What's Next for Marriage Equality?

In case you missed it, Team Marriage Equality just won five different statewide votes (I’m counting the Iowa race, where NOM failed in its attempt to recall one of the Supreme Court justices who voted for equal marriage). Okay, so maybe you heard. Everyone and her brother has been reporting on the ballot breakthrough, including me in my most giddily Tiggerish incarnation.

There’s been some fabulous reporting on what made the difference. Chris Geidner at Buzzfeed wrote a careful report on the behind-the-scenes research and the shift in emphasis in the messaging, which is well worth reading in full. Here’s a snippet:

Among the key changes were a shift away from talk of "rights" to a focus on committed relationships; a decision to address "values" directly as being learned at home; and an attempt to give voters "permission" to change their minds….

The research was sponsored by Third Way — a centrist Democratic think tank — that conducted an extended round of surveys beginning in September 2010 "aimed at answering a single question: How do we most effectively persuade people in the middle to support relationship recognition for gay and lesbian couples, including marriage?"

Meanwhile, I’m sure you’ve been wondering: What comes next? Will the forces of marriage equality race off to every ballot box in America, ready to undo the injustice of those previous 32 votes?

Um, no. Changing laws by referendum is expensive. It’s risky. It’s exhausting. According to HRC, the four marriage campaigns placed more than 4 million phone calls and knocked on more than half a million doors; that added up to one-on-one conversations with more than one million voters. More than 30,000 people volunteered for one of the campaigns; more than 110,000 people donated. The pro-equality side raised $32.7 million, almost three times as much as the anti-equality side’s $11.3 million. (By the way, the biggest donors for the marriage equality side were HRC at $5,046,552 and Freedom to Marry at $3,156,216, which was roughly equal to the money donated by the National Organization for Marriage at $5,246,660, the Catholic Church at $1,297,229 and the Knights of Columbus at $662,287. Outside donors – like Jeff Bezos, Michael Bloomberg, Bill and Melinda Gates, and hundreds of small donors – voted with their wallets for my freedom to marry.)

Meanwhile, I cannot even imagine the toll it takes on families, as children with two moms or two dads listen to their family’s worth being debated on television. Once the underlying social justice logjam has been broken by a couple of brave judges, updating the marriage laws is a legislature’s job. Yes, in a few places, going to the ballot will be the only way to undo the constitutional amendments defining marriage as between one man and one woman. But the marriage equality forces do have general plans for the next couple of years. Here’s a quick rundown.


1. Waiting to exhale: California.

By Monday we should know whether or not the Supreme Court has decided to hear the appeal on Prop 8. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals already ruled that Prop 8—which stopped California’s same-sex marriages—was unconstitutional for reasons that apply only to California. If the Supreme Court does not take Perry v. Brown, California will immediately shift over to the marriage equality column. If the Court does take Perry, we won’t know about California for months. Cross your fingers.

2. Goal: Pass marriage via legislature.

  • Illinois: The push is on to get this through the legislature. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel has thrown himself behind the effort.
  • Minnesota: On November 6, voters not only rejected the DOMA amendment, but they also kicked out the legislature’s Tea Party Republicans, which had put the amendment on the ballot. Now that the legislature is controlled by Democrats, Minnesotans United for All Families will be pushing to pass an equal marriage statute.
  • New Jersey: In February, the Democratic legislature passed a marriage equality law, which Governor Chris Christie vetoed. The legislature has until 2014 to override the veto. Freedom to Marry and Garden State Equality think they will do that, putting New Jersey in the equal column by 2014.
  • Rhode Island: The last of the New England states without equality—and the most heavily Catholic American state, at nearly 59 percent—will try to pass an equal marriage law this year. The state already recognizes same-sex marriages performed elsewhere, which means any Rhode Island couple could get in the car and drive for an hour in any direction (except east, of course) to be able to marry. But the House speaker says he’ll call for a vote this coming year.
  • Others: The legislatures in Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, and Nevada may also be up for the task, if not by 2014 then by 2016.

3. Goal: Pass marriage via ballot initiative.

  • In 2004, Oregon voters passed a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. While the state now has a strong domestic partnership law, the legislature can’t go any farhter with that DOMA in place. Basic Rights Oregon has been organizing and educating citizens for several years now, trying the Maine one-by-one-by-one strategy of changing minds through individual in-depth conversations. This past election cycle, they chose not to go to the ballot yet, feeling that public opinion wasn’t yet strong enough. If they move the needle a few more points before November 2014, they’ll reevaluate whether they can take the risk of putting it on the ballot without the turnout boost they’d get in a presidential election year.

4. Marriage lawsuits.

  • The Supreme Court should let us know on Monday which (if any) of the lawsuits against DOMA section 3 it will hear; by 2013, God willing, I expect to be filing both my state and federal taxes as married. LGBT groups are suing for the freedom to marry in Nevada, New Jersey, and Illinois; with any luck, the New Jersey and Illinois lawsuits won’t be necessary. 


Those are the plans, now, and I’ll be reporting in a more indepth way on the states in weeks to come. But remember that saying: Man plans, God laughs. (Please excuse the sexism and enjoy the phrasing’s emphatic dactyls.) Something unexpected will change in the landscape, as it always does. But as long as everyone keeps doing the work—check out Freedom to Marry’s Win More States Fund, if you want to contribute—we’ll keep winning.

A month ago I couldn’t have imagined winning four ballot measures. Today, I can easily imagine that four years from today, same-sex couples will be getting married in 20 states or more—and by 2020, throughout the nation.

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