How We Will Win
March 01, 2011
I’ll never forget the elation of November 18, 2003, when the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that gay couples could no longer be denied the freedom to marry. I was then serving as political co-chair of a small grassroots organization called the Massachusetts Freedom to Marry Coalition. As joyous as that moment was, it also unleashed some of the world’s most powerful forces that vowed to take it away. The Vatican directed the Catholic hierarchy in Massachusetts to spare nothing in its opposition to the ruling. President George W. Bush announced his support for a federal amendment barring marriage equality. Then-Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney promised that on his watch, this court ruling would never see the light of day. And the religious right prophesied (quite literally) the end of the world as we knew it.
Even purported allies like Massachusetts Senator John Kerry spoke out in opposition and said the court got it wrong. At that time, we had only 25% of the legislature in Massachusetts on our side, and we were a fractured bunch of small gay and allied groups terribly unprepared to do battle with our opposition.
Fast forward to today. We built a campaign that overcame those powerful forces in Massachusetts, and when we finally defeated the second constitutional amendment in that state, we had more than 75% of the legislature on our side (a crucial percentage, because we needed 75% to keep an amendment off the ballot). Since then, four states and the District of Columbia have joined Massachusetts as freedom-to-marry states—two through court rulings and three through legislative victory. Several additional states are on the cusp of securing the freedom to marry through their legislatures. What’s more, two recent national polls show that a majority of Americans support marriage equality. On the federal front, President Barack Obama and his Justice Department have found the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act” unconstitutional and will no longer defend it in federal court. Powerful lawsuits coming out of California and Massachusetts have seen historic victories in federal district court as judges have invoked equality guarantees in the U.S. Constitution to strike down marriage discrimination. Working together, we have transformed the political and social climate.
Yet in spite of all this good news and genuine progress, it’s still the case that every one of our victories is extremely difficult and takes every ounce of organizing skill, persuasion, and pressure that we can muster. When we do win, as we recently did in the Maryland state senate, the vote is usually extremely close (in that case, 25-21) and we must scrap for every vote until the last minute. Our lead opponent, the National Organization for Marriage, has a budget that far exceeds Freedom to Marry’s, and it’s playing aggressively. Even though our last two referendum fights—in Maine and California—were decided by just five percentage points, we still have only cracked one referendum win—in Arizona—and it was taken away soon thereafter. We remain in the thick of this battle, and we must not take victory for granted.
What does it take to win? From my experience, two key ingredients rise to the top:
1. Organize to tell our stories
At the heart of every one of our wins have been same-sex couples and their families stepping out of their comfort zones and sharing their stories about why marriage matters to them. These stories shatter stereotypes and counter the specious arguments of our opponents. I remember so vividly one Massachusetts state senator who said, immediately after meeting with the children of a lesbian couple, “These children are no different from mine,” and that he could never vote to take away their rights. And I’ve seen that story, or something very similar, play out again and again. What many people don’t know is that behind so many of those stories are field organizers who have identified the couples, helped them get in front of their lawmakers, and provided moral support throughout the process. For the vast majority of us, opening our home to our elected officials (or even to our neighbors) and sharing our stories with them is a giant leap outside of our comfort zones. It’s the organizers on the ground, and the campaigns that support them, who are crucial to this task.
In Massachusetts, we went so far as to send organizers to the Office of Vital Statistics to photocopy the marriage licenses of all couples whose names sounded like they were a same-sex couple, of which there were more than 11,000. We then mapped them against legislative districts and had organizers and volunteers reach out to the couples who resided in the legislative districts of undecided lawmakers. We explained to them why sharing their stories was so critical, helped them tell their story most effectively, and debriefed with them afterward. I’ve seen similar work happen in state after state, and I now believe strongly that in order to win, we must have organizers on the ground to help ensure our stories are told in the most powerful ways possible.
2. Play aggressively in elections
For most elected officials, little is more important than remaining an elected official. The number of lawmakers who will cast what they think is a career-ending vote, for the LGBT community or any other, is very small. This means that if we want lawmakers to vote our way, we must make sure that they don’t think the vote will be costly.
In our first electoral cycle in Massachusetts following the court decision, Governor Romney ran more than 100 candidates for the legislature, nearly all of whom were against us. At MassEquality, we polled in dozens of races, sent hundreds of thousands of pieces of direct mail, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, and provided hundreds of volunteers to support our friends. The result: Every lawmaker who voted with us won re-election (and every one of Romney’s hand-picked candidates lost). In addition, we knocked out two antigay Democrats in the primaries—one by a 24-year-old openly gay candidate running against a 14-year incumbent and member of leadership. In that one election cycle, we turned things around and showed that the LGBT community would be strategic and relentless electorally, and that a vote for equality was not only the right vote to take but the politically smart one as well.
Over the last several years, this approach has been taken to a very sophisticated and strategic level, led by Gill Action Fund, the political organization established by philanthropist Tim Gill. Their efforts to support those who have stood with us, and to oppose those who have fought against us, have demonstrated our power and has garnered us votes. Similarly, the donors and activists who invested $790,000 into four state senate races through the Fight Back New York effort, netting three new pro-equality votes, have helped make possible a New York marriage victory in 2011.
Freedom to Marry, the national campaign to win marriage, has the strategy—our Roadmap to Victory—that will get us to full marriage equality. Drawing on the history of other social justice movements in the United States, we know that victory will ultimately come from persuading either Congress or the U.S. Supreme Court to end marriage discrimination. Freedom to Marry’s founder and president, Evan Wolfson, a visionary leader with whom I am proud to work, makes the case that we can get one or both to do the right thing by securing marriage equality in a critical mass of states, growing public support across the country, and creating a climate for action in Washington, D.C. There’s no precise formula for how much of each we need in order to win the whole thing; however, we do know that the three elements of the Roadmap work together and build on one another, and in so doing create the momentum to get us to ultimate victory. The fact that two national polls show we’re at majority support nationwide helps us make the case to our federal lawmakers. Winning a large state like New York this year would demonstrate to the courts and the public that we are on an inexorable path forward. And having a powerful conservative like Ted Olson leading the charge on the Proposition 8 lawsuit can lead other conservatives to reconsider their opposition, which helps grow public support.
I have signed up with Freedom to Marry because now is the time to go all-hands-on-deck to build the strong central campaign that will enable us to win at both the state and federal levels as quickly as possible. More states, enhanced support in public opinion, federal gains—all under-girded by organizing to tell our stories and playing hard in elections—that’s the path to victory.
Victory is not assured, but from a decade’s worth of fighting, we know what it takes to bring it about.