As a society in general, we tend to look back on the early ‘80s with a sense of nostalgia. After all, some of the best music and films were made during this time, fashion rocked, sports were on point and “must see TV” became a thing. This is, of course, a very liberal and idealistic viewing of that period in time, and one that overlooks wars, terrorist attacks, economic recessions and a litany of other negative events. This view also doesn’t make room for the fact that in the early 1980s you would be considered crazy by both straight and gay individuals alike to believe that same-sex marriage could become a reality in just a few decades. Well as we celebrate a year of equal marriage in the United States, I can’t help but think, “Thank goodness for the believers!”
Just who were these difference makers? The new documentary The Freedom to Marry highlights two of them and some of the team members who supported their dreams. This behind-the-scenes look into the Freedom to Marry campaign shows us the organization’s inner workings and how we got to that fateful day on June 26, 2015.
So that crazy individual I was referring to? That would be same-sex marriage activist Evan Wolfson, aka Mr. Marriage. Evan is the founder and president of Freedom to Marry (2003-2016) and largely considered the architect of the marriage equality movement in America. But back in 1983, he was a Harvard law student who wrote his thesis on the roadmap to same-sex marriage. And boy was he ridiculed.
While gay marriage attempts were made almost immediately following the Stonewall riots in 1969, almost no leaders in the gay rights movement were ready to fight for this. It just wasn’t on the radar in 1983. Then again, the AIDS crisis hadn’t hit its climax by then either.
The AIDS epidemic shattered the silence. The response, but mostly the lack thereof, proved once and for all that LGBT voices needed to be at the table. Same-sex marriage was now a talking point.
Where to start the conversation? Hawaii apparently. Evan was there in the early ‘90s to help argue the first successful court battle. But while Hawaii technically became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, President Bill Clinton’s signing of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 1996 made that decision null and void. But it did have its impact.
What happened in Hawaii is what convinced civil rights attorney Mary Bonauto (the future “godmother of the marriage movement”) that progress on this front could be made. Having come out in college and facing discrimination as a result, Mary shares in the film that she rejected many same-sex marriage litigation cases early on in her career. Hawaii, however, changed everything. It also put her in touch with Evan, with whom she formed an immediate kinship.
Working for GLAD (GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders), Mary would, of course, help win the Baker v. State of Vermont case in 1999, which resulted in the country’s first civil union law. She would then go on to be the lead counsel in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, which saw Massachusetts become the first state where same-sex couples could legally marry in 2004.
You might remember that what followed after was a bunch of states coming up with amendments to ban same-sex marriage. It became very apparent that efforts had to be centralized in order to fight the pushback and continue making gains. Evan’s Freedom to Marry organization became that centralized force. Understanding that to win in the courts they had to win in the court of public opinion, they decided they were going to win this thing state by state.
And that’s exactly what started to happen. Beginning in the summer of 2011 with the legalization of same-sex marriage in New York, many other states soon followed. In 2012, President Barack Obama endorsed same-sex marriage and in 2013, DOMA was ruled unconstitutional. Other wins would be racked up and before June 26, 2015, same-sex marriage was legal in over 35 states.
There were holdout states, of course, like Texas, where the Freedom to Marry campaign and this documentary spent a good deal of time in. You can’t win them all, especially with opponents willing to lie to manipulate the masses. Some of these individuals are featured in the film as well, including the co-founder and president of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), Brian Brown.
But there was no stopping the movement. Obergefell v. Hodges was the consolidation of lower-court cases from Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. Highlighted in the film are plaintiffs and partners April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse from Hazel Park, Michigan. Both nurses, they could not adopt the other’s children, who they had fostered, because they could not get legally married in Michigan. And while the federal district court ruled in their favor, the governor of Michigan appealed the decision. Enter their appeal and those of others to the United States Supreme Court and we eventually had what would become the Obergefell v. Hodges case. Mary would represent the plaintiffs, with her oral arguments being heard on April 28, 2015. Then began what felt like a very long wait.
If same-sex marriage was not to pass, experts predicted it would have set the movement back at least 10 years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Evan and Mary are shown talking about that very possibility. But, of course, that’s not what happened. Instead, just slightly more than a decade after Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, it was now the law of the land. No one was happier than the movement’s godparents.
Truly, we have the leaders of the marriage equality movement to thank for this victory and Evan and Mary certainly top that list. And, really, there’s no better time to celebrate them and our win than right now.