Freedom to Marry – The Early Years 

In August, 2001, Freedom to Marry’s founder and president, drafted a “concept paper” calling for creation of a sustained, affirmative campaign entity to drive a central strategy to win marriage nationwide. That document began with the following introduction:

Civil Marriage Equality: A Dream Becoming Reality

Less than a decade ago, the thought that lesbian and gay Americans could attain the civil right to marry seemed little more than a distant dream, a hope that was a generation away at best.

"But history has shifted. Through a series of stunning successes, unexpected tragedies, slow but steady progress in public attitudes, the increased receptivity of non-gay allies, and not least our own hard work and dedication, the idea of marriage equality for lesbians and gay men has become a very real possibility. Not only that––it has begun to take on the aura of a historical inevitability.

We could all name dozens of reasons for this change, and history will show which were most important. The Hawaii rulings. The AIDS epidemic. Celebrities coming out. Religious denominations wrestling with change. The Vermont decision. Victory in the Netherlands. Even the terrified flurry of anti-gay marriage legislation over the past three years and our opponents’ recently announced campaign to amend the Constitution to bar us from marriage and family recognition attest to how real the possibility of civil marriage for lesbians and gay men has become.

By building on what we have already achieved, we now have before us a shimmering chance to leave a legacy of transformation. Within the next twenty years, civil marriage equality for lesbians and gay men can become a reality in every state. But that’s not all. With a new sustained, coordinated, and strategic approach, we can set ourselves, our movement, and our allies this goal: Win the freedom to marry in at least one breakthrough state within the next five years.

If we do our work right, as our engagement over marriage proceeds we will reap unparalleled gains along the way––just as the Hawaii case helped move a large segment of the public to greater support for the components of marriage, and just as the freedom to marry fight brought us civil unions in Vermont. It is not just the attainment of marriage, but the engagement itself, that moves us forward fastest and furthest.

Focusing on this resonant cause, our new strategic collaborative will mount a sustained effort to reach the “tipping point” in public support while providing essential leadership, tools, and resources to help local, state, and national partners progress within their own regions and constituencies.

How It Happened

Get the Full Story of the Marriage Victory

This post discusses Freedom to Marry's early years – read the full decades-long history charting the roadmap to victory here.

Read How It Happened

At the same time, the new Freedom to Marry Collaborative will undertake unprecedented outreach to non-gay organizations and leaders––fostering the kind of alliances that can help make our vision a reality. This broad civil rights campaign will require a new approach, a new entity, and new resources. If our movement is truly to seize the opportunities before us, we must make the whole greater than the sum of its parts, capitalizing on the hope and energy that a national/state, gay/non–gay collaborative unleashes. Thus, we look for leadership from partners like you. With your help, we will forge new local, state and national partnerships; launch a sustained and targeted education and advocacy campaign; organize and support efforts in key states and constituencies; and create a central coordinating and support entity.

A year and a half later in 2003, that concept had become a reality, and Freedom to Marry opened its doors. By the close of 2003 a landmark decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court had brought the prospect of the freedom to marry in that state to within months of reality. And less than 15 years later, the freedom to marry was won nationwide.  

Freedom to Marry – Roles of the Early Organization

Freedom to Marry launched in January 2003 with the purpose of winning marriage for gay couples throughout the United States.  Our vision was to forge a gay and non-gay partnership that could mount a sustained and affirmative campaign to win the freedom to marry for same-sex couples, bringing together non-gay and gay state and national partners and enhancing their individual and collective capacity.  By securing collaboration among groups already working for marriage equality and building relationships with new gay and non-gay allies, we sought to drive a national strategy and bring new resources and a renewed context of urgency and opportunity that would engage and leverage the many people and organizations making up the larger movement. 

The Freedom to Marry collaborative model called for a central entity to play four principal roles:

1. Act as a catalyst to drive and influence the national debate on the freedom to marry. In June 2001, Gallup reported that nationwide opposition to gay people’s freedom to marry was at only 52%, an extraordinary shift in a very short time and better polling numbers than those in the analogous struggle over interracial marriage. Polling at the time also showed that somewhere between 30% and 40% of Americans already believed in our cause and were not likely to be shaken from that support. To that end, we sought to identify and influence the reachable 15% to 20% of Americans in the middle who had not yet decided how they feel. They were waiting for the arguments, the request, and even the “permission” for them to support (or merely accept) gay people’s freedom to marry. By focusing on them, we could strategically deploy our resources where they were likely to do the greatest amount of good in the shortest period of time, and achieve important milestones and breakthroughs in key regions and constituencies with a relatively limited amount of funding. To persuade the movable middle, Freedom to Marry laid plans to mount a sustained effort that was much more sophisticated in its identification of winning messages, messengers, and audience. Materials it produced would be based on high-quality research, polling, and focus group data that identified key target audiences, and that extensively tested and refined messages prior to their dissemination. These materials would serve as a vital resource to help local and national groups shape the content of media discussions and influence public opinion in key states. 

Congressman John Lewis and Evan Wolfson

Congressman John Lewis, here with Evan Wolfson, was one of the early supporters of the freedom to marry.

2. Enhance and support enlistment of local and national non-gay allies and non-gay public support. While targeting effective messaging at the movable middle, we also sought to enlist and deploy non-gay allies.  Following historical examples from other civil rights movements, we wanted diverse opinion-leaders in key constituencies, such as communities of faith, labor, child-welfare, youth, seniors and businesses. These allies could be summoned to various roles: voices in support, working their respective constituencies as well as the general public; partners in organizing and voting; and, in some cases, funders. By spearheading a national movement we sought to create a platform for non-gay allies motivated to speak and become national, grassroots, and personal advocates. We wanted to give civil rights heroes such as Congressman John Lewis, Coretta Scott King, and Gloria Steinem; religious leaders such as Rabbi Eric Yoffe, Rev. James Forbes, and Bishop Desmond Tutu; corporate leaders such as Bob Haas; labor leaders such as Dolores Huerta and John Sweeney; and public voices such as Anna Quindlen, Cristina Saralegui, and Norman Lear the impetus and framework to join with lesbian and gay leaders and couples, engaging the public on our freedom to marry. These messengers could then help the movable middle understand, for instance, that discrimination in marriage hurts real-life lesbian and gay people, kids, and society; that non-gay people care about this injustice and are doing something about it; that ending discrimination benefits all; and that marriage equality is inevitable and the sky will not fall once gay people are included. Their work would then furnish templates, such as sample letters to the editor, talking points and media strategies for replication or adaptation by state partners and those working particular constituencies.

3. Assist local and state freedom to marry efforts through a national resource center that offers strategic planning, coordination, sophisticated message development, community organizing trainings and materials. Freedom to Marry also wanted to provide critical support to state, local, and national organizations working on the right to marry by developing and distributing much-needed tools, resources, and technical assistance to groups that were often functioning in relative isolation, or that had small budgets that precluded the development of high-quality messages, information, or materials.

4. Provide funding as a regrantor to local, state, and national freedom to marry efforts, while stimulating additional parallel funding at the local level. Finally, Freedom to Marry also set out to serve as a regrantor to state and national partners as well as non-gay allies in targeted efforts.  Some examples of the work that we thought we could accomplish through these grants to partners included:

  • Compiling and augmenting polling and research data on the 15-20% of the American public that needs to be swayed in order for the nation to reach a critical mass in regard to civil marriage equality. 
  • Developing focused campaigns and approaches to reach and influence key populations and audiences such as working women, Latino and African-American families, and seniors. 
  • Supporting efforts by religious affiliate organizations working to bring about policy change within their specific denominations. 
  • Documenting and presenting the stories of the Vermont civil union couples, analyzing which couples have availed themselves of the law, where they are from, and what their experience has been. 
  • Providing the means to key anchor partners (for example, New England’s Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders), to serve more effectively as a regional back-up to efforts underway in a cluster of states by providing GLAD with a grant to house a public education team.  

By providing direct financial support through regranting, we hoped to be a key partner able to assist groups and leaders at all levels toward our goal of marriage equality and the transformation it entails.  The overall idea was to serve as a campaign that would drive a strategy involving and deploying the movement of organizations and individuals who could be summoned to action.

Organizational Structure

Based on a desire to focus heavily on serving as a catalyst for the movement and deploying innovative, of-the-moment programming, Freedom to Marry early on opted not to build an excessive organizational infrastructure. Instead, for roughly the first half of its existence, Freedom to Marry was a fiscally sponsored project of the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice. During those seven years, the budget of the organization hovered around $1,500,000 annually, with employment of 5 to 10 staff. 

Our first full-time staff reflected that approach.  Led by founder Evan Wolfson, formerly a senior attorney at Lambda Legal for twelve years and the architect of the strategy to win the freedom to marry, the staff included Program Director Harry Knox (formerly Executive Director at Georgia Equality), Development Director Tandeka Moleah (formerly at Safe Horizon, the nation’s largest victim services agency), Senior Managing Editor Barbara Todd Kerr (who offered broad-ranging experience in journalism, television production, and web development), and Administrator Noran Camp.
Supporting the staff was a Steering Committee of volunteers who brought their expertise and commitment to the organization as a “non-board board” (Technically, Astraea’s board was the actual body with fiduciary responsibility.)  The Steering Committee served as a “brain trust” and sounding-board for Evan Wolfson on his programmatic, financial, and strategic decisions. Steering Committee subcommittees included the Executive Committee, the Development Committee, the Communications Committee, and Council of Advisors Recruitment Committee. A number of the initial members of the Steering Committe continued in these advisory roles for the entire time Freedom to Marry continued to be fiscally sponsored by the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice and stepped onto the Board of Directors of Freedom to Marry when it became its own indepedent entity. Those Steering Committe Members included Barb Cox and John Buehrens, the initial co-chairs, along with Cherry Spencer-Stark and Tim Sweeney.  

We also created a Grantmaking Advisory Committee of three funders with relevant philanthropic experience, and a Steering Committee liaison, Mandy Carter, who also had grants-advisory experience through work at the Funding Exchange. These experts vetted regrant proposals, giving staff the benefit of their advice on such matters as how to assess a group’s capacity, how to evaluate the outcomes, or what technical guidance might be useful in shaping the regrant, etc. Over time as staff built expertise in this arena, the Grantmaking Advisory Committee was disbanded.  

2003 to 2005: What Was Happening in the Movement

The early years of Freedom to Marry were a period of growing support as more and more Americans engaged in a meaningful dialogue about why marriage matters prompted by the wins our movement racked up in Canada and Massachusetts, as well as a new wave of attacks from familiar opponents. It was in this period that the first same-sex couples in the United States married and, as we had foretold, the public was able to begin seeing that the sky did not fall, while witnessing the power of marriage for these loving, committed couples.  

California passed a sweeping “all but marriage” partnership law and two years later the legislature passed a law ending discrimination in marriage (only to be vetoed by then Gov. Schwarzenegger).  Connecticut’s legislature also passed a civil union law for same-sex couples, on its journey to the full freedom to marry.  And on Valentine’s Day in February 2004, Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, inspiring public officials in New York, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Oregon to follow suit. While the thousands of marriages that occurred that year were ultimately ruled invalid by state courts, the power of the love exhibited by those couples showing daily on TV news screens across the country helped further propel growth in support of marriage for same-sex couples.

These steps forward also galavanized our opposition – including an unholy alliance of the familiar anti-gay groups such as Family Research Council and Focus on the Family and Republican operatives, including Karl Rove on behalf of George W. Bush’s campaign. That election year, 13 states passed Rove-orchestrated, anti-gay/anti-marriage amendments to their state constitutions, 11 on election day in November, 2004. In succeeding years, several other states adopted similar measure. While we lost many battles, we did succeed in blocking such anti-marriage measures in several rounds of fighting in state legislatures – and not a single state legislator lost re-election for courageously voting in support of the freedom to marry. Further, despite Bush’s support, a federal anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment failed to pass in either house of Congress.  

Evan Wolfson celebrating the freedom to marry in Canada

Evan Wolfson celebrates with supporters of the freedom to marry in Canada following the country's embrace of the freedom to marry.

Internationally, marriage for same-sex couples became the law of the land in Spain and most notably Canada (with Evan Wolfson as part of the team) – joining the Netherlands and Belgium. The waves of U.S. same-sex couples traveling over the border to wed in Canada again brought the marriage conversation home to America’s kitchen tables – and the opportunity in Canada allowed people like Edie Windsor to marry her partner of 35 years, Thea Spyer, a marriage that later figured in the successful federal challenge to the so-called Defense of Marriage Act in 2013.  

Thanks to this progress, the case we made through enlisting diverse “voices for equality” and sparking conversations, the coverage in the media, and even the debate stirred by setbacks at the ballot box in multiple states, public opinion shifted from roughly 35% support to between 40 and 45% support. We were winning, even if not everyone could see it.

2003 to 2005: Freedom to Marry’s Work

This considerable progress didn’t just happen. Much of it came through the work and mobilization of Freedom to Marry and its partners. With each new success – and even with each defeat – Freedom to Marry worked to propel the conversation forward to build both a growing acceptance of the freedom to marry and the sense of momentum that would reach a crescendo an astonishing ten years later, bringing an end to marriage discrimination for same-sex couples in the US.

Even before the landmark decision by the Supreme Judicial Court in Massachusetts, Freedom to Marry sprang into action to provide both support and technical expertise to those working to protect the freedom to marry in the state. For instance, we collaborated with both local and national partners (Massachusetts Freedom to Marry Coalition and GLAD) to provide training for media representatives in Massachusetts, helping them to present a common message and to effectively shape how our yearning for marriage was presented in the media.  

Freedom to Marry enlisted civil rights hero Congressman John Lewis, to be one of our “Voices for Equality.” Our first ask of Rep. Lewis – made at a key moment when the court needed to hear a message of encouragement and readiness on our part to defend a ruling – was to place an op-ed in the Boston Globe. We also funded a set of polls done jointly with our partners in Massachusetts that reported favorable results – released strategically –indicating that the majority of voters in the state supported the freedom to marry.  The poll results helped our campaign create the climate necessary for the high court’s historic ruling and shape ongoing discussion.  

The Work to Win

Advancing Marriage in the States

See in-depth timelines on the path to the freedom to marry in states from coast to coast.

Read More

Freedom to Marry also did similar work in several other states – such as California, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York – that all were in play through litigation during the time. In California, for instance, we facilitated a California Freedom to Marry Coalition retreat, at which the member organizations learned about effective cross-cultural organizing and coalition-building. We funded polls in Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York as well. Using this work as a template, Freedom to Marry convened national partner organizations such as GLAD, the Human Rights Campaign, and the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force to create a template campaign plan for adaptation by different states. Program Director Harry Knox presented the plan, along with a menu of public education activities and resources, to 20 statewide groups at the 2003 meeting of the Federation of Statewide LGBT Organizations.  

Also in 2003, Freedom to Marry organized the first of what would become annual training institutes on “Winning Marriage Equality” at the Task Force’s Creating Change Conference, the largest gathering of LGBT activists in the country. The initial training was attended by over 70 representatives from key LGBT groups from 20 states around the country and helped build the field and bring in a new wave of states.  Participants were brought up to date on the national movement for marriage equality, and in specialized break-out technical-assistance sessions, state leaders learned models for success from presenters representing Love Makes a Family (CT), Lambda Legal, California Freedom to Marry Coalition, Southerners on New Ground, and the Freedom to Marry Coalition of Massachusetts.  Freedom to Marry arranged for a polling briefing and  a "how-to" training session on web-based communications, in addition to subsidizing attendance by some state participants. These kinds of trainings and briefings became regular features of our mobilization of the movement and its diverse organizations – the 2000s incarnation of Evan Wolfson’s criss-crossing of the country organizing and speaking on marriage throughout the 1990s as the “Paul Revere of marriage.”

Within our national coalition, Freedom to Marry also created a working group on media/message.  The working group developed and shared talking points, polling data, and concerns, and vetted joint statements as well as potential TV and radio ads. Freedom to Marry convened a weekly check-in call of a core group of organizations, which dealt with breaking developments as well as brainstormed where we were going next. We made polling data available to state and national partners, and promoted sharing of additional data collected by partner organizations such as HRC, Lambda Legal, GLAAD, the Task Force, and the ACLU.  We helped edit or guide many of the materials put out by our colleague organizations, from press releases and statements to ads, websites, and op-eds.

Evan Wolfson and Colleagues

Freedom to Marry worked with many partner organizations in these early years – and throughout the campaign to win marriage nationwide. .

To further frame our message, in 2004 Evan Wolfson published his first book, Why Marriage Matters: America, Equality, and Gay People’s Right to Marry (Simon & Schuster), which provided the general public with a highly readable case for the freedom to marry and provided advocates a conversational, persuasive way to answer the most common questions and build support. Evan’s book tour helped further propel the conversation; for three weeks, Evan traveled to 10 cities from Boston to Seattle, did radio interviews all across the spectrum (from Christian radio to Air America), and strategized with activists in battleground states (particularly California, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Washington). Why Marriage Matters garnered favorable reviews in many prominent publications around the country, including the cover of the Sunday LA Times Book Review. A year later, the publication of the paperback edition yielded similar attention and press.

Another example of our work to frame and propel the message was our annual “Freedom to Marry Week,” an organizing focus Evan had created even before founding Freedom to Marry. Freedom to Marry Week (originally Freedom to Marry Day, on Feb. 12) was an early and effective means of galvanizing events and media coverage around Valentine’s Day and Lincoln’s birthday each year. Freedom to Marry enlisted participants and produced a Resource Kit for organizers of local and statewide events, which included templates for events like house parties and state house speak-outs, sample press releases, sample sermons for religious events, and ways to connect with other activists and organizations. 

All of these programs were heavily promoted on our first-generation website, the leading online destination with the most diverse and comprehensive information on marriage equality.  For instance in 2004 this portal to the marriage movement housed the newly developed “Story Center,” the online database we created with several of our partner organizations to capture couples’ personal stories about why marriage is important to them. Maintained jointly by Freedom to Marry and the ACLU, the Story Center gave Freedom to Marry’s partners an increasingly broad picture of who "we" are and supplied more “people resources” for use by the press. The information collected was put to a variety of uses, including: identifying plaintiffs for legal cases, research about families and children, statistical analysis, and more. With participants’ permission, we edited and posted selected stories from the database for public education. At the close of 2004 there were over 650 personal stories from same-sex couples posted in the Story Center.

At the end of 2003, Freedom to Marry also rolled out the Voices of Equality program to deploy leading champions for the freedom to marry, which both helped to continually stoke the echo chamber of support and provide unexpected voices of support from key constituencies and communities we sought to build support in.  In our first year, we recruited diverse voices such as Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, a non-gay mom from Skokie, Illinois; Bishop Steven Charleston, the Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School; State Senator Sam Zamarripa of Georgia, a Latino business leader; Mayor Rocky Anderson of Salt Lake City, Utah; author Tony Kushner; and Rev. Elder Troy Perry of the Metropolitan Community Church.   

As a coalition-builder, Freedom to Marry also worked to enhance and support the enlistment of local and national non-gay allies and non-gay public support. Mobilization of non-gay allies – with a particular emphasis on African-American, Latino, faith, and labor communities – was one of Freedom to Marry's top priorities and notable successes.

For instance, in 2004 Freedom to Marry made a grant of $25,000 to the United Church of Christ Coalition on LGBT Concerns in support of their education and organizing efforts.  The grant allowed the Coalition to provide national train-the-trainer programs, as well as regional education and mobilization events for those who then worked for successful passage of a pro-marriage equality statement in May 2005, making the UCC the first mainline Christian denomination to endorse the freedom to marry.

In 2004, Freedom to Marry seeded and helped create the National Black Justice Coalition, a new organization of African-American leaders and voices for marriage equality. In addition to strategic counsel, Freedom to Marry provided a seed-grant of $25,000, enabling NBJC to hire its first staffer, Strategic Director Alexander Robinson. In his new position, Robinson worked to expand the number and diversity of African-American Voices of Equality. NBJC also helped expand our messaging into African-American populations when we supported their print advertising campaign that featured the first-ever gay ads (let alone marriage advocacy ads) in 11 African-American publications in five cities around the country.

In other outreach to non-gay allies, Freedom to Marry’s work with organized labor helped lead to the 2004 vote of labor organizations, such as the Communications Workers of America (CWA), and the Service Employees International Union (or SEIU, the largest and fastest growing union in the AFL-CIO) to support marriage equality. Those votes then encouraged dozens of international and locally based unions to pass marriage resolutions with membership-wide votes and local support. 

Invoking this track record of success to push back against the fear and regression prompted by the passage of anti-gay state constitutional amendments in November, 2004, Freedom to Marry – with the support of key funders – joined national partners on a “2020 Vision” paper entitled: Winning Marriage – What We Need To Do.  The document recommitted the movement to the Freedom to Marry strategy and elaborated it, helping persuade waverers to stay the course. The concept paper contained its famous “10/10/10/20” example of how we might get there: 10 states with marriage, 10 states with civil union, 10 states with some limited set of protections and the remaining 20 states with some progress in improving the climate toward marriage by 2020 – all leading to national resolution by 2020 or sooner. The comcept paper set out the intermediate steps, showed how varied work in the states (including two-step progress via civil union/partnership as well as directly to marriage) fit together, and called for an affirmative campaign on a much greater scale and with greater partnership among states and national organizations, as well as with new non-gay allies and funders. The paper’s primary drafter was Matt Coles of the ACLU, working closely with Evan Wolfson and others. 

Finally, fulfilling our commitment to be a regrantor to state, local and national marriage efforts, Freedom to Marry invested over $1,100,000 in regrants, which represented over 30% of Freedom to Marry’s revenues in our first three years in existence.  

2006 to 2009: What Was Happening in the Movement

While the painful period from 2006 through 2008 often seemed like one step forward, two steps back, we witnessed the truth of one of Evan Wolfson’s oft-quoted “lessons for the scary work of winning”: “wins trump losses.” By the end of 2009, despite the ballot defeats around the country in 2004 and then in California’s Prop 8 in 2008, we had built from one state with the freedom to marry to five (Massachusetts, Iowa, Connecticut, Vermont and New Hampshire) – plus the District of Columbia. We had increased national support for ending marriage discrimination to the cusp 50%, and had introduced the Respect for Marriage Act in Congress as a challenge to the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, alongside litigation brought by GLAD. Within six months, polls confirmed the national majority for marriage we had built, up from 27% at the time of the historic Hawaii case.

Progress in building toward the critical mass of states the strategy called for was going to have to come through all three methodologies of change: litigation, legislation, and votes on ballot measures. In the courts, we saw early and tough losses in the high courts of New York, Washington, and Maryland, and while the New Jersey Supreme Court found discrimination in marriage unconstitutional, it unfortunately left it to the legislature to fix, leading to enactment of civil union in the Garden State. High court wins in Connecticut in late 2008 and in Iowa in 2009 proved the validity of litigation work anew, but we clearly had to up our game to learn to hold our litigation wins against ballot attack, while racking up more gains legislatively.

2009 saw the adoption of the freedom to marry through legislation for the first time. While state houses in California and New York had previously passed marriage bills, none became law as we were not able to overcome resistance from Republican lawmakers and governors. Civil union/partnership proved a tempting placeholder or even substitute for some; New Jersey’s state house passed civil union following the high court decision, and domestic partnership bills passed in Washington, Oregon, Maryland, Nevada, and Wisconsin.  But in 2009, we succeeded in overriding the governor’s veto in Vermont, making that state the first to secure the freedom to marry through legislation (and the state that was the first to enact civil union became the first to push past it to marriage itself). We followed this victory with passage of marriage legislation in New Hampshire and Maine, but in the latter state, the marriage law was overturned in another painful ballot-measure on Election Day 2009.  

Internationally, progress continued as well with the advent of the freedom to marry in South Africa in 2006 and in Norway and Sweden in 2009.  

“Do all you can, no matter what, to get people to think on your reform, and then, if the reform is good, it will come about in due season," wrote feminist pioneer Elizabeth Cady Stanton. All of this movement, all of the work done by Freedom to Marry and its partners, and all of the public debate contributed to more and more conversations happening around lunch tables and kitchen tables from coast to coast.  Meanwhile more and more prominent voices echoed their own support and evolutions on the freedom to marry. Those voices in 2009 included even former Republican Congressman Bob Barr, who had introduced the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act” in 1996, and former President Bill Clinton, who had signed that bill into law, both of whom announced their new support for the freedom to marry. And by 2010, CNN announced for the first time that a majority of Americans supported the end of marriage discrimination nationwide.  

2006 to 2009: Freedom to Marry’s Work

During this challenging four-year period, Freedom to Marry continued to fulfill our stated goal to assist local and state freedom to marry efforts through a national resource center. In 2006 and 2007, our first priority was defending the freedom to marry in the first state, Massachusetts. We continued to provide both support and technical expertise to our local partners such as GLAD and MassEquality through messaging consultations, media training and story generation through our Voices of Equality. We ramped up public education, showing how the reality of marriage in the state meant that no one was hurt and that families – both gay and non-gay – were helped.  

All that groundwork coupled with expert political work on the part of MassEquality (led by Marc Solomon, who later became Freedom to Marry’s national campaign director) yielded the desired result when in June 2007 the Massachusetts legislature defeated a discriminatory, anti-gay, anti-marriage constitutional amendment that would have ended the freedom to marry in its first state. The final 151 to 45 vote was a resounding legislative victory for the freedom to marry. The next year, MassEquality persuaded the Massachusetts Legislature, along with Gov. Deval Patrick, to enact a law to uphold the freedom to marry for same-sex couples from outside of Massachusetts to get married in the state. Both houses of the state legislature overwhelmingly voted in favor of the law, which repealed a discriminatory law from 1913 that had blocked such marriages.

Another priority state for support and investment was California, America’s most populous and one where a court challenge was underway to marriage discrimination in the state.   In 2006 for example, Freedom to Marry convened a California African-American Marriage Strategy Meeting. This was a 15-person, two-part conversation with African-American leaders, including key activists from California groups such as Alexander Robinson of the National Black Justice Coalition, Alice Huffman of the California Conference of the NAACP, and select others.

We worked closely with Equality California Institute and a broad array of national and local organizations to help shape and lead the California Equality Project, an ambitious, affirmative public education campaign intended to provide templates and lessons for work throughout the country.  Executive Director Evan Wolfson served as chair of the Project's National Advisory Board. An underlying goal was to get funders and advocates to invest early in California public education – in advance of a court win and the likely ballot-attack that would follow (what later materialized as Prop 8).

The first stage was to build a network of thousands of supporters throughout the state.  We did this through a proactive, comprehensive public education strategy with the title Let California Ring. Under the direction of Thalia Zepatos (who later joined the Freedom to Marry team) this was a state-of-the-art, collaborative campaign that incorporated paid mass media, web-based communications, earned media, and grassroots community outreach to persuade Californians to support the freedom to marry.  

More importantly, Let California Ring adopted a new, sophisticated approach to messaging.  This new campaign sought to influence not solely through the lens of discrimination but through a message that affirmed the strength and love of same-sex couples within their larger non-gay families.  The novel test was inherently soft-sell and authentic and translated our message into situations that non-gay people could relate to directly. It directly posed the question to non-gay couples and singles: “How would you feel if you couldn’t marry the person you love?” 

Along with a robust field plan and web presence, the centerpiece of the paid media component of the campaign in California was a television ad. The ad was developed using media and advertising professionals and was designed specifically to target our core audience – the movable middle. Composed of women in the mid-age ranges – soccer moms and working moms—this audience was brought to a series of focus groups to test several advertising concepts.  

The result was an ad designed to get to an emotional core in our target audience and build empathy.  By showing a bride having extreme, sometimes comic difficulty getting down the aisle to her beloved, our target audience was able to relate to how it can feel to not be able to marry. The ad and the integrated campaign was successfully tested in Santa Barbara County and would have been rolled out statewide, but fundraising for this kind of affirmative work was difficult.

Given that the No on 8 Campaign was also beginning, all Let California Ring activities were completed in the fall of 2008. Despite the tight timing, there was still plenty to do. First, the original “Garden Wedding” ad was aired in three markets – Los Angeles, Sacramento and San Diego – from late June through late August. As expected from the successful test in 2007, the ad proved successful in bringing people to the conversation in a positive, engaging way. Even opposition leaders grudgingly acknowledged both the ad’s effectiveness and role as legitimate public education—not part of the ballot measure campaign.

While the Garden Wedding ad played in mainline communities in the state, Zepatos also worked with our partners to develop a unique series of culturally-specific print and radio ads targeted at three key people of color communities: Latinos, African-Americans, and Asian-Americans. A total of four ads were developed for each community. Each ad featured either non-gay community leaders or non-gay family members of gays as messengers of why marriage equality matters. Asian-American mothers and Latino/as both spoke of welcoming into the family unit the new husbands and wives of their gay or lesbian offspring and the resulting joy and pride they felt. 

The ads were placed in over 150 ethnic media outlets across the state and generated 4.5 millions of impressions in print, radio and on line media. Ad copy was translated into multiple tongues, including Spanish, Japanese, Mandarin, Korean, Vietnamese, and Tagalog, and the program subsequently served as a unique resource for those seeking to reach out to diverse communities beyond California. The ads also stirred editors to develop stories in the news outlets on marriage equality, and even the effort to place the ads created conversation that persuaded some of those to change their editorial positions, as well as the language they used to described LGBT people. 

Throughout this 4-month effort, Freedom to Marry staff played an integral role.  Our staff helped to find families willing to be featured in the ads, to develop core messaging, to shepherd the ads through review, approval and placement, and to move the materials on-line. During the core months of July and August 2008, our entire program staff was virtually fully dedicated to this program.

In addition to this heavy investment in California, Freedom to Marry also continued to provide support to other key priority states like Iowa, New York, Connecticut, Maryland, and New Hampshire.  For instance in New Jersey, we funded work by Garden State Equality to produce and run a radio commercial to educate New Jersey citizens on the inadequacy of New Jersey’s civil union law. The commercial highlighted a report released by New Jersey’s Civil Union Review Commission which found that the civil union approach denied equality to same-sex couples – and in fact, had brought legal, financial and emotional harm to them and their children. Besting world-wide competition, the advertisement won the prestigious Commercial Closet Award for the year’s best LGBT advertising campaign by a not-for-profit organization.

In Maine, we partnered with Equality Maine to develop vigorous plans to take advantage of the unprecedented election day turnout in 2008 to talk with thousands of Mainers about the freedom to marry. The goal for the day was to identify 10,000 pro-marriage citizens and ask them to sign postcards providing their names and contact information. In preparation for the day, Equality Maine distributed 20,000 blank sign-up cards. Polls opened at 8am, and around noon the volunteers began making frantic calls asking for more sign-up cards. After waiting in line an hour or more to vote, people were waiting in line to sign the cards. By the end of the day the final tally was 33,190 new contacts, 300% of the original goal.  

In addition to this state-specific work, Freedom to Marry continued convening regular meetings in New York and Washington, DC, bringing together over 30 coalition partners.  Topics discussed included how the battles over parenting and marriage intersect; people of color organizing on marriage; strategies employed by allies and others working on parallel causes; and close analyses of various ballot-measure campaigns. In addition we continued to hold the Marriage Training Institute at The Task Force’s Creacting Change Conference, allowing those state leaders with direct marriage experience to help train leaders in states just beginning their marriage work. We also continued to hold and promote Freedom to Marry week, which every year yielded dozens of locally based events covered by the press and prompted more conversations on marriage. 

Throughout this four year period, Freedom to Marry shaped the narrative for the country in unique and significant ways. One such opportunity for keeping our message in the public eye presented itself on June 12, 2007 with the 40th anniversary of Loving v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court case that advanced racial and marriage equality. In recognition of this historic case, Freedom to Marry along with a wide array of gay and non-gay partners arranged for a multi-faceted campaign of remembrance and celebration.  

The Loving campaign began with a thought-provoking ad campaign, which featured images of well-known interracial couples who would have been denied marriage but for the Loving case. Generously funded by Mitchell Gold’s Faith in America, the ads ran in newspapers in Washington, DC, plus Roll Call and Politico, and furthered the national dialogue about the current legal barriers to equality in America.

This advertising campaign was augmented on June 12 when Freedom to Marry joined several of the nation's leading legal and civil rights organizations to hold a press conference and reception at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. The press conference featured many leading non-gay organizations from across the racial spectrum, such as the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Asian American Justice Center and the Hispanic National Bar Association, and became a moment when we all committed to the support of marriage equality for all racially-mixed couples and all same-sex couples.  

A statement issued at the press conference by the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund was emblematic of the power and importance of that day. It stated that in Loving, “The Supreme Court ruled that the freedom to marry or not marry someone of another race ‘resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.’ [and that while] it is undeniable that the experience of African Americans differs in many important ways from that of gay men and lesbians, … differences in historical experiences should not preclude the application of constitutional provisions to gay men and lesbians who are denied the right to marry the person of their choice.”

Mildred and Richard Loving

Mildred Loving, whose case to end states' bans on interracial marriage went to the U.S. Supreme Court, signed on as an early, vocal supporter of marriage for same-sex couples.

Most significantly, Freedom to Marry worked closely with Mitchell Gold and secured a powerful statement from Mildred Loving herself:  

When my late husband, Richard, and I got married in Washington, DC in 1958, it wasn't to make a political statement or start a fight. We were in love, and we wanted to be married. Not a day goes by that I don't think of Richard and our love, and how much it meant to me to have that freedom to marry the person precious to me, even if others thought he was the 'wrong kind of person' for me to marry. I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry. I am proud that Richard's and my name are on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness, and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight, seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all. That's what Loving, and loving, are all about.

Another innovative way Freedom to Marry brought marriage equality to the public was through radio tours.  These “tours” were sets of on-air interviews conducted in radio stations across the country with everyday people telling their own personal stories as support for marriage equality. For example, in early 2007 we arranged for the COLAGE (Children of Lesbians & Gays Everywhere) radio tour to spread messages of awareness and equality. In interviews with regional and national radio programs, COLAGE teens and adults with gay or lesbian  parents spoke out to defend justice and equality for themselves and their families. 

These six articulate voices represented diverse backgrounds and families, and all trained by Freedom to Marry to discuss why marriage mattered to them and their families. The Radio Tour ultimately reached approximately 8 million, predominantly non-gay people around the country through a diverse range of radio outlets including WICO-AM#1 Talk in Maryland, WICH-AM#1 in Connecticut and New York, KFBK AM in California, and WFYI-FM in Indiana.

In addition to maintaining and growing our website and the Story Center on the web, we also conducted studies on key topics and issued publications as needed. For instance, responding to unfounded concerns of lawmakers that supporting the freedom to marry would be a political liability, Freedom to Marry conducted and publicized a study that revealed that legislators who voted to support the freedom to marry were consistently re-elected. A review of all marriage votes from 2005 through to 2009 showed that no legislators who voted to end marriage discrimination for same-sex couples lost their seats. The success of more than 1,100 supportive state legislators stood in bold contrast to the commonly held belief that supporting marriage equality ended political careers. In fact, these legislators were re-elected no matter what party they represented or if they changed their vote from opposing to supporting marriage equality. Even better, legislators who ran for higher office won after voting in favor of marriage for same-sex couples.

We also continued to work to bring non-gay allies into the movement and broaden our overall coalition of support.  In 2007, Freedom to Marry developed the Marriage Justice Project in conjunction with the California Conference of the NAACP and the National Black Justice Coalition, which enabled us to make considerable progress in creating dialogue and acceptance for the freedom to marry within the African-American community, and laid the foundation to eventually bring the NAACP onboard in support of the freedom to marry.

In 2009 in California, Project staff engaged African-Americans on marriage equality and increased African-American visibility and voices as opinion leaders. As a result individual African-Americans began conversations on a sometimes uncomfortable subject. The groundwork had been laid for the deeper and more extended personal conversations necessary to continue building on African-American support for gay family members and their full equality, including the freedom to marry, among the many causes our communities share. 

Within the national NAACP, we also achieved a number of “firsts” in 2009, including the first LGBT Task Force at the national level, the first workshop on LGBT issues and marriage equality at the national convention, and the first public support by the national NAACP for marriage-related resolutions in a state legislatures. Again, public discourse led to engagement. New allies were found; new networks were built; and a new relationship was begun with the leadership of the national NAACP. 

Many of those “firsts” grew out of a key meeting between the Marriage Justice Project’s leaders and NAACP Chairman Julian Bond and President Ben Jealous. As a result, Freedom to Marry and our partners were often in consultation with national NAACP staff on the communications related to the freedom to marry and other LGBT issues. 

Evan Wolfson, Julian Bond, Ben Jealous

Freedom to Marry worked closely with the NAACP, including Chairman Julian Bond and President Ben Jealous, in furtherance of marriage for same-sex couples.

We also began our outreach across the aisle, so-to-speak, by recruiting Republican Mayor Jerry Sanders of San Diego to our Voices of Equality program. In late 2007, a seemingly amazing news item came across the web.  In a reversal from his public opposition and even as he prepared to lauch his campaign for re-election, Mayor Sanders announced his intention to sign a resolution supporting the freedom to marry.  

Mayor Sanders' change of heart served as a model for what happens when people think about how exclusion from marriage affects real people – rather than just some abstract idea. Despite having said he would veto a City Council resolution joining San Diego to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and the other major cities in California on a brief urging the state Supreme Court to strike down marriage discrimination, Mayor Sanders wrestled, as many Americans have, with the question anew, and came down on the side of justice. He explained:

"I just could not bring myself to tell an entire group of people in our community that they were less important, less worthy and less deserving of the rights and responsibilities of marriage – than anyone else – simply because of their sexual orientation. ... The arrival of the resolution – to sign or veto – in my office late last night forced me to reflect and search my soul for the right thing to do. I have decided to lead with my heart -- to do what I think is right – and to take a stand on behalf of equality and social justice. The right thing for me to do is to sign this resolution."

I have decided to lead with my heart – to do what I think is right – and to take a stand on behalf of equality and social justice. The right thing for me to do is to sign this resolution.

Jerry Sanders, Mayer of San Diego

And it was especially revealing when Mayor Sanders said his change of heart and mind was due to soul-searching and personal conversations with gay people he knew, including his lesbian daughter. Mayor Sanders evolution demonstrated just how powerful it is to make the conversation about real people, not just legalisms or hypotheticals. It was also especially gratifying to know that even a politician with a staked out position who is about to run for reelection can change.  Our insistence that we are due only what is right, our perseverance, our stories and our conversations paid off – even with the most entrenched.

Finally, fulfilling our commitment to be a funding engine for state, local, and national marriage efforts, we invested over $1,100,000 in regrants, representing almost 20% of Freedom to Marry’s revenues for the period 2006 to 2009. 

All of this work, as noted above, led to considerable progress, as we ended 2009 with the freedom to marry in 5 states plus the District of Columbia.  And by 2010 national opinion polls showed majority support for the freedom to marry nationwide for the first time ever. Those results were achieved despite the passage of Prop 8 in California – in part, no doubt, because that loss so shook the complacency of many in the gay and non-gay communities and unleashed a powerful tide of energy, passion, action, and changed hearts and minds.  

Freedom to Marry responded to the evolving needs of the marriage movement in 2009 by agreeing to morph itself into the needed public-facing, national campaign to win the freedom to marry. Various efforts among movement stakeholders to “cobble together” such a campaign had fallen short, and many colleagues and funders who had resisted “anointing” Freedom to Marry now urged us to ramp up. Since Freedom to Marry’s founding in 2003, we had focused on supporting and strategizing with partner organizations across the country, and since 2003, the marriage movement had rapidly gained traction with a significant portion of the American public. What was needed more than ever was a unified campaign to mobilize those supporters toward a clear path. 

In 2009 we again articulated publicly exactly what that path was – a campaign to drive the national strategy, which we called The Roadmap to Victory. We had built and fostered a movement, and the successes as well as stumbles such as Prop 8 and DOMA had brought millions in. Now, to shepherd and leverage that movement, there remained a need for a central campaign that could drive the national strategy to victory. 

In less than 10 years, Freedom to Marry had achieved a great deal. But it was time for this campaign to nimbly evolve, become its own independent public-facing force, and provide the national capacities needed to effectively, affirmatively and aggressively pursue the Roadmap to Victory: building the critical mass of states and support and tackling federal discrimination in order to create the climate necessary for the final step, victory in the Supreme Court.