Melissa Threadgill, former communications director for MassEquality tell us how they did it.
By Andy Campbell,
3:36PM, Sat. Aug. 15, 2009
While I was in Boston I had the good fortune to interview Melissa Threadgill, who was the Communications Director at MassEquality during the critical period when Massachusetts voters were potentially going to rescind newly won marriage rights. Melissa and I also happened to go to college together (Goooooo Oberlin!).
We all know the outcome of the Massachusetts fight; gay marriage is safe in that state for now. After the victory, MassEquality focused on helping other states win marriage by sharing what the organizers learned during the long and difficult slog for marriage equality. One helpful resource is the Marriage Equality Works website that helps to mobilize those in other states to do some grassroots organizing. The following is an interview conducted with Threadgill at her home in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts.
Austin Chronicle: What was your job at MassEquality and what initially brought you to it?
Melissa Threadgill: My job title was communications director, and so that entailed all of our media outreach, all of our web communications, our email action campaigns, and helping to coordinate the paid media campaigns – which was put together during the intense marriage debate in Massachusetts. MassEquality was at that point one of the preeminent political organizations in Massachusetts. They were an organization known for getting stuff done, and I was really impressed with the work they had already done around marriage equality in Massachusetts. So the opportunity to work for this kind of institution, and to work on an issue I think is the civil rights issue of our generation was particularly powerful.
AC: Any skills you picked up unexpectedly?
MT: For me, my background was traditional media and press, and I got to see the power of the internet and online communication, and what a really good communications program could do with that. Learning how to get people to open an email by capturing their attention and then convincing them to take the next step, to take action from that. MassEquality is a grassroots organization and one of the first to really harness the power of the internet, so the online activism was a critical part of the work.
AC: As PR/Communications you saw use-value of marketing and advertising/ visual imagery on a daily basis. Can you give an example of an ad campaign (print or video) MassEquality ran that you thought was successful? What made it successful?
MT: The ad campaign we launched at a critical point was the “It’s wrong to vote on rights” campaign. The opponents of marriage equality – their message essentially was “let the people vote." The fight in Massachusetts was whether the legislature would put a DOMA-like measure on the ballot. Our argument was that there are some things that are basic civil rights, like the right to marry the person you love, that we didn’t believe should be up for a vote. That’s the background, so the most effective ad we launched featured Peter Hams, who was the young, personable, attractive, hockey-playing son of a two lesbian who had married in Massachusetts, talking about what his mothers’ marriage had meant for him. How his life was better because his mothers could marry, and how he would be harmed if this went on the ballot. Peter allayed people’s fears about gay people as parents- he clearly turned out well and was “well-adjusted.” This phrase came up again and again in focus groups. The kids (of gay couples) were what a lot of people on the fence were worried about. And to hear this all-American boy who just happened to be the son of two lesbians, I think it made people feel as though it would be wrong to vote on this.
AC: Are there similarities to the Ryan White Care Act in that respect? The fact that it was under the figurehead of Ryan White (the young boy who had gotten HIV through a blood transfusion) that AIDS legislation and funding were finally passed?
MT: I think there are similarities, and I think it raises questions about who are our spokespeople. In many ways, many people in our community want to see gay people as the primary spokespeople. In Massachusetts we found it was incredibly important to have gay people telling their stories to their friends, family, neighbors, and legislators. But our television ads, having allies speak was simply more effective. In a political fight, when you have a goal, we found it was best to focus like a laser on winning. Everything we did and all of our resources went into how to win marriage. That meant, sometimes, putting aside other issues, that meant listening to data of focus groups above what we emotionally wanted to do. Winning was the ultimate goal. And we did. And that’s hard, there were trade-offs.
AC: How do you think the story of what happened in Massachusetts could speak to other state contexts (especially in an overwhelmingly conservative state like Texas)?
MT: I think one thing to clear up is this concept that because Massachusetts is a liberal state that it was easy. Over 50% of the population is Catholic, and the Catholic Church is very actively opposed to marriage equality! So it was an uphill battle. The primary lessons we learned about messaging and focus are applicable everywhere. So we can talk about both of those things. In terms of messaging: telling personal stories is the most effective persuasion tool we have. An early informal slogan of the movement was “You’re not fully out until you’re out to your legislator.” The work we did with LGB community in Massachusetts was to be out and tell your stories. We found that when it’s the lesbian couple down the street, and not an anonymous minority group that people’s perspective changed, and people came to realize that the lesbian couple down the street getting married didn’t affect them, didn’t harm their marriage, and was, in fact, a net positive for the community. Because marriage helps to build strong families and strong communities. So for folks in Texas: tell your stories. It’s hard, that might be hard in places where you feel unsafe doing it. Talk to people. I think the work that organizations in Texas are doing, the focus is on legislative work on nondiscrimination and other issues, and that’s a case where being out and vocal with your legislators makes an enormous impact. The only other thing I would say is that it’s a grassroots movement we’re building and that means individual actions really do matter. So calling your legislator, writing a letter to the editor of your local paper, or making a donation – all these actions add up. And that is the only way we win, is for folks to get involved.
AC: Massachusetts is in the process of adding gender identity and expression to the non-discrimination and hate crimes laws, which is really about protecting our trans brothers and sisters on these issues. How is working towards this different from and/or similar to the gay marriage fight?
MT: The similarity again is that personal stories matter. You have to put a human face on a subject that most people do not understand. So it is about having people reach out to legislators and let them know that trans people are everywhere, and are valuable members of society. The difference is transphobia and lack of understanding is rampant, even in and especially within the LGB community! People fear what they don’t understand, and our job is really to convince legislators that they don’t have to understand it, but we need them to agree that no one should be fired, kicked out of their house, harassed on the street just for who they are.
AC: What’s next for you?
MT: I’m currently working inside the statehouse in Massachusetts. I would say that my experiences on the outside give me great perspective, and I hope I’m learning how we can be even more effective on passing laws, preventing bad laws, to reflect our progressive values. I’m particularly pleased to work for someone who supported marriage equality from the beginning, and is an outspoken advocate for all of the LGBT community.