Virginia Woolf famously observed that the modern mindset was born suddenly, “on or about December 1910.”
Almost a century later, America’s experienced a similarly remarkable and abrupt revolution in its mindset — in this case, over gay marriage. One month a majority of people were against it — then, suddenly, they weren’t.
A Vocativ analysis of aggregated polling data found a tipping point in public opinion in December 2008. At that moment, the trend line spikes upwards from where it had been lingering around 40 percent. By April 2009, for the first time a major national poll on the subject showed, within the margin of error, popular support for gay marriage possibly topping 50 percent.
In a huge, polarized nation like the U.S., that qualifies as a warp-speed changing of its mind.
The dramatic jump may seem surprising given that just one month earlier, during the elections of November 2008 — which put Barack Obama in the White House — initiatives banning same-sex marriage passed in all three states where they appeared on the ballot.
And like you, we immediately asked: Why?
We reached out to a host of gay rights organizers and asked if there was anything special that happened around that time. Several theories were floated (American Idol stars started coming out!), but one was especially persuasive: that the biggest 2008 Election Day defeat for marriage equality — the passage of Prop 8 in California — actually ignited a major shift in public opinion.
“That moment was a critical point when the conversation started to turn,” Andre Banks, executive director of All Out, a group that seeks to organize globally to promote gay rights, told Vocativ. “The campaign that grew up around Prop 8 ballot created an opportunity for a national conversation to happen.”
It turned out that California is big enough and loud enough to start a meaningful dialogue among 300 million people in a way that other state-level debates never could. Also, with all those pushy creative types in Hollywood and Silicon Valley overwhelmingly supporting gay marriage and throwing their weight and money behind the cause, the hard-fought messaging battle over Prop 8 helped set some best-practice PR standards that have proven very effective ever since.
Specifically, many of the earlier arguments for gay marriage had appealed to a sense of justice — say, questions of of inheritance rights or hospital visitation. By late 2008 marriage-equality organizers were figuring out that personal stories worked much better. That is, aim for the heart not the head.
“The best way to change minds was to bring in the personal narrative of LGBT people living in committed relationships as well as allies who understand the importance of those narratives,” Banks said.
Organizers realized that when they did this, minds started changing on a large scale.
“It was a time when we got to tell a lot of stories,” said Jackie Yodashkin, a spokeswoman for Freedom to Marry, a marriage equality advocacy organization. “As the conversation has increased and more of it is on a national scale, people all over the country woke up.”
It was ads like this one, aired in California ahead of election day, that started to redefine the conversation: