December 30, 2012 2:41 pm ET - by Carlos Maza
2012 was undoubtedly one of the toughest years the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) has faced since its founding in 2007. Historic defeats at the ballot box, the release of embarrassing internal documents, and unsuccessful boycotts against major companies have all dealt serious blows to the organization’s credibility and electoral influence.
NOM, however, continues to insist that the past twelve months have gone pretty well. Let’s take a look back at the organization’s biggest gaffes, defeats, and PR disasters in 2012:
NOM’s first major political campaign of 2012 was in New Hampshire, where the Republican-controlled legislature was considering the possibility of passing a constitutional amendment repealing the state’s marriage equality law.
NOM rallied behind the effort by engaging in many of the same political tactics it had previously criticized pro-equality activists for, including offering $250,000 to “reward” anti-gay politicians in exchange for their votes.
NOM even abandoned its beloved “let the people vote” mantra, giving up on the idea of passing a constitutional amendment once it became clear that voters would reject the measure and instead opting for a legislative repeal.
Neither approach ended up working. In March, some 100 Republican legislators voted to maintain the state’s marriage equality law:
After its disastrous 2011 Thanksgiving video, you’d think that NOM would shy away from any bold Thanksgiving proclamations this year.
In November, Jennifer Morse – president of NOM’s Ruth Institute – released a “Thanksgiving message” to her supporters. In the video, Morse warned parents that their college students might be exposed to gay RAs in their dorms:
The video was picked up by a number of LGBT websites and quickly became an easy target for criticism and mockery. The YouTube video itself was bombarded with “dislikes,” prompting Morse to ask her supporters for help on her Facebook page:
In early 2011, NOM employee-turned-equality advocate Louis Marinelli published a blog post alleging that his former employer received the majority of its funding from just a handful of rich donors.
That claim was confirmed this November when the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) requested NOM’s 2011 990 forms. According to the numbers reported by NOM to the IRS, “just two donors were responsible for funding 75 percent of the anti-gay group.” The documents also revealed that, for the first time since the organization’s founding, NOM’s budget had declined since the previous year – from $9.1 million to $6.2 million.
According to HRC Vice President of Communications Fred Sainz:
The National Organization for Marriage continues to push the notion that there is some sort of grassroots support for their discriminatory anti-gay agenda… Now, NOM’s own financial records are serving as the latest proof that support for LGBT equality is common-sense and mainstream. NOM is nothing more than a conduit channeling the anti-gay agenda of a few secretive, wealthy donors.
In February, MSNBC’s Up with Chris Hayes invited NOM co-founder Maggie Gallagher to discuss her organization’s opposition to marriage equality. After a few minutes of being grilled about her claim that marriage equality would threaten heterosexual marriage, Gallagher was asked about NOM’s history of extreme anti-gay rhetoric, including its support for “ex-gay” therapy:
Gallagher vehemently denied having supported “ex-gay” therapy, accusing TheNation.com’s Richard Kim of having “made up a bunch of facts that aren’t true.”
When New York voted to legalize same-sex marriage last June, NOM promised that 2012 would be a year of reckoning for pro-equality politicians. The organization’s three-part plan to reverse marriage equality was supposed to begin in September, when NOM pledged to “elect pro-marriage majorities” in the Assembly and Senate by defeating legislators who had voted in favor of marriage equality.
NOM put a herculean amount of effort into flipping New York’s state legislature, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars running Internet ads, putting up billboards, distributing mailers, organizing rallies, and funding primary challengers.
Once the dust of the primary had settled, however, most of NOM’s efforts proved to be for naught:
NOM’s election scorecard didn’t improve much after November 6. Though the group managed to help unseat pro-equality Senate Republican Stephen Saland (SD 41), he ended up being replaced by Democrat Terry Gipson, another proud supporter of marriage equality.
Both Starbucks and General Mills became the targets of wildly unsuccessful NOM boycotts in 2012 over their public support for marriage equality.
In March, NOM launched its international “Dump Starbucks” campaign in response to the company’s support for Washington State’s marriage equality law. The boycott quickly came under fire for targeting countries like Kuwait and Oman, which both criminalize homosexuality.
The boycott was also a total flop:
Since being launched, NOM’s Dump Starbucks campaign has been a source of embarrassment for the organization. Starbucks’ stock is at an all-time high, and one company spokesman stated that the coffee giant is “not seeing any impact” as a result of the boycott. Meanwhile, proponents of marriage equality have far outpaced NOM in gathering signatures to thank Starbucks for its support, even as NOM’s signature-counting methods have come under scrutiny.
Three months later, NOM launched a similar boycott of General Mills after the food giant announced that it opposed Minnesota’s proposed anti-gay constitutional amendment. The campaign garnered even fewer signatures than the Starbucks effort, but produced significantly more embarrassing PR moments for NOM.
At a sparsely attended “rally” in front of General Mills’ headquarters, General Mills employees offered protesters refreshments, even as anti-gay activists mistook the hospitality as a form of intimidation. Another protester, apparently inspired by NOM’s boycott, videotaped himself setting fire to a box of Cheerios outside of General Mills’ headquarters. The fire quickly spread to the lawn below, and it wasn’t long before the video of the man trying nervously to stamp out the flames went viral.
Over the summer, NOM president Brian Brown challenged prominent gay activist Dan Savage to a debate on definition of marriage. Savage accepted, setting up a dining room table debate to be moderated by the New York Times’ Mark Oppenheimer. NOM even launched a “Brown Versus Savage” website.
The debate took place on August 15, and the video of the exchange was released a week later:
Brown’s performance wasn’t well-received. Critics noted that NOM’s president frequently relied on misinformation, pseudoscience, and posturing to advance his arguments while failing to respond to Savage’s central claims. Even a few opponents of LGBT equality were forced to concede that Brown had lost the debate.
For NOM, though, the most damning result of the debate was a statement Brown made when answering questions about no-fault divorce. Explaining why his organization wasn’t lobbying to ban a practice that so obviously threatened marriage, Brown explained: “because you believe something is wrong doesn’t mean you make it illegal.”
That statement, for obvious reasons, became one of the most talked about sound bites of the debate.
In July, Equality Matters went undercover at NOM’s annual “It Takes A Family” (ITAF) conference, a three-day event aimed at training college students to defend traditional marriage. Though NOM’s Morse promised that the conference would focus on “marriage, not gayness,” the undercover report told a different story.
NOM’s ITAF conference featured a number of speakers who depicted described same-sex relationships as “dysfunctional” and “inherently unstable.” One speaker, economist Douglas Allen, even asserted that lesbian relationships suffered difficulties because women’s menstrual cycles gradually become synchronized. Several others peddled the myth that same-sex parents are more likely to sexually abuse their children than heterosexual parents.
The conference also featured prominent anti-gay activist Robert Gagnon, who argued that homosexuality is a sin on par with polygamy and incest. Students at the conference were given the opportunity to purchase Gagnon’s book, “The Bible and Homosexual Practice,” which claims that gay people know their behavior makes them “worthy of death”:
Participation in same-sex intercourse is partly its own payback for turning away from the one true God, since Paul regards such behavior as itself unclean, a dishonoring of one's own body, and a self-shaming act of obscene indecency. At the same time, it is evidence of God's future judgment, since the participants have no excuse for not knowing that those who do such things are worthy of death. [emphasis added]
The report drew widespread attention of NOM’s extreme anti-gay (and often religiously motivated) bigotry. Several students who attended ITAF apologized for the conference’s anti-gay rhetoric. John Corvino, chair of the Department of Philosophy at Wayne State University, said of the report:
One thing that [the report] reinforces is the difficulty of genuine conversation, when our opponents (and especially the participants in the conference) are girding themselves for a war against the Devil – meaning us. In effect, there’s a quite literal “demonization” of LGBT folks going on.
Perhaps NOM’s most embarrassing gaffe of 2012 came in March, when the HRC several of NOM’s 2009 internal memos. The documents described NOM’s explicit desire to pit racial minorities against the LGBT community in the fight over marriage equality.
One memo outlined NOM’s strategy to “drive a wedge between gays and blacks” in order to divide two key Democratic constituencies against each other:
The strategic goal of this project is to drive a wedge between gays and blacks—two key Democratic constituencies. Find, equip, energize and connect African American spokespeople for marriage; develop a media campaign around their objections to gay marriage as a civil right; provoke the gay marriage base into responding by denouncing these spokesmen and women as bigots. No politician wants to take up and push an issue that splits the base of the party. Fanning the hostility raised in the wake of Prop 8 is key to raising the costs of pushing gay marriage to its advocates and persuading the movement’s allies that advocates are unacceptably overreaching on this issue.
Another memo described NOM’s goal to make opposition to marriage equality “a key badge of Latino identity”:
Will the process of assimilation to the dominant Anglo culture lead Hispanics to abandon traditional family values? We can interrupt this process of assimilation by making support for marriage a key badge of Latino identity.
Our ultimate goal is to make opposition to gay marriage an identity marker, a badge of youth rebellion to conformist assimilation to the bad side of “Anglo” culture.
The documents drew sharp criticism from groups including the NAACP and received widespread media coverage. Instead of apologizing, however, NOM doubled-down on its divisive race-baiting strategy, continuing to blame the advance of marriage equality on “rich white guys.”
2012 was a brutal year for NOM’s PR department, but no failed boycott, leaked memo, or embarrassing YouTube video was as damaging to the organization’s reputation as the results of the November 6 election.
NOM poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into fighting marriage equality in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington.
It led an expensive campaign to oust pro-equality Iowa Supreme Court justice David Wiggins.
It backed Wisconsin Republican Tommy Thompson in his campaign to prevent Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) from becoming the first openly gay U.S. senator.
And it committed itself to ensuring that President Obama - the first pro-marriage equality president in America’s history – was defeated in the general election.
And in every single effort, NOM failed.
NOM tried desperately to explain away its historic defeats in the days after November 6 – ‘rich people bought the election!’ – but the reality is that 2012 marked a historic turning point for NOM’s electoral influence. From now on, every time NOM brags to its donors about its successes in defeating state marriage initiatives and punishing pro-equality politicians, it will have to include a pretty significant and embarrassing asterisk.
Much work remains to undo the damage NOM has done since its inception five years ago, but 2012 demonstrated that the organization is standing on shakier ground than at the start of the decade. If 2013 proves to be anything like its antecedent, NOM will have an increasingly difficult time explaining voters, donors, and media outlets why it deserves to be taken seriously.
Click here to view Equality Matters’ 2011 round-up of NOM’s biggest gaffes.
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