General Assembly: GA Presentations: Presenter views and opinions do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the UUA.

Theme 1 (Letting Our Light Shine): Same-Sex Marriage: Finding Our Public Voice

General Assembly 2004 Event 2027


  • Hillary Goodridge, co-lead plaintiff in Massachusetts Supreme Court case to legalize same-sex marriage
  •  Rev. Keith Kron, Director of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Office of Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Concerns
  •  Rev. Don Southworth, Unitarian Universalist (UU) minister Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Atlanta, GA
  •  Rev. Melanie Sullivan, UU minister in Cherry Hill, NJ
  •  Janet Hayes, UUA Public Information Office, member of the UUA Public Witness Team

Rev. Melanie Sullivan

She talked of her difficult decision to not sign marriage licenses until there could be legal same-sex marriages and what considerations she had to take into account as to how it would affect her church. Her main concern was not to make problems for heterosexual couples who wanted to get married in her church as there was a worry the church would lose rental income from heterosexual couples refusing to use the church's facilities. But her board of directors supported her decision. Then three non-UU colleagues from nearby churches agreed to sign licenses for her.

The response was incredible: the switchboard was clogged with affirming calls, and positive emails were plentiful. There were lots of requests for interviews; and requests for traditional male/female weddings went up. Because of the media attention and the apparent respect for the decision, the whole undertaking has actually increased building rentals.

Rev. Don Southworth

He told of his experience in Atlanta; when he gave a sermon in favor of same-sex marriage, he had no idea how his congregation would react. Much to his surprise, he received a standing ovation. After he forwarded the sermon to a friend, it got into the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “Jesus didn't say anything about homosexuality, and that's good enough for me.” That line from his sermon became the tag line that the newspaper highlighted.

He also has been active in an interfaith clergy group in Atlanta. This has been an amazingly positive experience. Again, requests for heterosexual weddings have gone through the roof.

Hillary Goodridge

She told of her journey through her ground-breaking marriage to her partner Julie. The attorney who they had been working with had spent years working on this project. When they asked her if she and Julie wanted to be lead plaintiffs in the case, they agreed, with no knowledge of what that meant.

The 7 couples in the Massachusetts case had a retreat over one weekend, for training in how to handle the media. They were told not to mention it to the media so as not to alert the other side. Hillary talked about the importance of staying on message, how you need “your gold, silver, and bronze messages.” They practiced their messages a lot in front of video cameras.

Other advice she offered:

  • Never talk to a reporter when you're unprepared; always get a number and what their deadline is, call your media person first for advice, then call them back when you're ready.
  • When reporters ask ridiculous questions, you don't have to answer them; what can they do? They can't quote you if you haven't said anything.
  • A lot of straight people have their only image of gays via the Gay Pride Parade clips on TV. A comparable analogy would be if they only showed heterosexuals via their hysterical reactions to the Super Bowl game.
  • No matter how much a reporter tempts you with going off-message, don't do it.
  • The other thing that's hard is not to be flippant when they ask you stupid questions. Nor should you tell jokes. Jokes don't work well on TV. Also, never lie, and smile a lot.
  • It's all about re-educating people into “Gay 101” all over again. The patience that's required for this is incredible. Personal stories are what work the best; it humanizes the movement, as opposed to the Gay Pride photos.
  • On radio or TV, most shows are taped: “If you mess up, just use the F-word, and they won't be able to use it what you said.”
  • Also, on the air, don't lose your temper; it looks really bad; there are other ways to do it. Keep your dignity, just say a few words, say them well, and sit down.
  • Smear tactics: Don't respond; they will often backfire.

Janet Hayes

On the importance of getting your message out: If it's not public, and it's not witnessed, it's not public witness! She focused on the public message, how you address the world.

  • You need to focus on shared American values: “Cover up your tattoo with a nice navy blazer.”
  • Remember your audience.
  • Frame your arguments in terms of the Constitution. Don't talk about whether, for example, “marriage as an institution should be eliminated,” or “Should marriage involve more than 2 people,” but rather, honor the institution.
  • The focus needs to be on real people – on the opportunities missed, on the price paid by discrimination – and the pure ordinariness needs to be shown as well. These are not extraordinary people, not 1 in a million but maybe 5 or 10 in a hundred.
  • Rope off the slippery slope. In other words, don't go to where a reporter wants you to go.

For work at the national level:

  • Advice to same-sex couples contemplating legal action: Don't litigate; there are 50 states with all kind of permutations of laws; it's like a house of cards; a bad law suit could imperil things.
  • The best thing you can do is “bear moral witness,” live an honorable life, day by day, and hold it up as an example.

Reported by Allan Stern; edited by Joyce Holmen.

Strategic Message Tips for Marriage Equality

Janet Hayes, Information Officer, UUA

These pointers were adapted from a presentation by Evan Wolfson to the UUA Public Witness Team. Evan is the head of Freedom to Marry, and has led the movement for the past decade.

Messages for All Communicators

  1. Focus on shared American values. Try not to speak of "civil disobedience" by county clerks, mayors and clergy, but of "honoring the Constitution's command of equality." In this light, it's appropriate to say that the Goodridge decision "ended discrimination against same-sex couples." In other words, everyone knows that discrimination is bad, and so a decision ending it is just and proper (and All-American).
  2. Distinguish between Strategic Understanding of the issues and your Public MessageFor example, the term "Civil Marriage" was initially useful, but it is becoming increasingly confusing. Many people are unable to distinguish Civil Marriage from Civil Unions, which fall far short of legal marriage. For simple messages, stick with terms like "Marriage Equality," "Equal Marriage," or "Freedom to Marry." Use "civil marriage" only in more detailed contexts or when distinguishing it from "religious" or "sacramental" unions. As a corollary, try to avoid using the word "marriage" when discussion strictly religious ceremonies with no legal standing.

Advice for Religious Communities: Two Important Rhetorical Strategies

  1. Focus on "Real People." Specifically, focus on the faces and stories of same-sex couples and their families. Emphasizing our straight ministers' noble calls to civil disobedience is a tempting strategy, but it puts the spotlight on the wrong people. When ministers (whether straight or gay) are interviewed, their messages always need to focus on real examples of real GBLT families (without outing anyone, of course!).
  2. Equal Treatment for ordinary, decent people needs to be the gist of all messages about Marriage Equality. Avoid drama whenever possible. Do not go to the press with law-breaking antics or revolutionary-sounding demands. The undecided segment of the public will rightly perceive this kind of message as provocative, and they will view the messenger as being way out on the social fringe. Instead, provide a glimpse into the ordinary lives of good people who are forced to struggle because they are denied basic civil rights.
  3. Focus on the positive. Emphasize how important it is for all people to be able to marry the person of their choice, to protect their families in times of crisis, and to participate in the responsibilities of mutual care and support. Resist hurling accusations framed in the negative, such as "Marriage is not a heterosexual privilege." Doing this fails to positively define marriage, and it puts all straight, married people on the defensive. Using the word "heterosexual" divides people and sounds unnecessarily jargon-y, while the word "privilege" may be insulting (and completely inaccurate) if applied to the many disenfranchised straight couples whose lives are anything but privileged.
  4. Rope off the slippery slope: It may be true that marriage in general needs to be re-examined by thoughtful people, but we're not doing that right now. Remember the distinction between understanding and strategy, outlined above. Marriage equality is not about changing anything. It's about taking a vital, respected, legal institution, and ensuring fair and equal access to that institution for all people who wish to participate. Therefore, strictly limit all discussions of marriage to reflect the currently existing legal institution in every way: two people, legal adults, not married to anyone else, not related to one another, etc. Don't call for legal or tax reform of marriage now. Being strategic means picking your battles, so save all other discussions for another time.

Countering "Defense of Marriage" Arguments

Opponents will often use terms like "traditional marriage," but in reality there's no such thing. You don't have to go back as far as the Bible to tackle this fallacy. Responses to "historical" objections should emphasize four historical shifts in marriage within many adults' lifetimes (note that attacks on gay marriage often include prejudices that apply equally to one of these four areas of progress in American marriage law):

  1. Laws were overturned that prohibited marriage between couples of different races (Loving v. Virginia).
  2. Divorce was made more accessible and more fair with new inventions like community property, no-fault divorce, etc.
  3. Gradual reform in property laws empowered women within marriage.
  4. Court decisions continue to be made that strengthen a couple's Right to Privacy. Decisions regard contraception, abortion, consenting sexual acts. Use these examples with care—it may not always be in your best interest to remind a hostile audience about Roe v. Wade).

Advice for Same-Sex Couples

Understand the difference between the Decision to Marry and the Decision to Litigate. Evan Wolfson advises couples to marry and go about their lives, to tell their stories and then wait for the right place and time for any legal challenges. Contrary to the common perception, this struggle is not entirely about legal strategies. Wolfson and the national legal groups strongly encourage couples to "bear moral witness" rather than litigate. Any decision to litigate should be made in consultation with GLAD or another national BGLT rights organization that has legal resources and expertise.

"Bearing Moral Witness" is a powerful and spiritual act, but it is not easy. Below are a few things to consider if you are interested in sharing your story:

  1. Weigh carefully the costs of allowing your story to be told. Be sure to set boundaries for anyone who might share your story (including your minister and/or congregation). For example, you may agree in principle to let your minister describe your family in an interview, but not to include the name of your child. Or you may prefer to speak with reporters directly and not through third parties. Alternately, you might only be comfortable providing sensitive information in writing. Decide on how you feel about being photographed, and how much background information about a publication you need before agreeing to an interview.
  2. Remember to emphasize the responsibilities and obligations of marriage. "It's important for me to know that if anything happens to me, Dan will be provided for" is a much more effective message than, "Why shouldn't I be entitled to Dan's pension just like a straight spouse would be?" Show that you're a good citizen and just want to be allowed to do your duty by your loved one(s). Yes, it's a deeply conservative argument, but we're not preaching to the choir here.
  3. Revel in your ordinariness! This is not so much an opportunity for dramatic coming-out stories as it is for describing your carpooling and home-repair experiences. Emphasize the ways in which your family is just the same as any other. Then, in simple and clear language, describe how your lives would be better with the benefit of legal marriage rights.