Letting Our ‘Better Angels’ Steer Progress on Civil Unions

April 5th, 2007

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This week was a “coming out” of sorts for Third Way. We released our first public paper marking our support for increased protections for gay and lesbian Americans. The strategy paper in support of civil unions – Four Steps to Winning Same-Sex Relationship Recognition – is meant to fill a vast hole. A large majority of progressive leaders in Congress and in State Houses support civil unions, but no group is really bent on providing the support, messaging, and guidance they need.

Our paper stems from two original sources of research. Last summer, Third Way commissioned Olson Zaltman Associates, a research firm used primarily by Fortune 500 companies, to conduct ground-breaking research on Americans’ attitudes towards gay and lesbian issues in America. It’s hard to say who had more fun – OZA, which had its first ever experience applying to the political realm the probing technique it uses to solve such puzzles as how a company can best market a new flavor of cereal– or Third Way’s Culture Project team, who got to sit behind the one-way windows and observe the two-hour one-on-one intense interviews involving everything from pictures to flash cards. Ask me about the picture of sushi sometime…

Also, immediately following the 2006 elections, Third Way commissioned Zogby International to conduct polls in Colorado, Virginia and across the nation on gay equality issues.

Among our findings was the fact that Americans overwhelmingly believe that civil unions will become the law of the land, but they are divided about whether it represents progress for America. That’s why our paper argues that the essential ingredient to moving forward on gay and lesbian issues is persuading Americans that greater acceptance represents progress for America (that’s Step #4 of 4).

How do we win the progress argument? First, understand that public opinion is evolving and warming (Step #1). All recent research demonstrates that the majority of Americans, no matter how you slice them, support the idea of civil unions. The young, in particular, are vastly in favor of increased rights for gays and lesbians – it’s the inevitable wave of the future.

Second, understand and persuade the Grays (Step #2). Remember the Abortion Grays – those who see the issue of abortion as complex but who lean pro-choice? Meet the Grays on gay issues. This large segment of the population is torn between wanting to be fair and just and their lingering discomfort with homosexuality. They feel that advocates on the left dismiss their ambivalence as small-mindedness. They feel opponents on the right are too harsh and mean-spirited. They want to be reasoned with and not lectured to.

Third, court senior citizens and married couples – both of whom are potential untapped sources of greater support (Step #3). These folks do not by definition have fundamental philosophical or religious objections to homosexuality and can be reached if their concerns are properly addressed.

That leads back to Step #4: Win the progress argument. This notion of progress (versus heading down the wrong path) is really central to this debate.

And with that, let me introduce you to University of Chicago Law School Professor Geof Stone who framed the progress argument better than I could in his letter in support of Illinois legislation on civil unions:

“Our nation is at a historic moment in the transformation of our social, political and legal attitudes about sexual orientation, and I encourage you to embrace this opportunity to affirm, in Lincoln’s words, “the better angels of our nature”….

“Our tradition of reevaluating and reconsidering our conventions and beliefs, particularly when they may cut against individual dignity and freedom, is at the very core of the American character….

“It took insight and no small amount of courage for us to see beyond our most deeply-rooted cultural assumptions to forge new visions of freedom, equality, and justice without regard to race, religion, ethnic origin, gender or disability.

“We now stand on the verge of a similar transformation with regard to sexual orientation. All social transformations are challenging. We are in the process of reconceptualizing our individual, social, and political attitudes about matters that once seemed as self-evident to us as the racial inferiority of blacks seemed to 18th century Americans and the divine ‘functions of womanhood’ seemed to Americans in the 19th century.

“Ending racial segregation, granting women the right to vote, and prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender, ethnic origin, and disability were not only morally right, but also important steps towards a stronger, more productive and more stable nation.

“As with our predecessors who wrestled with the dilemmas of racial and gender injustice, our response to the issue of sexual orientation will be judged by later generations. Let us make them proud.”

Sounds like progress to me.