New Oral History Research Series: ‘Attitudes Evolve’: Narrative as a Strategy for Social Change in the Freedom to Marry Movement

Presentation | April 17 | 12-1:15 p.m. | Bancroft Library, 267 Conference Room

 Martin Meeker, Oral History Center

 Bancroft Library

As a first-time presidential candidate in 2008, Barack Obama publicly expressed his opposition to full marriage rights for same-sex couples. In October 2010, then-President Obama equivocated, admitting, “attitudes evolve, including mine.” And in May 2012, in the ramp-up to his reelection bid, he declared, “I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.” It turns out that this was a very deliberate political strategy employed by pro-marriage activists and operatives and then adopted by the President. The idea was to establish a model by which people who had previously opposed marriage for same-sex couples could themselves “evolve” on the issue and ultimately arrive at a place where they could support civil unions, at the very least, and, then, marriage. This strategy was used particularly effectively in places like New Hampshire, which required support from Republican elected officials to push back an effort to overturn marriage legislatively. This presentation is based on the interviews conducted as part of the Freedom to Marry Oral History Project at Berkeley's Oral History Center. The project produced about 100 hours of interviews with leading strategists, political operatives, and field organizers who advocated for marriage. Interviews have clearly demonstrated the role – indeed power – of narrative in driving social change, at least on this issue. The idea here is that effective social change (particularly vis-à-vis a profound transformation in public opinion) was made in part by allowing people to make a “journey” of opinion; activists, rather than haranguing opponents and calling them “homophobic,” would acknowledge that differences of opinion existed but then provided models (from the President on down) of people who themselves changed their minds. Activists and political operatives listened very closely to the broader public and then, rather gently, offering a way forward on an issue.

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Evan Wolfson with the plaintiffs in the Hawaii marriage case, 1990s