If we do better than expected when Texans vote on an anti-gay marriage amendment on Nov. 8, much credit should go to the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force. The Task Force is airing seven ads on Houston-area television stations. They are the first-ever to defend the idea of gay marriage, and they do so on essentially conservative grounds. In contrast to the badly flawed, Texas-based ''No Nonsense in November'' campaign (which I criticized in detail two weeks ago in this column), the Task Force ads are right tactically and substantively. They could provide a template for future marriage-amendment campaigns.
Tactically, the ads are exactly right. They are being aired in Houston, which should be the center of efforts to defeat Amendment 2. All of them depict actual Houston residents speaking against the amendment.
Turnout in the state for this election is expected to be very low, perhaps under 10 percent of registered voters. Yet turnout in Houston, where municipal elections are being held the same day, should be disproportionately high. Urban Houston voters are somewhat more socially tolerant than voters elsewhere in Texas. Four years ago, they almost defeated an effort to ban same-sex domestic partner benefits for city workers.
The Task Force's limited resources are thus being spent wisely. By contrast, the No Nonsense campaign is based in Austin, 160 miles away from the center of the action. Yard signs produced by No Nonsense have been scarce, even in Houston's gay neighborhoods.
Substantively, the Task Force ads are impressive. Four of the seven ads feature gay couples. In one, a woman identified as a ''Reverend,'' sits beside her partner in their home. She says: ''God loves us like everyone else, and wants the same thing for us as God wants for God's straight children.'' Her partner adds that when she proposed, she intended a ''long-term commitment.'' The picture fades to black and the following message appears in stark white letters: ''How would you feel if you couldn't marry the person you love?''
In another of the gay-couple ads, two men are described as ''Together for 18 years.'' A third gay-couple ad describes a woman as ''Committed to partner, Anita, for 21 years.'' She tells us hers is a family ''in every sense of the word.''
The two most effective of the seven ads feature parents talking about their love for their gay son and their hopes for his future. In one, the mother emphasizes her religious beliefs. ''My entire Christian faith can be summed up with Jesus Christ's two new commandments,'' she says, ''which was to love God and to love each other. He didn't say, 'Love each other unless they're gay.'''
In the other ad, the same mother delivers an eloquent description of the meaning of equality. ''My children want the same thing their father and I wanted,'' she begins. ''A home, a community, a church, friends, a job...'' Here the father chimes in, ''and someone who loves them.'' ''And someone who loves them,'' she repeats. Describing her son's relationship with his partner, she closes by saying, ''I hope they're together forever.'' The screen fades to black with the message, ''Gay people want what we all want.''
The Task Force ads are simple and powerful. They don't talk about abstract ''rights.'' They don't list all the legal benefits of marriage, as if this were a struggle over the tax code. There is nothing post-modern about them. There's not a single sexual liberationist in sight.
Instead, the ads emphasize the needs of real gay families, including the children they're raising. They highlight long-term commitment by gay couples. They use religious faith, spoken by religious people, as an argument against the amendment. And they focus on the similarities -- not the differences -- between gay and straight Americans.
Most significantly, they begin to make the positive case for gay marriage. They are not shy or apologetic about it. They do not say that the amendment is ''unnecessary'' because gay marriage is already banned (although that's true). They don't complain about how broad the amendment is (although it is very broad). They don't warn about Machiavellian politicians pushing the amendment (although that's a big part of the reason this is even on the ballot). They are not in the least politically partisan.
Like it or not, when these anti-gay-marriage amendments reach a ballot, most people do not vote on these sorts of legal and political-insider issues. They vote on marriage.
The Task Force's strategy is a dramatic -- and needed -- departure from the losing anti-amendment campaigns everywhere else in the country. By contrast, the No Nonsense campaign has avoided the ''M'' word like the plague and has been partisan Democratic in an overwhelmingly conservative and Republican state.
Where the state-based campaign is a tired rehash of losing themes from other amendment fights that have danced around gay marriage and left our side dispirited, The Task Force's ad campaign is refreshingly honest and principled. The amendment, it says simply, should be defeated because gay marriage is good.
For Texas, it may be too little, too late. But if tried elsewhere, this straightforward message might help us pull closer. At the very least it begins the long-term process of convincing Americans there is nothing to fear from gay marriage.
Marriage. Commitment. Families. Children. Faith. I never thought I would see this day, but The Task Force is making the conservative case for gay marriage.