Why It Matters

The title of my 2004 book was Why Marriage Matters - but here I reflect on why it matters that on June 26, 2015 a decades-long movement, a clear strategy, and a tenacious, focused campaign all culminated in a long-sought, hard-fought victory. 

Why it matters that by changing hearts, minds, and the law, we secured the freedom to marry for all loving and committed couples throughout the United States. 

Why it matters that America lived up to its promise. 

Why it matters that love won.

Why Marriage Matters was published shortly after we had seen the first same-sex couples marry but still faced a long and uncertain road ahead to the full national win. I ended the book by asking: “Thirty years from now - when gay people have won the freedom to marry and our society looks back and wonders what the big deal was - our children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews will want to know where we stood and what we did at a pivotal moment. Did we make a difference? Did we stand up for what is right?

What happiness, what luck, what a triumph to be able to say now - not even after thirty years - that for so many Americans, the answer was "Yes."

We dug deep, we worked hard, and we helped transform non-gay people’s understanding of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people and the values we all share.

As citizens, as a movement, as a nation, we did make a difference: We dug deep, we worked hard, and we helped transform non-gay people’s understanding of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people and the values we all share. Millions stood up for what is right by engaging their loved ones and fellow citizens in often challenging conversations, and by working to end injustice. The decision-makers - elected officials, judges, and justices - followed, and together we won the freedom to marry nationwide. 

Throughout this Freedom to Marry legacy website, we tell the story of how this victory happened - but why does it matter? 

I believe the epic success of this campaign matters for several reasons.

Historic Court Ruling

Justice Anthony Kennedy's Ruling in the Obergefell Case

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the historic Supreme Court ruling in favor of the freedom to marry.

Read More

First, winning the freedom to marry matters because, yes, marriage matters - and now millions more can share in it. Celebrating same-sex couples’ love, strengthening their families, and affirming their equality under the law has brought joy, dignity, security, and connectedness to millions of people. Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion in the marriage case extols what he calls the “enduring importance of marriage.” It is the preeminent language of love, the vocabulary of full inclusion and respect - and alongside that comes a vast array of legal and economic protections and responsibilities, from birth to death (with taxes in between). Marriage touches every vital area of life: creating kin, raising children, building a life together, celebrating and reinforcing love and commitment, caring for one another, retirement, and inheritance. Bringing the freedom to marry to so many has made a profound difference in people’s lives, happiness, and well-being in the precious short time we share on this planet.

Second, winning the freedom to marry signaled the dawn of equal citizenship for gay people. The victory meant that the U.S. government, which for so many years was the No. 1 discriminator against gay people, now puts its moral and legal weight on the side of fairness for all families, marking a momentous milestone in gay people’s decades-long journey from despised, oppressed minority to fully included. 

By claiming the resonant vocabulary of marriage, we seized an engine of transformation, helping non-gay people better understand who gay people are, furthering our inclusion and equality under the law. In his 2013 decision striking down Utah’s denial of marriage to same-sex couples, Judge Robert Shelby encapsulated the strategy of how we had won, how this victory had happened. He wrote, “It is not the Constitution that has changed, but the knowledge of what it means to be gay or lesbian.” Now, it is no longer tolerable for the law to exclude gay people from the basic dignity and protections that are part of America’s promise and that our Constitution guarantees. The Supreme Court’s ruling signaled that the day of the “gay exception,” at last, is over. 

“It is not the Constitution that has changed, but the knowledge of what it means to be gay or lesbian.”

Judge Robert Shelby, Court ruling on Kitchen v. Herbert

Third, winning the freedom to marry enriched the lives not just of gay people, but the non-gay people who are our family-members, our friends, our co-workers, and our fellow citizens. The father able to walk his lesbian daughter down the aisle. The grandmother able to dance with her gay grandson at his wedding. The non-gay Americans who can celebrate all of their friends’ love and commitment equally. The businesses and community members who benefit when families are strengthened, affirmed, and included.

Evan Wolfson and Marc Solomon outside of the U.S. Supreme Court the day of the Obergefell v. Hodges oral argument.

Fourth, winning the freedom to marry fulfilled America’s promise of liberty, dignity, equality, and freedom for all. Living up to our Constitution has not just improved the lives of same-sex couples and their loved ones - it has improved our society altogether, a transcendent fulfillment of our American constitutional and democratic values. Every generation of Americans is confronted with a deep, fundamental question that requires an assessment of our societal values: What kind of country are we? How do we treat our citizens? Affirming same-sex couples’ equal freedom to marry provided a resounding answer: We are a country that believes in treating people with fairness, that strives for equality, that cherishes the pursuit of happiness, that aspires to a more perfect union. This is the work of “We, the people.” Our 2015 victory is part of that American journey, the American promise. 

Fifth, winning the freedom to marry was a victory for human rights and security around the world. On the morning we won in the Supreme Court, one of the first people to call me was Vice President Joe Biden. He thanked and congratulated me and Freedom to Marry and went on to say, as the former chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that he saw the victory as a triumph not just of gay inclusion and human rights, but of foreign policy. Now, he explained, when the United States of America urges enforcement of universal human rights standards in dialogue with other countries, it can do so with clean hands, no longer one of the countries practicing state-sponsored discrimination against its own people. 

When, thirty years after the death of its dictator, Generalissimo Franco, Spain democratically enacted a freedom to marry bill in 2005, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero hailed its passage, saying, “It is true that [gay people] are only a minority, but their triumph is everyone's triumph … because it is the triumph of liberty. Their victory makes all of us – even those who oppose the law - better people. It makes our society better.” Likewise, in 2010, when Argentina embraced the freedom to marry, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner celebrated the victory as a marker of how far the country had come since its days of dictatorship and religious oppression, saying, “It would be a terrible distortion of democracy if [we] denied minorities their rights.” 

To address the very real problems of human rights abuses and violence globally, the countries that profess a commitment to democracy, rule of law, pluralism, and human rights have to live up to those values themselves. We got the United States closer to where it needs to be - and as of January 2016, gay people had won the freedom to marry in 22 countries on five continents. Over ten percent of the world’s population now lives in a freedom to marry country - up from zero when we started. Lots to celebrate, lots more still to do.

Lessons from the Freedom to Marry Movement

How We Won Marriage Nationwide

Don't miss these lessons from the work to win marriage for same-sex couples nationwide. 

Read More

Sixth, and finally, our success in winning the freedom to marry matters because it provides valuable lessons for how to achieve change. We had many stumbles and missed opportunities, but we got some big things right, crucial elements of our success - notably our combination of a broad movement comprised of many organizations, activists, and stakeholders; a clear strategy we stuck with; and a tenacious central campaign that drove the strategy and leveraged the movement - Freedom to Marry. Throughout our campaign, we celebrated many wins, but we also pushed through many losses. And with every loss, we reflected, regrouped, and rebounded, never giving up the fight. The losses, as much as the wins, offer lessons for the work ahead.

Sharing those lessons is the key purpose of this website - and I hope other activists will find them useful in charging forward to achieve their own goals and keep mending the world. After all, though the Freedom to Marry campaign has ended, the work of the broader LGBT movement - and of other movements, of our country, of the struggle for human rights worldwide - is far from done. We must continue advancing, harnessing the power of the marriage conversation and building on the momentum and example. 

When I read the Supreme Court decision through which our movement’s dream of the freedom to marry became reality, I thought back to words I had written in my Harvard Law School thesis decades earlier in 1983, when I began my own part in this journey to victory: “For gay women and men, who also love, same-sex marriage is a human aspiration, and a human right. The Constitution and real morality demand its recognition. By freeing gay individuals as our constitutional morality requires, we will more fully free our ideas of love, and thus more fully free ourselves.” 

As Freedom to Marry proclaimed on the day of victory: Love won. America won. We all won.

It matters for LGBT people – tangibly and intangibly – and it matters for non-gay people. It matters for those whose loved ones are gay or transgender. It matters for our country. It matters for human rights around the world. It matters for history.

For all these reasons, the triumph and transformation of winning the freedom to marry nationwide matters a great deal. It matters for LGBT people - tangibly and intangibly - and it matters for non-gay people. It matters for those whose loved ones are gay or transgender. It matters for our country. It matters for human rights around the world. It matters for history.

Here, then, throughout this website are the story of how it happened - how the freedom to marry triumphed - and the lessons to be learned and shared for the work and advances still ahead.

Evan Wolfson
Founder & President, Freedom to Marry
January 2016