10 Years of Marriage, 10 Milestones to Celebrate How We Got Here
This piece by Evan Wolfson was originally published in Pride Magazine, the official magazine of InterPride, in June 2014. You can read the full issue here.
The freedom to marry movement is on the ascendant, and we have much to celebrate. Together we’ve gained ground at a pace that is nearly unparalleled, reflecting and accelerating the momentum we have worked so hard to build over so long. We’ve won state and legal victories in nearly every corner of the country and built a majority for marriage nationwide and in every region, at record levels. We’ve won a powerful victory in the U.S. Supreme Court that prefigures the national resolution that has always been our goal. Forty percent of Americans now live in freedom-to-marry states, up from zero a decade ago. We have the momentum, and we have the winning strategy—the same strategy that has guided the movement to this moment and that, if we keep at it, will bring victory nationwide through a successful return to the Supreme Court, possibly as soon as next year.
In other words, there is plenty to celebrate, but also lots more to do. On this 10th anniversary of the freedom to marry in America, let’s take a moment to savor and remember how far we’ve come—and with full victory within reach (provided we keep reaching), let’s re-engage to finish the job and fulfill our goal of winning marriage nationwide!
(1) 1970s: First-Ever Wave of Marriage Litigation Begins in America
From the dawn of the modern LGBT movement, in the immediate aftermath of Stonewall in 1969, same-sex couples were seeking the freedom to marry, with early challenges coming from couples in Minnesota, Washington, and Kentucky. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Minnesota Supreme Court ruling that the Constitution does not protect “a fundamental right” for same-sex couples to get married. A year later, Maryland became the first state to pass a statute explicitly banning marriage between same-sex couples; California’s explicit ban was signed into law in 1977 by, ironically, Gov. Jerry Brown, who decades later championed and helped deliver our freedom to marry in the Golden State.
While those first marriage cases were all rubber-stamped away, a second wave of litigation in the 1990s, most notably the historic Hawaii case, launched the ongoing global freedom to marry movement. Why? Because of what came in between: HIV/AIDS shattered the silence about gay people’s lives. The epidemic forced society to see gay people as human beings who love, grieve, and fight back; and led gay people to better understand how the denial of marriage harmed our ability to care for our loved ones as well as non-gay people’s ability to see us as whole. Instead of fighting to be let alone, we began fighting to be let in.
(2) 1983: A Vision That Would Make a Difference
In 1983, while still a student at Harvard Law School, I wrote my thesis on why gay people should have the freedom to marry. At the time, same-sex couples had no country- or state-level legal relationship recognition anywhere in the world—let alone marriage. I wrote the thesis because I believed then, as ever since, that marriage matters, and that by claiming the resonant vocabulary of marriage - love, commitment, connectedness, and freedom - we could transform non-gay people's understanding of who gay people are and why exclusion and discrimination are wrong. A few years later, in 1989, Andrew Sullivan published “Here Comes the Groom,” a cover story in the New Republic, making a conservative case for marriage and launching his own journey as the leading public intellectual championing the cause. The arguments and themes we and others put forward, the back and forth within the movement, and couples proclaiming their love set the stage for the transformation to come.
(3) 1993: The Ongoing Global Freedom to Marry Movement is Born in Hawaii
When couples in Hawaii went to court in 1990, represented by a non-gay lawyer, Dan Foley, they gave birth to a movement that has enabled gay couples, as of today, to share in the freedom to marry in 18 countries on 5 continents. The Hawaii Supreme Court was the first court in history to say that marriage discrimination is presumptively unconstitutional, and the subsequent trial in 1996 resulted in the world’s first-ever ruling that gay couples should have the freedom to marry. Although later snatched away by a political attack in 1998, Hawaii’s breakthrough was a tectonic shift that launched the global movement for the freedom to marry.
By the end of the 1990’s, Vermont became the first state in America to introduce civil unions a legal step toward, but not equal to, marriage – and two-thirds of Americans had come to believe we would win. And the lessons our movement learned in Hawaii and Vermont served as a catalyst for the creation of Freedom to Marry, the needed campaign to drive the strategy and collaboration that are winning marriage nationwide.
(4) 2003–04: Massachusetts Becomes the First-Ever Freedom to Marry State
GLAD’s victory in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health made Massachusetts the first state in the nation, and the sixth jurisdiction in the world, where loving and committed gay couples could share in the freedom to marry. Our movement then worked to defend that breakthrough, and in June 2007, MassEquality, headed by Freedom to Marry’s national campaign director Marc Solomon, defeated a proposed discriminatory, anti-gay, anti-marriage constitutional amendment and secured marriage in our first state. Same-sex couples first began marrying on May 17, 2004, the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education— what I called at the time, “civil rights karma.”
(5) 2008–2010: After Setback of Proposition 8 in California, the Freedom to Marry Movement Rebounds
Following the win in Massachusetts, opponents of the freedom to marry stampeded through a wave of discriminatory state constitutional amendments even as we steadily kept making the case and growing toward majority support. One of these attacks was Proposition 8, which stripped gay and lesbian couples in California of the freedom to marry that NCLR, Lambda Legal, and the ACLU had won months earlier in the state supreme court. Prop 8 was a painful blow, eased only slightly by a freedom-to-marry victory in Connecticut, but the shock of the loss had the effect of galvanizing energy and engagement on the part of both gay and non-gay people.
Through all the inevitable ups and downs in any civil rights struggle and effort to transform understanding, our movement largely stuck with the Freedom to Marry strategy of setting the stage for a win in the Supreme Court by building a critical mass of states and public support. GLAD, Freedom to Marry, and movement colleagues moved forward on work to overturn DOMA, and despite Prop 8, 2009 became what I called then our “winningest” year to date. We won the freedom to marry in another four states (including Lambda Legal’s stunning victory in Iowa) and the nation’s capital, and built a majority for marriage nationwide (up from 27% at the time of the Hawaii trial).
(6) 2011: Triumph in New York: Political Center of Gravity Shifts with Republican Support
Winning the freedom to marry in New York truly was a transformative moment for committed couples and for our country, a triumph for love and equality under the law. For the first time, a Republican-led chamber, the New York State Senate, joined the Democrat-led Assembly in passing bipartisan marriage legislation supported by a large number of America’s most prominent businesses, corporate leaders, labor unions, and professional athletes. And local and national groups’ willingness to come together in a joint campaign, New Yorkers United for Marriage, combined with hardball political heft from our partners at Gill Action and the leadership of Governor Cuomo, established a new model that we would replicate in state after state.
The win in New York more than doubled the number of Americans living in a freedom to marry state—and conclusively showed that despite the temporary setback of Proposition 8 and court losses, we would get the country to the right side of history. Our victory also signaled growing right-of-center support, prefigured by Dick Cheney’s famous quote, “Freedom means freedom for everyone.” Prominent conservatives such as Bob Barr (the author of DOMA) and Ted Olson began speaking out, and respected Republicans from Paul Singer to Ken Mehlman to Margaret Hoover began enlisting support. Today, 40% of all Republicans support the freedom to marry, alongside a substantial majority of Independents and a supermajority of Democrats.
(7) 2012: First Sitting President & Major Political Party Endorses the Freedom to Marry
In May 2012, President Obama became the first sitting president to support the freedom to marry, joining the majority of Americans in their journey toward fairness. As important as the moral leadership he showed was his heartfelt explanation of how he had evolved thanks to conversations with people in his life, reflection on basic values, and a willingness to open his heart and change his mind. President Obama’s message incorporated the changed emphasis our movement had embraced in making the case for the freedom to marry: love, commitment, and family, rather than legalities or economic protections. The president spoke of conversations with his daughters about their classmates being raised by gay parents, and talked about the values he sought to teach them, such as the Golden Rule. President Obama’s announcement gave permission to millions of Americans to think anew and move toward support, and sealed the deal on Freedom to Marry’s call for a platform plank. On September 4, 2012, the Democratic Party became the first major political party in U.S. history to endorse the freedom to marry.
(8) 2012: Election Day Brings Unprecedented Wins at the Ballot Box
On November 6, 2012, following 30 ballot losses in previous years, our movement won 4 out of 4 marriage ballot-measures in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington—vindicating our hard work to learn how build campaigns and persuade a majority to vote against discrimination targeting a small minority. The victories were the result of millions of conversations and many months of work by local campaigns and volunteers, supported by Freedom to Marry and other partners. Freedom to Marry was the lead out-of-state funder in the Minnesota, Maine, and Washington campaigns, helping to raise and channel more than $7 million alongside strategic assistance and coordination.
(9) 2013: Supreme Court Strikes Down Core of So-Called Defense of Marriage Act
In June 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the core of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, ending the exclusion of legally married same-sex couples from more than 1,000 federal protections. The Court held that DOMA “violates basic due process and equal protection” and that the “desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot justify disparate treatment of that group.” The powerful ruling has proved a mighty tool in the freedom-to-marry litigation that has followed, and the Obama Administration moved swiftly to assure federal respect for married couples across the country, even in states still discriminating. With her compelling personal story tracing much of the history of our movement and its progress over decades, Edie Windsor touched hearts and exposed injustice, a perfect example of the power of individual stories in creating change. The same day, the Supreme Court also let stand a lower court ruling restoring the freedom to marry in California, four and a half years after the cruel blow of Prop 8.
(10) 2014: Momentum is Surging on a Dynamic Landscape, the Strategy Keeps Working, and America is Ready for the Freedom to Marry
Already, 2014 has been a huge year for the freedom to marry. As of May, advocates had won 16 our of 16 federal and state court decisions across the country; and there were more than 70 lawsuits underway seeking the freedom to marry or respect for same-sex couples’ marriages in more than 30 states. Polls show support at an all-time high of 59% among the American public. With the added constitutional clarity brought by the Supreme Court in United States v. Windsor and the presence and example of loving and committed married same-sex couples in every part of the country, the momentum we’ve created underscores that America—all of America—is ready for the freedom to marry.
This year Freedom to Marry celebrated its 10th anniversary as the campaign to win marriage equality nationwide. As our movement presses forward on the winning strategy with the goal in sight, Freedom to Marry is determined to keep doing the work and to finish the job so that we don’t have to have a 15th.