Mayors for the Freedom to Marry  

One of Freedom to Marry’s key programs was Mayors for the Freedom to Marry, which over three and a half years recruited, communicated with and leveraged the support of more than 700 mayors – from the smallest towns to the largest cities and from 49 states – to be effective advocates of marriage for same-sex couples. The robust program showcased elected officials across the country and served as a tremendous organizing tool for supporters of marriage nationwide.

The goal of Mayors for the Freedom to Marry was to leverage mayors as influential spokespeople on why marriage mattered. The members agreed to be available when possible to help make the case and explain their support for the freedom to marry in the press, including in op-eds and open letters, in speeches, in amicus briefs, and in helping to enlist additional mayors in the effort to win the freedom to marry nationwide.

Mayors could speak to the importance of state policies that were supportive of LGBT people in attracting and growing businesses in their communities.

By showcasing support among mayors across the country, we were able to demonstrate that the support for the freedom to marry was found nationwide, from the smallest of communities to the largest of cities. Because of their closeness to LGBT people in their communities, mayors were able to point first-hand to examples of the denial of marriage on their constituents’ lives and on their communities as a whole. They could also speak to the importance of state policies that were progressive and supportive of LGBT people in attracting and growing businesses in their communities. Many mayors greatly appreciated the platform Freedom to Marry provided, and the media opportunities the program provided them.

Another crucial benefit of the mayors program was that it allowed us to highlight voices of elected officials from every part of the country. Even where state-level electeds weren’t yet willing to step out or couldn’t change state law—as in Texas, Kansas, Tennessee, and more—city officials allowed us to demonstrate that support was widespread and diverse. Additionally, the opportunity to enlist mayors gave a focal point for advocacy to activists in states where we weren’t going to be able to win the freedom to marry within the four corners of their specific state. Multiple local officials signed on because they were pushed by constituents, and activists engaged most deeply in the mayoral effort – we found -- in states and regions where there weren’t state-level prospects to organize around legislation or immediately overturn a discriminatory state constitutional amendment.

Jo Deutsch, Freedom to Marry’s Federal Director based in Washington, DC, managed the Mayors For program. Over the years, we drew on expertise from consultants such as DCI Group and Holland and Knight, as well as Freedom to Marry staff members Che Ruddell-Tabisola and Kirsten Lance. 

Launching Mayors for the Freedom to Marry

We launched Mayors for the Freedom to Marry on January 20, 2012 at the 80th Annual U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington, D.C. At the launch, 80 mayors pledged to support the freedom to marry. This group of mayors represented a broad range of culturally, racially, and geographically diverse communities – small towns and large cities, from states where marriage was and was not a reality for same sex couples. The launch press conference was hugely successful, generating coverage across the country.

The Mayors for the Freedom to Marry statement, issued at the launch, declared:

As mayors of great American cities, we proudly stand together in support of the freedom of same-sex couples to marry. We personally know many gay and lesbian people living in our cities who are in committed, loving relationships, who are active participants in the civic life of our communities, and who deserve to be able to marry the person with whom they share their life…We stand for the freedom to marry because it enhances the economic competitiveness of our communities, improves the lives of families that call our cities home, and is simply the right thing to do. We look forward to working to build an America where all people can share in the love and commitment of marriage with the person with whom they share their life.

The original chairs were New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, Houston Mayor Annise Parker, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Chicago, IL Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

As mayors of great American cities, we proudly stand together in support of the freedom of same-sex couples to marry.

Mayors for the Freedom to Marry Statement, signed by more than 700 mayors over four years

Along with the launch, Freedom to Marry’s digital team created a webpage providing background on the program and listing mayors who supported the freedom to marry. Mayors could fill out an online form to join the program, and activists could check the site to see whether or not their own Mayor had signed on. 

Growing and Expanding Mayors for the Freedom to Marry

Freedom to Marry’s work with the U.S. Conference of Mayors continued throughout the years of the program (2012 – 2015). This included hosting a reception at the Washington, D.C. Conference on the first anniversary of the launch in January 2013, and working on new resolutions and communications. The U.S Conference of Mayors was a strong ally from the first launch event, and the Conference Presidents – in particular Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter – sent numerous emails and letters to its full membership in support of Mayors for the Freedom to Marry. 

Mayors for the Freedom to Marry also worked closely with the National League of Cities. This was more of a challenge than the U.S. Conference of Mayors since the League represents elected officials other than mayors. Yet, we were eventually successful first in helping to organize a freedom to marry panel discussion in March of 2013, which produced a successful vote out of committee on a marriage resolution, and then in June of 2013 helping to pass that resolution affirming the freedom to marry and federal non-discrimination for gay and lesbian couples before the National League at its annual convention.

The resolution read as follows, “Now, Therefore, be it resolved that the National League of Cities supports the full inclusion of all families in the life of our nation, with equal respect, responsibility, and protection under the law, including the freedom to marry. We support the overturning of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, and oppose discriminatory constitutional amendments and other attempts to deny the freedom to marry.”

Within one year, Mayors for the Freedom to Marry had grown from 80 Mayors to 300 Mayors and was honored as a Finalist for Public Relations Society of America’s Silver Anvil Award.

With retirements and new additions, in September 2013, the chairs of the program rotated to include San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, and Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton.

Light Up the Map

In 2013 Freedom to Marry launched “Light Up the Map,” an online campaign that made it possible for marriage supporters to directly engage their mayors using our website to ask them to support the freedom to marry. An online map showed cities and towns across the country where mayors had signed up for the effort. If marriage supporters’ mayors were not listed, they could easily petition their mayor to join the campaign.

More than 500 Mayors from almost every single state joined the Mayors for the Freedom to Marry effort.

More than 500 Mayors from almost every single state joined the Mayors for the Freedom to Marry effort.

The petitions were aimed at engaging mayors in every state, with constituents able to nominate their mayors to be petitioned for the campaign. In the first week of the campaign, hundreds of supporters called on their mayors to join Mayors for the Freedom to Marry. Within the first month of the launch, almost 20 new mayors had come onboard as a direct result of outreach from our supporters, and 500 petitions were begun. 

Freedom to Marry’s digital team worked with the federal program in executing the program. This included the creation of the Light Up the Map website, dozens of Facebook ads and posts featuring key mayors, and coordination of petitions.

By the end of the Mayors for the Freedom to Marry program, once we had won in the Supreme Court, more than 500 active mayors in 49 states (all but South Dakota) had joined the program. 

Key Lessons Learned

  • Leverage mayors as spokespeople and authors of important messages: Throughout the course of the program, many Mayors for the Freedom to Marry were encouraged to serve as authors of op-eds and other pieces of content drafted by Freedom to Marry. In January 2013, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon published an editorial in USA Today congratulating President Obama on his inauguration speech, during which he called for the freedom to marry nationwide. Houston Mayor Annise Parker published another popular op-ed on Mother’s Day in May 2014. We also worked with local state campaigns when mayors would be useful in their efforts. For example, we worked with Michigan for Marriage and had Mayors for the Freedom to Marry in Michigan host meetings with same sex couples that were open to the press to discuss the harms of the marriage ban in the state and how it had personally impacted their families. In states that were priorities for marriage legislation and litigation, we worked to enlist significant numbers of mayors and mobilize them to speak out at key moments. The culmination of the effort was the 2015 mayors/cities Supreme Court amicus brief we organized signed by 226 mayors and 40 citires from around the country that demonstrated that the freedom to marry was a national concern.
  • Arm mayors with the best messaging advice – and provide them with the resources they need to stay up to date: Mayors who had signed onto the program received many updates from the federal team to keep them informed of the marriage landscape on a national level and provide important materials to them that could help them become better spokespeople for why marriage matters. 
  • Set up a tight confirmation process for signing on elected officials: On the day of the launch of the program in 2012, due to wide-spread press coverage, the Mayors for the Freedom to Marry website was bombarded by sign-ups of new mayors. It quickly became clear that we had not put safeguards in place to stop people from “signing” up their mayors without first asking permission, and so a number of those who hadn’t volunteered their names were erroneously added to the list of Mayors for the Freedom to Marry as a result. Those mayors were removed from the list as soon as we heard from them and a rigid confirmation process was enacted to get firm approval from mayors prior to adding them to the publicly available list online.
  • Build connections with state partner organizations to further the program: Mayors for the Freedom to Marry worked closely with partners. From the launch, state organizations and individuals saw the value in helping to recruit new mayors. This included work with Equality Illinois, Equality Maryland, Equality Maine, Empire State Pride Agenda, Equality Pennsylvania, Marriage Equality Rhode Island, Equal Rights Washington and Basic Rights Oregon. We also worked in partnership with Equality Florida, who assisted in adding a number of mayors from Florida – partially through a friendly competition between two county LGBT groups. After Equality Florida and individual activists in the state got involved, Florida had the highest number of Mayors for the Freedom to Marry and four of the 35 original Mayors were Republicans. In addition, we worked with other LGBT allies, in particular PFLAG and People for American Way’s Young Elected Program saw this as a great program to engage with, and reached out to its members urging them to help get their mayors signed up.
  • Always look for other avenues to recruit mayors, including engaging their constituents:  Freedom to Marry staff never stopped looking for potential new mayors in states without any mayors. Through the years, multiple communications occurred between staff and potential mayors and chairs also reached out to new mayors. There was constant research to find potential new mayors from across the country. In addition, when a Mayor for the Freedom to Marry retired or was not re-elected, we would reach out to the new mayor to see if he/she would replace the previous mayor on the list.
  • Use the effort as an organizing tool: In many parts of the country—places where we weren’t actively pursuing marriage legislation—advocates were hungry for something concrete they could take on. Encouraging them to enlist their mayor, and creating online tools and having suggested approaches for doing so, proved very effective both in engaging advocates and in enlisting new signers. 
  • Thank those who sign up: To build relationships with supportive mayors, we were sure to formally thank new mayors once they were confirmed. An email thank you was sent from Jo Deutsch, which included a certificate proclaiming them a Mayor for the Freedom to Marry. Mayors loved these certificates and we received many thank you notes and pictures of framed certificates on their walls.