In 2014, we’re standing on the cusp of winning the freedom to marry. But how did we come to be witnesses to this moment in history? Who is responsible for this rapid change, and why have they been so successful?
I’m in the process of writing a book about some unlikely allies, drawn together by history, to fuel a generation’s defining cultural revolution. You can read more about the project here. And scroll down for some highlights, including quotes, photos, and artifacts from the journey.
All quotes are excerpted from exclusive interviews with Matt Baume.
Let’s start at the San Francisco weddings of 2004, with grassroots activists (our heroes) prepping for a protest action that’s become a yearly tradition: requesting a marriage license on Valentine’s Day, getting turned down, and sitting in the clerk’s office until they’re arrested. They’ve done it for years, and by 2004 they’re pretty sure they know what to expect. But they’re wrong.
Kate Kendell, Executive Director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights:
I was sitting in front of my kid’s school, getting ready to go in and pick my daughter up from preschool, and my cellphone rang. And I picked it up and it was Steve Kawa, who was then Mayor Gavin Newsom’s Chief of Staff. … “Kate, I’m just calling to give you a heads-up that on Monday morning the Mayor’s going to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.” And I was stunned.
On Valentine’s Day, 2004, to everyone’s shock the clerk says “yes,” and before anyone knows what’s happening, hundreds of gays are getting married. For the next few days thousands of couples scramble to City Hall to obtain a license that nobody’s quite sure is actually legal. It’s a magical moment in the city, with love everywhere you turn … until the courts intervene, halt the weddings mid-ceremony, and invalidate every license issued. The party’s over, but now the gay community’s finally had its first taste of equality — and it wants more. But how did we get here? Let’s jump back to the distant past (the 1970s) when gay marriage was such an impossible crazy dream that it only occurred to the most radical of gays to ask for it.
Weird protest actions, idiosyncratic activists, aggressive stunts and summarily-dismissed legal challenges characterize the early fight for marriage. This was the first time in living memory that gay people could even hope to be open, and with that openness came a glimpse of what could be: not just to be left alone by the mainstream, but to actually join it.
Two men asked Boulder City Clerk Clela Rorex for a marriage license in 1975. Her response:
I don’t know if I can issue you a marriage license. But if you give me a few days, I can find out. And if I can do it, I will do it.
And so in the 1970s began decades of agonizing work, with every incremental advance tempered by an agonizing setback. At first, only a tiny handful of brave radicals were bold enough to talk about marriage, and they were met with incredulity by gays and straights alike. But through the devastation of the ’80s and the determination of the ’90s, continually besieged by anti-gay forces, our heroes manage to build a massive legal apparatus.
Meanwhile, anti-gay forces operate in secret to oppose them.
This brings us back to 2008. After four years of punishing litigation that followed the 2004 SF marriages, the California Supreme Court grants Californians the freedom to marry.
It’s a breathtaking victory, and marriages begin immediately. The magical glow of marriage that washed over San Francisco in 2004 returns, this time sweeping across the entire state in the summer of 2008. But behind the scenes, equality organizers are scrambling to protect their win. Over the last few years, they’ve caught glimpses of a shadowy opposition assembling a massive legal apparatus of their own, and the triumph for equality could easily lead to an even bigger loss.
Some enemies are well-known: anti-gay polemicists, red-meat politicians, and cunning strategists. But others are far more mysterious: stealthy legal manipulators, phony front groups, and closed-door religious leaders are out there, but their identities and activities remain unknown. While thousands of couples scramble to marry during 2008′s “summer of love,” the marriage equality stalwarts prepare for the onslaught of a ballot campaign. It is even worse than they feared. The opposition has seemingly endless resources — where are they coming from? Marriage equality organizers thought they were ready for a fight, but nothing could have prepared them for this. Our heroes’ wonky legal machinery is useless in the face of a towering public campaign of misinformation and fear.
But the worst part is that our No-On-8 campaign seems to be disregarding knowledge accumulated by the organizers who’ve been working on the ground for years.
We had all these conversations like, “I can’t believe this, they’re not showing gay people in our ads, they’re telling our chapter leaders to shut up and not to do these events, they don’t want us to do the marriage counter events.” All these things that’s counter to everything we knew was right.
The 2008 campaign for marriage flounders from one strategy to another, undermined by infighting and mismanagement, but nothing works.
One of the mistakes was giving so much over to the consultants. … Around the table on the executive committee and, on the campaign committee, were people who had a lot more experience on marriage than any consultant has. We’ve done it. We’ve moved people on marriage. We know what it takes. I think we made a mistake by not requiring that we were part of the conversations on messaging in the ads.
Prop 8 passes in November of 2008. Marriage is over. Or is it? Just when the fight for equality hits its lowest point, a wave of newly-minted activists rises up.
It was 3am, 4am, something like that, when we’d gone down to the local Rite-Aid, and just literally got Crayola paint and Q-tips and painted on our first shot.
Days after the 2008 vote, huge crowds appear in a surge of grassroots action that nobody saw coming. People who never thought to care about gay marriage suddenly find themselves compelled to take action.
Amy Balliett, co-founder of Join the Impact:
When I realized I was gay, I saw a speech from the executive director of GLSEN. I was 16. And I said to myself, “I want to be that person one day. I want to be an activist through and through at all times.” And it’s not an easy job. So I am glad to have it behind me.
As the exhausted Prop 8 campaigners withdraw to rest, the new guard takes up the mantle with marches and direct action. These new groups are as scrappy and unseasoned as the activists of the ’70s, and their actions are even more chaotic: there’s anger, sorrow and inexperience, and some of the new strategies (and strategists) are at odds with each other. Conflicts flare between the inexperienced activist groups.
The resolve of the new movement is tested by ongoing losses and exhaustion. Despite the intensity of the newcomers, the opponents have the upper hand when it comes to resources, power and public support. Equality activists remain mired in post-campaign chaos, and opponents use that to rack up additional victories. But after these early blows, the enemy begins to falter: anti-gay groups lose major fights in other states, and now the forces of equality in California can see what victory looks like from afar. They might not have figured out exactly how to win yet, but they won’t give up fighting.
Then, from out of nowhere, The American Foundation for Equal Rights reveals itself. The organization was secretly founded just weeks after the passage of Proposition 8, and for months has been stealthily crafting a secret weapon that could incapacitate the opposition. Their plan: to use the two most powerful lawyers in the country to take a case against Prop 8 all the way to the United States Supreme Court. It’s a bold, risky move — if it goes wrong, it could set the cause back by a decade or more. But if they succeed, it could catapult the nation to victory.
The surprise announcement creates ill will and hostility amongst the more experienced organizers, and at first the chaos is worse than ever. But soon, consensus emerges behind a winning strategy: combining a bipartisan coalition, grassroots determination, and the expertise of veteran activists. Lessons from past losses and recent successes would seem to indicate that this is, at last, the secret recipe for success. But it’s an uneasy alliance, with all parties struggling to overcome a mutual distrust, to relinquish some control, and to learn to work together.
Years pass as our heroes prepare for another showdown. And then, in late 2012, the new multi-pronged strategy is put to the test with major ballot battles in four different states. Our heroes have lost dozens of similar fights in the past, but this time the expectations are upended and they win every single one. The evolved strategy — a combination of bipartisanship, grassroots, and long-term planning – is vindicated. Marriage equality leaders have brought powerful new tactics to familiar battlegrounds, and now victory appears to be finally within reach.
As multiple marriage cases reach the Supreme Court, the age of marriage bans is clearly near its end. And in the last days of the fight are the echoes of the past: the dreams of the earliest activists, the elation of San Francisco’s renegade weddings, and the deferred equality of Proposition 8. And it’s all thanks to a tapestry woven by generations of activists — drawn from wildly different worlds but each united by an inner call for justice and equality.
From our forebears, we inherited the far-fetched dream of marriage equality; to the future, we leave the reality of that dream fulfilled.