The president of Freedom to Marry talks winning marriage equality and what's next for the marriage movement.
In 2011, after we won the freedom to marry in New York, I was finally able to marry my fiancé of 10 years in the city we called home.
At that time, I was president of Freedom to Marry, the campaign to win marriage equality nationwide, and I had already been making the case for ending the exclusion of same-sex couples for nearly 30 years.
In coverage of our wedding, I quoted the old Sy Sperling TV ad: “I'm not just the Hair Club president; I'm also a client.”
On June 26, 2015, we made it possible for all Americans to share in the same freedom to marry that my husband and I celebrated.
When the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the freedom to marry for same-sex couples a year ago, it reflected an epic transformation first in the hearts and minds of the American people, and then the law.
Winning in the Supreme Court was the culmination of more than four decades of work. It was a milestone globally — for all Americans, for the LGBT movement, and also for me, personally.
The victory brought affirmation, security, dignity, and happiness to millions: same-sex couples, our children, our parents, our friends and families. It was a vindication of America’s promise, a resonant example heard round the world of the United States living up to its human rights ideals. And the victory marked a resounding triumph for our strategy and campaign.
More than a million gay people are now legally married in the United States. That’s a hell of a lot of happiness and love.
For me, this triumph also meant that after 32 years of pushing, preaching, and pursuing a vision and strategy to win the freedom to marry, I was going to get a second act.
But before figuring out what that would be — What else do I want to do? What else can I do? — I plunged into fulfilling a promise we had made as we built Freedom to Marry: get the job done and then smartly, strategically, collaboratively close down.
From the get-go, we made it clear that while the work of this Freedom to Marry campaign was done, the work of the LGBT movement, and so many causes, is far from over.
Because we knew even a year ago that it would be crucial to build on the marriage victory, and to sustain and harness the marriage conversation that is the gift that keeps on giving, we didn’t just summarily close down. Freedom to Marry’s board and staff got to work, carefully archiving and sharing our resources, including the launch of a new “legacy and lessons” website that lives on at freedomtomarry.org.
We distributed the bulk of our remaining assets to key partner organizations, while dedicating a portion to launch a new Freedom to Marry Global Fund that is now beginning to advance the cause around the world. We helped place our A-team staff in other good-guy jobs, including with campaigns such as Freedom for All Americans, modeled on the Freedom to Marry playbook to secure nondiscrimination protections.
Then, we joyfully, nostalgically, proudly, gratefully shut our doors.
Freedom to Marry’s last official day was Feb. 29, 2016. On that Leap Day, I took a leap into a new chapter of my life, too.
Since my law school thesis back in 1983, I’d focused on why we should have the freedom to marry and why we should fight for it. Now we had won, and I was suddenly faced with the question (helpfully posed and re-posed to me by seemingly hundreds of friends and strangers): “What’s next?”
One of the happy consequences of success is that many people want to learn how you did it.
I decided that for a time, at least, rather than jumping to take charge of a new thing, I wanted to respond to the many requests for advice and assistance I was getting from diverse movements, causes, and countries eager to share the lessons to be learned from our campaign.
In my new life chapter, I was determined, I wanted to learn and contribute even more widely — not just marriage, not just LGBT, and not just the U.S.
Now, I teach law and social change at Georgetown Law, and have an affiliation with Dentons, the world's largest law firm. I am called on to advise organizations on a wide range of issues: gun control, women's rights, reproductive rights, campaign finance, voting rights, environment, education reform, labor, animal rights, death penalty, and philanthropy. I also still assist with ongoing LGBT priorities, too (such as securing nondiscrimination protections, combatting religious exemptions, and assuring good lives, as well as good laws).
As someone who’s spent most of his career suing the government, it’s been a thrilling turnaround to be invited to work with several U.S. embassies in the last year as well.
I've met with local advocates and made the case for the freedom to marry in countries as diverse as Austria, Japan, and, most recently, Cuba.
We must pursue explicit protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
At every level — federal, state, and local, and in businesses, and through legislatures, agencies, and the courts — a next priority, I said, for our movement is to pursue explicit protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in important arenas such as employment, housing, education, and public accommodations such as restaurants, businesses, and, yes, bathrooms.
Advances and voices against discrimination and exclusion, through the law and through cultural embrace, help reduce the kinds of hate, fear, and exploitation we still see too often — whether in recent battles over anti-civil-rights legislation in North Carolina, Mississippi, and Indiana, or in the apparent pathology that a killer, armed with weapons of carnage, carried into a gay dance club in Orlando, ending 49 beautiful lives and shattering many others.
The Orlando shooting was a reminder of how much toxicity, how much vulnerability, and how much violence gay and transgender people still face in the U.S., and in cultures and countries around the world.
But listening to the friends and family members of the victims speaking so articulately and passionately at vigils and on TV, and seeing the solidarity among LGBTQ, Latino/a, and Muslim leaders, among so many others, is also a heartening reminders of how far we have come and what we can do together.
There is so much seemingly on the wrong track here in the U.S. and globally, and there is so much more to do.
Though I am no longer the Hair Club president, I am still moved by the people who every day share their journeys and stories of their lives and their weddings with me.
They show me pictures of their families, their children, and their friends, and I am gratified at the ways in which their lives have been lifted and their belief in the power of change restored by America’s living up to its promise.
How wonderful to be able to offer proof that people can rise to fairness, that we each can make a difference, and that together we can make a better world.