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Frame Spillover: Media Framing and Public Opinion of a Multifaceted LGBT Rights Agenda


  • He thanks participants of the Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Law and American Political Development Workshop held at Ohio University in May 2011, especially Julie Novkov, Kathleen Sullivan, and Priscilla Yamin, as well as Amin Ghaziani, Richard Valelly, Gary Mucciaroni, Amy Fried, and Brian Harrison for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this project. He thanks his colleagues at Bates College, especially fellow participants of the Social Sciences Working Group, including Senem Aslan, Benjamin Moodle, Jason Scheidmen, Caroline Shaw, and Mara Tieken, for their critiques as well as three anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments. And he thanks Lauren Reeves for research assistance. Finally, he gratefully acknowledges the financial support of a Marquette University Regular Research Grant for 2010–2011, which funded much of the research for this project.


Between May and July 2003, a shift in how the US public viewed the legality of consensual homosexual sex occurred. While in May the largest percentage of respondents to date supported decriminalizing such activity, that percentage dropped eleven points two months later. Similar declines in support were evident in the same period over a range of gay and lesbian rights claims. The ruling in Lawrence v. Texas (2003) decriminalizing homosexual sex is the obvious intervening event. To explain this pattern, coding of print and televised news coverage of the ruling throughout 2003 was undertaken. Coverage was not overtly negative in terms of antigay rhetoric or hostility toward the judiciary; rather, the dominant media frame focused on the implications of Lawrence for an entirely separate rights issue: marriage equality. This article examines the dynamic of frame “spillover,” or the idea that media focus on a distinct and not widely supported rights claim in a multifaceted rights agenda might depress support across the entire rights agenda. The findings call for further research, and they have implications for scholarship on public opinion, social movement framing, and ideational development and policy debate as studied within the broader field of American political development.