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Monday, May 30, 2011

Straight Ally Jane Wishon on Countering Political Ads About Gays and Children

Jane Wishon at a marriage equality rally in 2011
By Karen Ocamb -

(Editor’s note: After posting my long piece on the Equality California town hall meetings on repealing Prop 8 in 2012, I asked straight ally Jane Wishon to write post about her comments. Please consider how Jane represents women who the No on Prop 8 campaign thought were a reliable vote – until Protect Marriage’s “Princes” ad. Also, Jane’s “eye-opener” came when she experienced discrimination because people thought she was a lesbian. That impact of empathy cannot be underestimated – as the soft but effective Let California Ring “Garden Wedding” ad illustrated.  – Karen Ocamb)
Countering the “Princes” Ad
By Jane Wishon
I confess: I’m a recovering, former member of the “moveable middle” on the issue of marriage equality. Yes, though I am now a National Board Member of Marriage Equality USA, I thought marriage was between a man and a woman until June of 2008. I campaigned for LGBTQ rights within the Presbyterian Church going all the way back to 1998, but in my head the dictionary definition of marriage was man/woman – I thought it should have another name if it involved two members of the same gender.
It was my wonderful husband of over 30 years who pointed out to me that “separate but equal” is never equal.
I also didn’t know any LGBTQ people – or at least no one who was “out” enough for me to realize they were LGBTQ. Yes, there really are people like me out there.  In fact, I’d like to think that there are thousands of people out there who oppose marriage equality, not out of bigotry, but just because they haven’t had their “ah ha” moment yet.
I got involved in the No on 8 campaign as a reaction to a family member who was strongly Yes on 8. I found West Hollywood (who knew it was hiding just a couple of miles from my house?), made donations and worked the day of the election outside of polls to make sure that our base knew “No” meant “Yes for marriage equality.”
That was the day when I got a taste of the discrimination the LGBTQ community faces – people assumed I was a lesbian since I was saying vote No on 8 and treated me differently than I was used to. That was a real eye-opener for me.
It’s no secret that the opponents of marriage equality use “fear for the children” as their strongest weapon. It’s hard wired in us to protect children – both as individuals and as a society. And fear is the one of the strongest emotions and greatest motivators that savvy politicos can use. Throughout history, we’ve seen fear lead to some of the worst atrocities mankind has experienced.
The Yes on 8 people used a very successful (for them) ad that we now call “The Princes Ad.” We all remember the little girl running in (carrying a book entitled King and King) and telling her mother that she found out at school that she can grow up to marry a Princess, followed by an ominous voice “Think it can’t happen? In Massachusetts…” They’ve used similar ads in every anti-marriage equality campaign across the country. Serious research is being conducted by a consortium that includes EQCA into why people react the way they do to this ad.
In Los Angeles, Vote for Equality (LA Gay & Lesbian Center) is conducting field tests of ads to combat the “Princes” ad as part of their door- to-door canvassing. Initially, VFE hypothesized that “Princes” created the fear in parents that teaching about marriage equality in schools would “turn their children gay.” So VFE created a 30 second spot that featured a Pediatrician explaining that people are born with their sexuality and that exposure to information about LGBTQ won’t turn children “gay.” Unfortunately, people at the door found that they could agree with both “Princes” and with the Pediatrician ad.
I heard about the research and offered my perspective as a straight mom.  I know that I reacted to the “Princes” ad, even though I was a marriage equality fan by the time of the election. I remember what it was like to have young children – how I wanted to control everything they were exposed to – I even bought fancy air purifiers so I could control the air they breathed. So I asked some other parents to see if they agreed with me – that the effective part of the “Princes” ad for those of us who are inclined to support the LGBTQ community is the fear of the unknown, fear that what’s being taught is not age appropriate. I also asked elementary school teachers – what do you teach about same sex marriage?
Here’s what they told me – that they teach respect for all children and all families, whatever their configuration: single parent, aunt or uncle, grandparents, two moms or two dads, a mom and a dad, or something else. The teachers told me that what’s important is the children are loved and cared for. I did my own field-testing of that message when I went canvassing and it seemed to work.
So when I joined the VFE committee I suggested that we draft an ad that doesn’t apologize for talking about same gender couples – but that we demystify it. “Here’s what they teach” – not body parts but respect. And let’s find a way to empower the parents – go ask your own child’s teacher what they teach – and model for them how to ask the questions.
I also suggested that, since the other side uses fear, which is a cold emotion (and negative emotions are much stronger in mass media than positive ones) – our ad has to call to the heart of the viewers – warm and loving, hearth and home.
The committee is now finalizing some new 30 second spots to test against the “Princes” ad based on some of those ideas. We need to find a Mom of young children who would be willing to be filmed for one of the ads. It would be best if she were, like me, a recent convert to marriage equality so that she can explain how she changed her opinion to the committee – we still need to learn more!
Whether or not California goes to the ballot to repeal Prop 8, the opposition will not stop using variations on the “Princes” ad to fight marriage equality in other states until someone finds a way to counteract it. If you’re in the greater Los Angeles area, please join VFE for a canvass – every conversation moves California a little closer to true equality for all.

Jane Wishon is a straight ally who has held leadership positions in a number of socially conscious organizations for the last 20+ years. She has just joined the National Board and serves as the LA Chapter Chair for Marriage Equality USA, volunteers in Case Management for AIDS Project LA, reaches out to high school students for UCLA Admissions, blogs on behalf of the LGBT community, and works with The Trevor Project both in schools and online. Her background includes an MBA as a Baker Fellow at the Anderson School of Management UCLA, New Business Research and Development for Xerox Learning Systems, and Store Management for Bullocks Wilshire Department Stores. Jane lives in LA with her husband of 35 years and her three children. She is an Elder of the Presbyterian Church. Follow Jane on facebook or on twitter @janewishon

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