Bad Optics & A Lack Of Compelling Visual Imagery: This Is Why Marriage Equality Opponents Are Experiencing An Epic Fail


NOM's 2014 March for MarriageLast week, the National Organization for Marriage hosted its annual March for Marriage. I didn’t go, but as I understand it, there wasn’t much marching. However, there was lots of talk about marriage — what it is and what it allegedly isn’t — so they got it half right.

Unfortunately, that’s about all they got.

They didn’t get the “tens of thousands” of supporters they’d hoped for — maybe a thousand, if you count the speakers.

They didn’t get coverage in the news — except from LGBT sites, which tended to write about the small crowd and the wackjobs at the podium.

And most importantly, those wackjobs made it clear that they didn’t get the nuances of marriage equality and how it’s different from other social issues. The best example came from NOM’s Brian Brown, who compared the fight against same-sex marriage to the fight against abortion.

Those are two very different battles, with two very different sets of tools for activists. The differences perfectly — and literally — illustrate why conservatives have been able to win a little ground on the abortion front but have made absolutely zero progress in their fight against marriage equality.


Decades after Roe v. Wade, abortion continues to be a volatile issue because conservatives have two key weapons in their arsenal:

  1. They can frame the abortion debate as one about defenseless children.
  2. They can do so graphically.

Anti-abortionists at workNever mind the fact that, in doing so, they erase the mother. Never mind that they side-step hard questions about her life and how the child will grow up. And never mind that they lobby against Welfare, job-training, and other programs to support struggling families after unwanted pregnancies are carried to term.

Conservatives turn their weapons on folks who believe that life begins at conception, on folks who can’t look past a few graphic images to see the much bigger, much more complex problem. They say that abortion kills babies, and they have graphics to back up their claim. On the face of it, is a hard argument to counter.

They can’t do the same for marriage, though.


The problem is, marriage has never been about children, it has historically been about the accumulation of wealth (cf. arranged marriages). Children were simply a means of generating more income, disguised in cute, big-eyed, diaper-bound packages.

Then, around the late 18th century, even the economic imperative of marriage took a hit. Thanks in large part to the rise of Romanticism, Western marriage became all about love — something that still holds true today. Nowadays, marriage without love is unthinkable, or at least a little scandalous. Marriage without kids, on the other hand? BFD.

David Burtka, Neil Patrick Harris, and familyAs a result, conservatives don’t have much viscerally charged material to use in the marriage equality debate. Everywhere you look — on the news, on the web, in catalogs — there are images of happy, loving, consensual, same-sex couples. Not exactly gut-wrenching stuff. Foes try to focus on the children, but in terms of what marketing people like me call “optics”, that’s a stretch. (What would a compelling, anti-marriage-equality graphic even look like? A sad kid with two dads? Honestly, I can’t even picture it.)

This is why the March for Marriage failed, this is why so few participated, this is why no one wanted to cover it.

This is also, in part, why the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8 one year ago today.  And it’s why, in every state where a marriage equality case has been argued before a judge since that ruling, the judge has decided in favor of LGBT folks — including two cases this week.

Ultimately, conservatives are going to lose this battle. I hope that loss will make them rethink their positions, have a change of heart, and help the rest of America address a host of problems like racial inequality, income inequality, and a woefully inadequate educational system.

But I’m not holding my breath.

P.S.  Also not helping NOM’s cause? Really ugly swag. Say what you like, The Gays know graphic design.

2 thoughts on “Bad Optics & A Lack Of Compelling Visual Imagery: This Is Why Marriage Equality Opponents Are Experiencing An Epic Fail

  1. Gene Christianson

    As usual, you have achieved perfection. (I used to call it “perfection on paper”, to get the alliterative thing going. The Internet has ruined that for me.)

  2. sturtle

    Thanks, Gene. I’m just happy that it’s turned out this way. I shudder to think where we’d be if NOM’s PR squad (assuming they have such a thing) found a way to make compelling graphics, though.

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