The Roadmap to Victory

Freedom to Marry’s goal was always to end the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage nationwide. To drive the movement to victory, Freedom to Marry built and shaped the national strategy and leveraged the work of many to win the freedom to marry for same-sex couples nationwide. 

Freedom to Marry was the central, focused campaign dedicated to driving that strategy each and every day. The idea was not to focus just on one court case or one legislative battle or lurch from crisis to crisis. Rather, like every other successful civil rights movement, the marriage movement needed to see itself as a long-term campaign with a focused, affirmative goal and a sustained strategy, and needed to build momentum, foster collaboration, enlist new allies, identify new resources, fill in the gaps, and stay the course to victory. 

Even before beginning to build Freedom to Marry in 2001, Evan Wolfson had envisioned the national strategy for winning marriage from studying other movements. Based on other long-term, hard-fought struggles, the pattern for successful civil rights victories became clear: The marriage movement would be able to declare victory, with the freedom to marry nationwide, when one of the country’s two national actors, Congress or (much more likely) the U.S. Supreme Court , brought the country to national resolution. 

"Like every other successful civil rights movement, the marriage movement needed to see itself as a long-term campaign with a focused, affirmative goal and a sustained strategy."

Wolfson knew that marriage advocates didn’t have to win every state, but they had to win enough states – and not every American had to be persuaded to support the freedom to marry, but enough Americans needed to be supportive to empower, embolden, and impel the Supreme Court to act. To create the climate necessary to get to this national resolution, the movement needed a smart, strategic campaign that would shepherd the players and pieces to build a critical mass of states where same-sex couples could marry and a critical mass of public support.

As we navigated movement politics and adapted to fill in the gaps that persisted, Freedom to Marry took it up a notch in 2009, branding the strategy as the Roadmap to Victory publicly. Our Roadmap to Victory laid out three tracks on which to work to win marriage nationwide, with state, national, and federal synergistic opportunities to advance and reinforce progress toward creating the climate for a Supreme Court win. 

Freedom to Marry's Roadmap to Victory

Win More States: Freedom to Marry worked each year with national and state partners to quickly and strategically secure marriage in a critical mass of states (it is states, after all, that issue marriage licenses – albeit subject to the U.S. Constitution – and thus it is at the state-level that same-sex couples first experienced marriage discrimination.) By winning the freedom to marry and overturning anti-gay constitutional amendments pushed through by marriage opponents, the marriage movement could increase national momentum and demonstrate firsthand that when same-sex couples can marry, no one is hurt – but thousands of families are helped.

Winning in the States

In-Depth Looks at Strategies for Advancing in the States

Read more about the marriage movement's strategies for advancing through litigation, legislative fights, and ballot measures.

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While there was never a mathematical formula for the needed critical mass, we looked to the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia as a point of comparison. Loving v. Virginia, which at last granted the freedom to marry to all interracial couples in the United States in 1967, was issued after 34 states had ended their state bans on interracial marriage. When the Supreme Court brought the freedom to marry to same-sex couples nationwide in 2015, we had won marriage in 37 states. (One interesting historical footnote: it took 19 years from the first state court ruling striking down race restrictions on marriage in 1948 until 1967 national ruling in Loving, and from our first marriage win in the historic Hawaii Baehr trial victory of 1996 to our final Supreme Court win in 2015 was also 19 years).

Build – and Grow – Majority Support for Marriage:  To create a climate that encouraged elected officials such as state legislators as well as judges (and Supreme Court justices) to do the right thing, the marriage movement need to grow and diversify majority support for the freedom to marry nationwide. After all, the Supreme Court had rebuffed the first gay couples seeking the freedom to marry when their case reached the Court in 1972; just being right was not enough. Knowing that winning states was, for most of our campaign, the harder struggle, we put a real emphasis on shifting hearts and minds so as to have that public opinion track to complement and further the progress in the states (and to offset what we feared might be our lower numbers that the 2/3’s of states won before Loving ).

Building Public Support

Amplifying Support – and Finding New Voices

How did the marriage movement grow American support for the freedom to marry from 27% in 1996 to 63% in 2015? A closer look at how we honed the message and brought new supporters into the cause.

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When Loving was decided in 1967, 70% of Americans opposed marriage for interracial couples, whereas we were able to build a majority for marriage by 2010, and a super-majority by the time the Supreme Court agreed to take and hear the case that delivered our final victory in 2015. Freedom to Marry and our partners worked hard to reshape the national conversation on marriage around winning, authentic messages focused on love, commitment, and freedom, while highlighting the journey stories of people in the "moveable middle." This shift away from a focus on abstract rights and benefits enabled us to reach people whom we hadn’t yet reached by 2010, and was crucial to the exponential growth in support for marriage from 2010-2015.

End Federal Marriage Discrimination: For same-sex couples to fully share in the freedom to marry, we also needed to repeal the so-called Defense of Marriage Act and return the federal government to its longstanding practice of honoring marriages without a “gay exception.” We believed – rightly – that it might be easier to get the Supreme Court to do this first before delivering the full national freedom to marry we sought.

Ending Federal Marriage Discrimination

Taking Down DOMA – and Amplifying Beltway Support

Take a look inside Freedom to Marry's federal strategy, including our robust federal program, leadership of the Respect for Marriage Act, and working alongside the Obama administration.

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We pursued an end to federal marriage discrimination with work to create the right climate for federal litigation challenging DOMA as well as for congressional repeal of DOMA through passage of the Respect for Marriage Act, first introduced in 2009. Winning more states and building popular support also helped to encourage steps forward in the Executive Branch, such as the Obama administration’s embrace of heightened scrutiny as the proper standard in sexual orientation discrimination cases, the courageous refusal to defend DOMA in court, and ultimately, the president’s coming out in support of the freedom to marry in 2012.

Key Lessons Learned

  • Articulate your ultimate strategy – and educate your supporters on how you’ll win: Freedom to Marry’s Roadmap to Victory was never a secret: We had always posted the strategy on our website, referred to it at any opportunity, and directed national and state partners, supporters, and other allies to the language whenever possible. It’s important that people understand that your organization has a plan – and that you’re working on it every day – so they can bring their piece to it. 
  • Tie all programmatic work back to your strategy: Everything that Freedom to Marry worked on related back to one of the three tracks of the roadmap. Each program that Freedom to Marry conceived – Mayors for the Freedom to Marry, our robust digital effort, the state coalition model – was developed as a vehicle to help put wins on the board and create momentum. Each of these programs also created action steps – ways that Americans could get involved and be a part of the campaign and contribute to the Roadmap to Victory. 
  • Set realistic – but ambitious – goals and strive forward every day: During strategic planning phases, Freedom to Marry and national partners committed to evaluating the landscape and establishing goals and priorities. For example, “By the end of X year, we’ll have won the freedom to marry in X states and grown public support to X percent and won X number of co-sponsors on the bill to repeal DOMA.” The goals should be attainable – but also push your campaign, your partner organizations, and other advocates to work harder than ever in order to achieve them.
  • Adapt your benchmarks and rearticulate your strategy when the landscape shifts: Just because the landscape may shift in your movement, it doesn’t mean that the strategy that brought you there should be abandoned. Instead, adapt the strategy, set new benchmarks, and keep pushing harder than ever. In January 2014, for example, Freedom to Marry released a memo called “1 Strategy, 2 Timelines,” responding to several landmark legal victories for the freedom to marry in Utah, Oklahoma, and Ohio (and in anticipation of dozens more). The memo took a look at why movement in the courts was happening seemingly all at once at that time – and it laid out two timelines on which marriage supporters must simultaneously work: On one timeline, a court case would reach the Supreme Court as early as 2015, and on a separate timeline, the process could take a bit longer. Whichever the timeline, the document underlined, Freedom to Marry’s commitment was to continue making the same strong case for the freedom to marry in the court of public opinion as our legal advocates were making in the courts of law. Whether on the short-term or medium-term timeline, we knew that following the strategy that had brought us to that moment – the Roadmap to Victory – would win marriage nationwide.