It was a landslide. Last Tuesday, by a vote of 61 percent in favor, 39 percent against, North Carolina passed Amendment 1, which has been referred to as the “marriage-plus” amendment. Not only does this constitutional amendment define marriage solely as a union between one man and one woman – making North Carolina the 30th state to pass such an initiative – it also declares other forms of recognition for same-sex couples null and void.
This initiative was a crushing blow to the marriage equality movement. What didn’t help matters is the fact that some gay rights organizations (Freedom to Marry being a prime example) failed to invest time, money, and energy in blocking the passage of the initiative, figuring that trying to fight the Borg was futile. “If gays ever win the right to marry in the South,” writes Lila Shapiro of the Huffington Post, paraphrasing Freedom to Marry founder/director Evan Wolfson, “it will be when the Supreme Court rules on the issue or the federal government steps in.” If we’re going to lose anyway, the reasoning goes, why bother playing the game?
Well, as the old Lotto commerical said, “to win it, you’ve got to get in it.” And even if the small win doesn’t come now, the big win could come later. How, you might ask, could we possibly score a big win when states all over the country are sealing the deal against gay rights with constitutional amendments?
One word: Media.
Back in the 1960s, Robert Zajonc (pronounced “zy-ence”), a social psychologist from Stanford University, popularized the concept known as the mere exposure effect, which works like this: If you hear a message or idea over and over again, even if you initially disagree with it, you will eventually come to agree with it, merely because you were repeatedly exposed to it. Hence the term “mere exposure” effect. So even if an anti-gay initiative passes, there’s immense value in flooding the airwaves with messages supporting LGBTQ rights. Unfortunately, in North Carolina, this opportunity wasn’t utilized to its fullest potential.
Increasingly, however, the media has been powerfully effective in changing attitudes about LGBTQ people, even in the absence of pro-gay political advertising. Edward Schiappa, professor of communication studies at the University of Minnesota, has conducted several studies on what he refers to as “parasocial contact hypothesis.” This concept is an extension of Gordon Allport’s contact hypothesis, detailed more clearly in his classic book The Nature of Prejudice. According to this idea, prejudical attitudes change when we have the opportunity to have significant, meaningful interactions with people who belong to that group. In some cases, the only experience some individuals may have with LGBTQ people may well be through the media. Viewers of Glee get to know Kurt and Blaine. Modern Family devotees connect with Mitchell and Cameron. Through these “parasocial contacts” – these illusory media relationships – we become emotionally attached to these characters. And this “parasocial contact” changes attitudes.
So Freedom to Marry may have dropped the ball, but the major television networks are getting the message out anyway, right under our noses. And, in an unexpected plot twist, the ball that Freedom to Marry dropped was very deftly picked up by our very own President, Barack Obama. The very next day (which I’m sure all of you know by now), in a groundbreaking move, Obama publicly announced his support for same-sex marriage. While many analysts see this announcement as politically risky, I think it was brilliant. Why? Because (1) his support was long overdue anyway, (2) he made history by taking a clear stand in support of same-sex marriage, and history can’t be reversed, and (3) he took the bull by the horns and put gay rights on the campaign agenda. You better believe that we’ll be hearing about same-sex marriage ad nauseum from now until November. And this could be a golden opportunity in the fight to secure same-sex marriage rights – and possibly a prime opportunity for Obama to turn his polling numbers around.
So listen up, marriage equality groups. And listen up, Obama campaign people. If there was ever a time to mobilize a two-pronged strategy, utilizing the mere exposure effect and the parasocial contact hypothesis, the time is now. Saturate the media with pro-gay political advertising, and you’ve got the mere exposure effect. Connect Barack Obama with the message of gay rights, and connect him with viewers by plugging him into as many popular media opportunities as possible (such as the slow jam news with Jimmy Fallon), and you’re wielding the tool of parasocial contact. And even when it gets ugly, stay the course.