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After gay marriage was legalized, the best thing happened: I lost my job.

The president of Freedom to Marry talks winning marriage equality and what's next for the marriage movement.

After gay marriage was legalized, the best thing happened: I lost my job.
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Modern Love

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.


Me and my husband at our wedding in 2011. All photos used with permission.

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.

Our staff on June 26, 2015.

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?”


Me after the Supreme Court victory, at our offices.

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.

Me and my husband at our wedding in 2011.

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.

Photo courtesy of Yoplait
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When Benny Mendez asked his middle school P.E. students why they wanted to participate in STOKED—his new after school program where kids can learn to skateboard, snowboard, and surf—their answers surprised him.

I want to be able to finally see the beach, students wrote. I want to finally be able to see the snow.

Never having seen snow is understandable for Mendez's students, most who live in Inglewood, CA, just outside of Los Angeles. But never having been to the beach is surprising, since most of them only live 15-20 minutes from the ocean. Mendez discovered many of them don't even know how to swim.

"A lot of the kids shared that they just want to go on adventures," says Mendez. "They love nature, but...they just see it in pictures. They want to be out there."

Mendez is in his third year of teaching physical education at View Park K-8 school, one of seven Inner City Foundation Education schools in the Los Angeles area. While many of his students are athletically gifted, Mendez says, they often face challenges outside of school that limit their opportunities. Some of them live in neighborhoods where it's unsafe to leave their houses at certain times of day due to gang activity, and many students come to his P.E. class with no understanding of why learning about physical health is important.

"There's a lot going on at home [with my students]," says Mendez. "They're coming from either a single parent home, or foster care. There's a lot of trauma behind what's going on at home...that is out of our control."

Photo courtesy of Yoplait

What Mendez can control is what he gives his students when they're in his care, which is understanding, some structure, and the chance to try new things. Mendez wakes up at 4:00 a.m. most days and often doesn't get home until 9:00 p.m. as he works tirelessly to help kids thrive. Not only does he run after school programs, but he coaches youth soccer on the weekends as well. He also works closely with other teachers and guidance counselors at the school to build strong relationships with students, and even serves as a mentor to his former students who are now in high school.

Now Mendez is earning accolades far and wide for his efforts both in and out of the classroom, including a surprise award from Yoplait and Box Tops for Education.

Yoplait and Box Tops are partnering this school year to help students reach their fullest potential, which includes celebrating teachers and programs that support that mission. Yoplait is committed to providing experiences for kids and families to connect through play, so teaming up with Box Tops provided an opportunity to support programs like STOKED.

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Ndakasi and Virunga National Park ranger André Bauma.

Fourteen years ago, Ndakasi the mountain gorilla was found clinging to her dead mother in the Congo after bushmeat hunters wiped out her entire family. This week it was announced that she recently passed away in the arms of Virunga National Park ranger André Bauma, the man who rescued her.

Bauma served as Ndakasi's caretaker since he brought her to the park's Senkwekwe Center, where she was rehabilitated along with another orphaned gorilla named Ndeke. Unable to be safely returned to the wild, Ndakasi lived her life in Virunga, where mountain gorilla conservation is a priority.

The park shared a touching photo and announcement of Ndakasi's passing on Facebook. The gorilla had been suffering from a prolonged illness, and her condition had rapidly deteriorated. A photo shows Bauma sitting on a blanket leaning up against the wall with Ndakasi lying next to him, her head on his chest and her toes gripping his boot.

"Ndakasi took her final breath in the loving arms of her caretaker and lifelong friend, André Bauma," reads the post.

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When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!