”
Case Study: Yes Equality – Using Digital and Social Media to Help Secure a Yes Vote, ForaChange, 2015
“A key tactic of the Yes Equality campaign was to make the case for marriage equality through the telling of personal stories. This was supported by research which showed that when you talk to family or friends about why the right of lesbians or gay men to marry is important to you, it helps persuade them to vote Yes. Telling powerful, authentic personal stories in compelling ways was a key tactic that helped secure the 1,201,607 Yes votes in the referendum.
These stories resonated with people and helped start conversations, change hearts and minds, build bases of support, generate donations, and inspire action. Central to the campaign strategy was to provide a space for people to tell these stories. Throughout the campaign, politicians, journalists, celebrities and citizens used social media to tell people why they were voting Yes.”
The messengers were as important as the message; videos of grandparents talking about why they were voting Yes went viral.
The Path to Marriage Equality In Ireland: A Case Study, Susan Parker, The Atlantic Philanthropies, 2017
“Young Adults’ Stories of Their Parents May Have Been Pivotal Factor…Clare O’Connell and Conor Prendergast spoke articulately about the real impact on their lives when their parents did not have the right to legally marry. Conor, who was engaged to a woman, said his parents, who had been together for 32 years, deserved the same recognition of their relationship as he would have. When he finished his testimony, attendees erupted in a loud round of applause. ‘People in the Convention needed to see what it is like to be a child in a lesbian or gay household,’ Smyth said. ‘This is why gay marriage really matters. It was very important to bring the human dimension to the table.’ “- pp. 5 – 6
Put human stories at the center of any campaign for change. A crucial learning from the marriage equality referendum was the power of stories from LGBT people and others including often their parents. It was those stories, in which people talked about the pain of not being able to marry their longtime partner, or see their son or daughter enjoy the benefits of marriage they had had, that often seemed to break through to people who had been undecided…Authentic local voices must be heard.” p. 18
When seeking to reach voters far away from Dublin, the Yes Equality campaign was careful to find people from the local areas to speak about why they supported marriage equality rather than import in spokespeople who were not known locally. People like stories but they also like them to be told in a language that they understand in a way that is relevant to them by people they know. – p. 18
Inside the marriage equality campaign: ‘You don’t want to talk exclusively to your bubble’, Paul Karp, The Guardian, 2017
“’This is a campaign about conversations: with someone you know, about someone you know,’ Brady says. ‘It’s about providing resources to empower people in Broken Hill and Carnarvon, because the campaign bus won’t roll in and roll out of those towns. They have to understand they are the campaign.’
Hinton-Teoh echoes the sentiment, saying the campaign will help middle Australia ‘find their voice and encourage them to talk to people with similar values’. The Equality Campaign sees the involvement of a wide range of organisations as a benefit that will allow each to focus on its strengths, hone its message for a specific audience and let a thousand flowers bloom.”
Visibility and Imagery
How the Yes was won: the inside story of the marriage referendum, Grainne Healy, Brian Sheehan and Noel Whelan, The Irish Times, 2015
“The best strategy for reassuring middle-ground voters was to present gay people and gay couples in the wider context of their families, preferably in group shots where voters had to look closely to guess which of the people were lesbian and gay. The research showed that this reminded voters that, like everyone else, gay men and lesbian women had families and communities. Pictures of gay or lesbian couples on their own were out; in research they came across to voters as isolated. ‘Why are they always alone?’ voters said in focus groups.”
How Australia’s Crowd-Sourced ‘Yes’ Campaign Depicted the Beautiful Potential of Equal Marriage, Behind the Work, LLB Editorial, 2017
Ad made with real footage of same sex couples getting married. Watch Video on Youtube.
“We had no idea what footage we would get – if there would even be any usable footage – but by day two I had one video which had fantastic moments. I knew even if it was just this one film, I could tell a story around this. By day three we had two additional videos that I knew we could craft the heartfelt backbone around and now suddenly, you could tell a few people’s stories, so the idea got a bit bigger. By the end of day five we had 68 videos and over 150 hours of footage. Some of that footage was iPhone quality and filmed vertically, but through most of this footage was a beautiful authenticity that centred around love…”
Yes: Marriage Equality’s Path to Victory in Ireland, Eric Brown, The Communications Network, 2018
“Research showed that the most effective messengers were predominantly straight parents, grandparents, and other members of the community who saw the referendum as an opportunity to promote fairness. As Healy points out, ‘We had spent a lot of time previously doing visibility about LGBT couples. But the research was clear that we needed to show LGBT people embedded in their families. Our ads would show large, smiling families together, and it was impossible to know who the lesbian was.’
Given relatively limited resources, the campaign had to be efficient, and social media provided a huge opportunity to connect personally to a wide audience to enlist others in communicating their message. Given that support was highest among people who were most active in social media—voters under 35— the campaign took advantage of the opportunities that social media presented. Yet, as Healy acknowledged, ‘Our biggest challenge was how to get ‘clicktivists’ to become activists.’”
Allies and Partnerships
ChangeMakers Podcast, Series 2, Episode 5: Marriage Equality, ChangeMakers, 2018
“But they also needed to activate those supporters offline. They needed a national field campaign. Who could do that? The answer – the union movement. Unions! Yep. I know, it might be surprise to some from other countries, but it’s not a total shock in Australia.”
The Tom Snow and Brooke Horne Family Trust for the Equality Campaign, Best Large Grant 2018, Philanthropy Australia, 2018
“Through key strategic partnerships between a broad range of organisations, including Australian Marriage Equality, the Human Rights Law Centre, Get Up! and the Aids Council of New South Wales, the Equality Campaign was able to build a broad coalition of supporters that included over 2,000 companies, unions and grassroots community organisations from across Australia.
In collaboration with some of Australia’s leading philanthropists and foundations, Brooke and Tom leveraged their own investment to raise nearly $20,000,000 in cash and in-kind donations, resourcing the Equality Campaign to employ over 80 full-time staff and manage 15,000 volunteers just 18 months after its incorporation.
The success of the Equality Campaign has set a new precedent for the potential of collaboration and a co-designed vision for success between philanthropy, business, civil society and the broader community.
Had the success of the postal survey result been replicated in a Federal Election, it would have been the highest electoral vote in history.”
- It’s Time, Marriage Equality, GetUp Australia, 2011
- Marriage Equality: Bring Your Family With You, Belong to Youth Services, [Ireland], 2015
- The Equality Campaign: Together we can achieve marriage equality, Marriage Equality Australia, 2016
- Australian Marriage Equality Campaign Videos
- Marriage Equality Campaign Timeline and Reflections
- How to Change the Narrative and Frame Issues for Social Change Impact
- Lessons learned_Reviews_Reflections
- Marriage law
- Movements_Campaigns - LGBTIQA+_Gay rights
- Same-sex marriage