FIRST, A LITTLE BACKGROUND.
Equality Florida, formed in 1997, is the largest civil rights organization dedicated to securing full equality for Florida’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. Through lobbying, grassroots organizing, education, and coalition building, they are changing Florida so that no one suffers harassment or discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. In layman’s terms, they are the big dog for LGBT rights in the sunshine state. I was working as their Communications Director and these are solely my recollections behind the marketing work I experienced that got us from start to finish for marriage equality.
– Sue Powers-Hoffman, President of Hashtag Creative and former Equality Florida Communications Director*
THE SITUATION: 2013
With many non-discrimination programs running, we weren’t too focused on Marriage back in 2013. Rather, we were spending our time fighting for Domestic Partnership Registries (DPR) city by city, county by county. It was winnable and offered great protections, at least at your local hospital. This was Florida. Six years ago marriage discrimination was voted into our state constitution. That was a big, sore scar. Nonetheless, we fought for protections from being fired, being denied housing or getting stopped from entering intensive care. You could have rights in one town like St. Petersburg, but cross the bridge to Tampa and those rights disappeared. Still, we spent our time fighting for DPRs. It did offer great protections, at least locally. Marriage seemed too far away.
In 2013, the lawsuit of United States vs Windsor happened. Together since 1965, Edith Windsor lost her wife Thea Spryer in 2009. After Spyer’s death in 2009, Windsor was required to pay $363,053 in federal estate taxes on her inheritance of her wife’s estate. Had federal law recognized the validity of their marriage, Windsor would have qualified for an unlimited spousal deduction and paid no federal estate taxes. She began the court process in 2010 and in June of 2013 Edith Windsor won her case at the US Supreme level for due process. With it, huge parts of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) fell. Suddenly all married couples, gay or straight in the US, could file joint federal income tax returns, and have access to immigration and social security benefits. On a state level however, it was a different matter. State taxes, drivers licenses, health insurance, death certificates, retirement, hospitals, it all still stung if you lived in the wrong state.
By the end of 2013, the number of states with gay marriage equalled 16 and we found the LGBT community of Florida no longer had much interest in fighting for DPRs or Human Right Ordinances (HRO) anymore. In fact, they were almost angry we were trying. They wanted it all. Tired of congratulating their northern neighbors for winning marriage, Floridians didn’t want to move out of state to be equal and we heard it from all corners of the state, from social media channels to living rooms.
WE CALLED IT.
As 2013, came to a close it was time to decide on Equality Florida’s annual “end of the year” fundraising campaign. As I watched all these channels and witnessed the national group success, I came to a realization: we must be bold. We must call it. We’ll put a man on the moon, or rather, we’ll have marriage in Florida in 3 years. 1 seemed undoable, 5 seemed to far away to care. 3 seemed just right.
We had to spell out our plan and eye the prize. We had to stop being safe, we had to go big. We knew it would require more money, members, volunteers and basically more of everything than ever before. However, EQFL did not survive for 18 years by being too risky. The marketing messaging habit, when it came to marriage, was to play it a little safe – slow progress, small steps and we’ll get there. The arc of justice is long and this is a marathon and all that jazz. But now, our members had lost their patience. It was time to throw down. We needed our decision makers brave and our supporters excited and passionate.
A LITTLE HELP.
Now as a Communications Department of one, I needed some help to take on such a monstrous undertaking on top of the normal expanding duties. I succeeded in hiring a social media associate, Brittany Link, in late 2013 and then an additional designer, Phillip Clark, in the spring of 2014. But we still needed more. First we needed a true campaign for such a fight. We reached out to an ad agency in Orlando who helped us develop the name and the logo to this new undertaking in early 2014. What would we call it? It needed to inspire people to get involved in this fight. We would need everyone in this fight: gays, straight friends, moms, dads, firemen, preachers, you name it. It had to be fun and marketable, but also serious. After weeks of planning and designing,
“Get Engaged” was born in early 2014.
We also reached out to Freedom to Marry – we were going to need help and they had done it all before in other states. They stepped up whenever we got overloaded and needed help strategizing, writing or designing.
THE SECRET FORMULA
Throughout 2013, states were falling right and left. It seemed as though the national group, Freedom to Marry had figured out the magic formula. After years of research and tons of money, they had cracked the code. We had been talking about all the rights that come with a marriage license that we were excluded from and the pain it caused. No one could relate. We needed the straight community in this fight with us and they could not relate to discriminations that had never experienced. Taxes? Property? Death? Hospitals? Insurance? Yuk – how boring. They just didn’t get it.
What was the magic answer? LOVE!
Everyone could relate to falling in love, loving the person sitting next to them, loving their children, wanting to take care of each other. The answer was telling our stories in a new way: talk about how you met, when you fell in love, talk about your kids. It was working. Nationwide.
We weren’t sure at this time how, in early 2014, we could achieve marriage in Florida. Would we try the ballot box again? The numbers were leaning our way at 54% but we felt strongly that rights should never be voted on by the public. A supermajority of 60% was needed and loss would do major damage. Would we try the courts? How long would it take and what route had the best chance to WIN. We were no longer playing for anything less. What was our best route to victory? The courts were running almost 100% in our favor nationwide, but it had to be done just right.
We needed to start sharing these “winning stories,” but this tactic had never worked in the past. We’d ask for people to “share their stories” but only a few would do it. It was usually a dud as a campaign. Until we changed a couple words from “Share Your Story” to “Become A Plaintiff”. Then hundreds…no Thousands started pouring in. Stories, Photos flooded in. We needed to talk to these people. We started holding event summits where attorneys could talk to these plaintiff-wannabe couples. Did they have the best story to help a case win? Did they understand what it would do to their lives for a year, maybe more? We took photos: some professional, some casual. We shot video, interviewing these couples with such simple beginnings as “how did you meet?” and we struck gold. Many times I would be moved to tears while editing these videos, so I knew we were on to something.
These couples had great stories. Stories of being together for decades, for things as timeless and relatable as “he stole my heart on the dance floor” to going to their kids’ soccer games and volunteering at church. They let the public see them as they really are, and not some false stereotype. They are neighbors, co-workers, relatives and friends – who love each other and want to take care of their family.
A LEGAL DREAM TEAM WAS COMPILED.
• National legal powerhouse, NCLR with the amazing Shannon Minter. They were fighting in other states too and they were winning.
• Carlton Fields Jorden Burt, a respected firm and equality champion
Some together for decades, some only a year. Some with children, some with grandchildren! All were professional, attractive, charismatic individuals. Some bilingual – important in a state like Florida. True poster couples – let’s be honest, this is marketing, and we were playing to win.
The county of Miami-Dade was selected as ground zero. It gave the best route through the courts for success. Everything was based on that – the best route to win. The couples applied for marriage licenses, were denied, and the case was filed. Pareto v. Ruvin was born.
MEET THE PRESS
Now, these couples didn’t work in the media or activism movement, so some press training was needed.
Collaborating with awesome Erik Olivera with NCLR, press trainings began: How to stay on message, how to stay within the frame of the talking points. These couples were going to be interviewed. A lot.
We brought on a professional publicist, Sharon Kersten of Kersten Communications. She was well connected in South Florida and had press contacts nationwide. She would also become our liaison for the couples. I am not exaggerating when I say thousands of interviews were setup. Print, radio, tv, events. English and Spanish.
We also trained couples throughout the state who had not been selected as plaintiffs. They made great ambassadors for interviews with the press in other parts of the state. They weren’t in the lawsuit, but they had the talking points and the stories we wanted out there. As requests for interviews rolled in, we showed real families instead of the usual professional activist. What a transformation I witnessed. Usually in a couple, one was the talker and one was shy and didn’t like this attention much. Over the year, I watched the shy ones become on-point talkers and the strong ones getting overcome with emotion. This was not a fun thing they were doing – it was hard to talk about such personal things over and over.
The Breaking Routine:
More lawsuits started popping up around the state and the communications department also morphed at times into a breaking newsroom – leaping into action when the latest court decision or papers were filed. We had roughly an hour after news broke. The routine went:
• Breaking News usually came to us via a text
• Followed by a call with the attorneys in 30 minutes – we needed to understand it
• Update staffers – since many would be contacted directly by press
• Write the press release with our official statement and quotes from the CEO – blast to press lists and blog
• Create the web landing pages for more info as the story developed
• Write social media posts and tweets
• Design social media graphics,
• Write/send an email to our membership. – What would we ask them to do?
• Field the interview requests: assign interviews around.
• Monitoring – collect press links and respond on social media.
Usually all within about an hour. Was I working for the AP wire? I actually heard myself saying “we need a second source before we can run it!” on incoming breaking news.
We ran email marketing and social media like a machine.
Capture was key. We needed to increase our member base and we did. Gaining over an estimated 70,000 in 2014 to a total of around 250,000. Everything resulted in the capture of new email addresses. Sign a petition, donate, send a letter, get a free sticker, share your story, view a voter guide. We needed to increase our membership like never before. Up to 15 emails went out a week across the state. Facebook posts every few hours, the same for twitter. We ran Facebook boosts and ads and planned coordinated twitter bombs to tap into trending hashtags.
We kept the pressure on the Governor and the Attorney General everywhere possible.
DID I MENTION OUR ATTORNEY GENERAL WAS A BIT OF A PROBLEM?
She started off the fight with the words “gay marriage causes harm” and continued to fight us every step of the way. Every filing was appealed, every ask was countered. She appealed and appealed. It was almost cruel in nature and obviously self serving on some sort of professional track she felt she was on. The boss said “take the gloves off” and, oh, we did.
Finally, it was court day in Miami-Dade but we had to wait for a decision.
More court days happened in Broward, in Key West, in Palm Beach, and in Tallahassee. One after another they started releasing decisions in August… win, win, win, win, win….. stay, stay stay, stay, stay, …. appeal, appeal, appeal, appeal, appeal. County cases, statewide cases, equalitywon them all!
But still no weddings.
We had no idea when an answer would come. January? June? Circuit Court? Supreme Court? It was a constant, almost weekly, cycle of anticipation, breaking news, disappointment, repeat. For almost a year.
Businesses and cities started speaking up and filing supportive briefs in support of marriage equality. Mayors, governor candidates, city councils all supporting equality to finally come to Florida. Op-Eds were being written and pitched for a year. The Attorney General was devoured in the press. She was winning things like “loser of the year” from newspapers and being trashed by columnists statewide.
In November of 2014, Florida went through an election. The chance to elect a new LGBT friendly governor and attorney general. This could change everything. Immediately.
The incumbents spent a ton of money. And we lost. The end date was uncertain.
In December, as the possibility of the stay in the statewide case expiring in January, the clerk of courts were then oddly threatened by a “legal memo” not to marry people from Attorney Greenberg Traurig threatening that they could be sued. Equality Florida pushed back hard with attorneys and our own statements of legal actions if they refused the Supreme ruling. More legal filing to clarify the ruling back and forth again several times between the statewide case of Brenner et al v. Scott et al. The AG continued to play games while real people suffered. Wasting more time and money. A lot of deaths and despair in that year.
Stays were starting to expire but this time when the AG asking the higher circuit court to extend the stay until they ruled (who knows when), they denied it. That was a surprise. She then asked Supreme Court Judge Clarence Thomas to intervene and extend the stay, he denied it.
Was this really going to happen, or would she pull another rabbit out of her hat?
JANUARY – A NEW YEAR AND NEW HOPE.
Then, one day before, the statewide case of Brenner et al v. Scott et al. would drop it’s stay and marriages could begin, Judge Zabel of the Pareto v. Ruvin Miami-Dade case lifted her stay. Marriages began a day early in Miami-Dade, January 5, 2015. Statewide on January 6, 2015. Florida was now #36 in the union to allow marriages.
A whole year ahead of schedule.
As we wait for the Florida Circuit Court of Appeals and another 14 states to catch up, the US Supreme Court has announced in January they will address the issue in the 2015 session. How? We can not be sure but one thing is sure, the summer of 2015 will be very busy and hopefully love will continue its winning streak.
Update June 26, 2015. The US Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage throughout the land. We Won!
*About the author: Sue Hoffman is the former Communications Director for Equality Florida – leaving her position in late 2014.
Sue served as marketing consultant to Equality Florida for 10 years. In that time, she also served as a marketing consultant for LGBT organizations across the country including: Garden State Equality, Equality Alabama, Equality Illinois, Equal Rights Washington, One Colorado, Equality Texas, Equality Federation, Equality Indiana, Kentucky Fairness Alliance, Triangle Foundation of Michigan, Equality Utah, Equality Pennsylvania and various other LGBT nonprofit organizations nationwide.
The views listed here are Sue Hoffman’s recollection of her work over the past three years and are not the opinion of Equality Florida. All photos, except the Major League “call it” graphic, from the Equality Florida public Facebook page.