by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Genius, the great inventor Thomas A. Edison was fond of saying, is “two percent inspiration and 98 percent perspiration.” The same could be said of political and social activism. That’s the lesson vividly brought home in Marc Solomon’s new book Winning Marriage. A 20-year veteran of the struggle for marriage equality for same-sex couples and currently the national campaign director for Freedom to Marry, Solomon has seen such a rapid growth of support for the cause that people who used to tell him it was “impossible” are now convinced it’s “inevitable.” But, as Solomon explained both in his book and his December 5, 2014 appearance at the San Diego Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center to promote it, “impossible” and “inevitable” are both dangerous words to use about a movement because they discourage people from doing the hard work needed to change a lost cause into a winning one.
“I wanted to show that campaign work — and civil rights work, ultimately — is hard work,” Solomon said at the Center. “It’s sort of a slog. We need visionaries, we need a big principle to be fighting for, but when it comes down to it it’s going out and talking to people whom you’d rather not be talking to. It’s having these difficult conversations with people. It’s not holding rallies in Hillcrest; it’s going out to Riverside and San Bernardino Counties and having tough conversations with voters and talking about why marriage is important to you. Here in California, it was picking up after the most devastating loss that we all felt” — the passage of Proposition 8 in November 2008, which canceled marriage equality in this state for nearly five years — “and people like Jacqueline Palmer with Equality California, who started organizing volunteers in San Diego to go out to those suburban and rural communities, and having those conversations, engaging people at the door and building ongoing popular support.”
Solomon divided his book into five major sections: the campaign to preserve the Massachusetts court decision for marriage equality, announced November 18, 2003, from four years’ worth of efforts by opponents to reverse it either in the legislature or at the ballot box; the effort to get the New York state legislature, including a Republican-dominated State Senate, to pass a marriage equality bill in 2011; the steady triumph of anti-marriage initiatives at the polls in 2004 and 2008 until hard work by activists in four states — Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington — reversed the trend and won marriage rights at the polls; the lobbying campaign to get President Obama to “evolve” on the issue and support marriage equality; and the U.S. Supreme Court rulings in 2013 declaring part of the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act” unconstitutional and throwing out Proposition 8 on a technicality.
But the Massachusetts section is by far the longest, the most detailed and the most moving — largely because it was not only the campaign in which Solomon was most deeply and intensely involved but it’s the one on which he cut his teeth as a marriage activist and which taught him what worked and what didn’t. The Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that not allowing same-sex couples to marry violated the equal-protection clauses of their state’s constitution. But opponents were confident that they could amend the constitution to restore marriage inequality. They had two options: they could get the state legislature to pass an anti-marriage amendment in two successive sessions and thereby place it before voters; or they could circulate an initiative petition. But, unlike in California, the initiative would not go before the ballot unless at least 25 percent of the legislators in both houses approved it.
At first, it seemed like virtually a done deal that the constitutional amendment would be approved by the legislators and put before the voters. Just about every major elected official in Massachusetts from both major parties, including Republican Governor Mitt Romney and Democratic Senator (and 2004 Presidential nominee) John Kerry, were against the Massachusetts court decision. So was the Roman Catholic Church, a potent political force in the state that supplied the only Catholic President in U.S. history. The state’s Catholic hierarchy formed an unprecedented alliance with the Protestant-dominated radical religious Right to repeal the marriage decision — and they were strongly supported by African-American ministers who argued (as many later would in California during the Proposition 8 campaign) that the Queer community was “belittling” the African-American civil rights struggle by invoking it as a model.
Meanwhile, as Solomon recalled in his book, the grass-roots activist groups seeking to defend the decision were underfunded and split by long-standing antagonisms. Solomon said that when he first started going to meetings of MassEquality, the coalition formed to protect the court decision, “I was shocked at the level of acrimony between leaders who were all ostensibly working for the same thing.” Solomon demanded that MassEquality hire a paid coordinator and concentrate on lobbying the legislators. They got one lucky break; some legislators who opposed the marriage decision were willing to compromise and create a separate “civil union” status for Queer couples, while other opponents — including the Catholic church — weren’t willing to give same-sex couples any legal recognition.
But the biggest thing the Massachusetts activists did was to recruit same-sex couples themselves to meet with legislators and put a personal face on the marriage issues. If Solomon’s book has any true heroes — and it has several — the most heart-wrenching and moving ones are Deb Grzyb and Sharon Murphy, who lived in the rural town of Charlton. They’d been a couple for 24 years when they married almost immediately after the Massachusetts courts allowed them to, but according to Solomon, until then “they’d told next to no one they were Lesbians or a couple. In fact, a few days after they applied for their wedding license, they each raced around the state coming out to family members … because they’d learned the local paper was going to print the names of all those who had applied. They were glad there were activists who fought for equality for Gay people. But that just wasn’t who they were.”
That changed dramatically when officials from MassEquality realized that Gryzb and Murphy were just about the only married Lesbians or Gays in the district of state senator Steve Brewer, whose vote the group’s political strategists thought would be crucial. They got a meeting with a member of Brewer’s staff, which went well but didn’t give them any indication of how Brewer would vote. Then they were asked by MassEquality officials to set up a meeting with Brewer himself. Though they were terrified, Solomon said, “the middle-aged senator welcomed them into his office. He’d served in the Senate for 16 years …
“Sharon took the lead,” Solomon wrote. “She told the senator that the two of them were regular people who lived in Charlton, both working for one employer … for nearly their whole careers. They’d met in Boston 25 years before; it was love at first sight, and two months later Sharon had moved in with Deb at her home in Dudley, where they lived today. In a million years, they never expected to be able to get married. But now that they were married, Sharon explained, they recognized how important marriage was for their relationship.” Brewer listened patiently, occasionally interjected, told them he’d attended the wedding of a close friend to her same-sex partner, and finally told them that though he didn’t want them to release the information publicly, he was going to vote against amending the constitution to ban same-sex marriages.
The California Debacle
Though there were other decisive elements — including MassEquality’s hiring of Gay Republican organizer Patrick Guerriero to lobby GOP representatives on the issue and help build the three-quarters legislative majority that would keep the anti-marriage initiative off the Massachusetts ballot, and a largely successful electoral campaign to target the legislature’s most vehement marriage opponents and replace them with Queer or Queer-friendly candidates — Solomon came away from the Massachusetts campaign convinced that the best advocates for marriage equality for same-sex couples were same-sex couples themselves and their families. It was a lesson lost on the activists in California who tried to defeat Proposition 8 in 2008. Though Solomon didn’t come to California until the closing weeks of the Proposition 8 campaign, he viewed the No on 8 TV commercials from afar in Boston — and he didn’t like what he saw.
“Most of our side’s ads looked like typical political spots,” Solomon recalled. “Our side needed to make the most emotionally compelling case we could. However, that’s not what I thought we were doing. The arguments we were using in the ads appealed to the head: protecting the Constitution, highlighting the support of key elected [officials], and protecting fundamental rights in the abstract. They didn’t elicit emotions. Our opponents were masterful at conjuring up fears about what would happen to society, to the institution of marriage, and to the family if Gays were allowed to marry. The only antidote to fear was love, empathy, connection, and an appeal to people’s better angels. That required using real people talking poignantly about why marriage was important to their family — their parents, their children, and themselves. If we didn’t evoke those emotions in a powerful way, I felt, we’d be in serious trouble.”
Solomon said he tried to share some of these concerns with the people running No on 8, but he was circumspect about his advice. Having been successful at keeping the marriage issue off the ballot in Massachusetts, he’d never actually worked on an initiative campaign, while the No on 8 campaign’s consultants “had multiple victories on thorny social issues in California. … I was wary of ‘armchair quarterbacking’ — asserting based on my own different experiences that I knew what to do to win and that those in charge were getting it wrong.” Also, though both sides on Proposition 8 raised and spent about the same amount of money — $40 million each — according to Solomon, the No on 8 money didn’t really start coming in until the last two weeks of the campaign, once polls showed the original 15-point poll margin against it had disappeared and Queer and Queer-friendly activists and contributors in California realized they would quite possibly lose.
“Unpredictable last-minute money is difficult to put to good use,” Solomon warned. “Television buys need to be placed at least a few days in advance, ideally as part of a well thought-out sequencing plan. So the No on 8 campaign was scurrying to put in place last-minute paid phone-calling programs until the night before the vote, trying desperately to spend as much as they were taking in.” Solomon recalled that after Proposition 8 won — ironically, in the same election as Barack Obama’s election as President, in which California gave him the electoral-vote majority that put him over the top — “I was devastated and knew the spirit of the Gay community — in California and nationally — would be broken until Proposition 8 was lifted. That meant we had to figure out how to win at the ballot.”
Getting It Right
According to Solomon’s account, the turning point that showed marriage equality activists how to win at the polls was the involvement of one of his book’s most interesting characters: Thalia Zepatos, a straight ally from Portland, Oregon and an experienced community organizer who in 2010, at age 54, took on the task of figuring out a winning strategy. Hired by Freedom to Marry as director of public engagement, Zepatos “spent much of 2010 culling through literally hundreds of polls and focus group reports from multiple marriage campaigns. In her second-floor home office, Thalia had stacks of yellow legal pads with her notes, the pages folded back on the sheets that had the most interesting tidbits. ‘I know this sounds silly,’ a middle-aged woman in northern California had said, ‘but I never thought about it — that Gay people could get old!’ Another, a man from Oregon, said, ‘I just don’t get it — why would a Gay person want to get married?’”
Drawing from her experience not only with No on 8 but a similarly unsuccessful attempt to defeat an anti-marriage initiative in her native Oregon in 2004, Zepatos came to the conclusion that one reason marriage equality campaigners kept losing at the ballot box was they were making their motives seem too mercenary. According to Solomon, she recalled that in the 2004 Oregon campaign, organizers went door-to-door with a leaflet “listing the rights and benefits that came with marriage and arguing that it was wrong to deny same-sex couples those rights. The reports back from the organizers were that voters seemed really uninterested. Instead they wanted to talk about the Lesbian physician on the popular television show ER. The character’s partner — a firefighter — died in the line of duty, and the physician faced a painful custody battle with the deceased partner’s parents. To Thalia, it was as if the campaign and voters were speaking two different languages: one, a list of benefits; and the other, a powerful human story about a committed couple and their family.”
One striking result from a poll in Oregon convinced Zepatos that the marriage equality movement had to change its messaging. The poll had asked Oregon voters, “Why do people like me get married?” An overwhelming majority — 72 percent — replied, “For love and commitment.” Only 18 percent said, “For rights and benefits.” When the same poll asked why same-sex couples got married, 42 percent of the respondents said “rights and benefits,” 36 percent said “love and commitment,” and 22 percent said they didn’t know. “What a huge disconnect this was,” Solomon recalled. “Straight people thought Gay couples had completely different reasons for wanting to get married than they did.”
Zepatos’ analysis suggested that the Queer community had focused too much on the material benefits straight couples got from marriage and they didn’t, and not enough on the values committed straight and Queer couples shared: what Solomon called a “deep and abiding love and commitment and a desire to profess that love and commitment in front of their family and friends and have it respected by the state.” It also argued that the best spokespeople for marriage equality were straight people who were close to same-sex couples — “parents, grandparents, clergy and neighbors” — who could talk about their own struggles to overcome their traditional notions of what “marriage” meant and accept their Queer children, grandchildren, parishioners and neighbors as equally entitled to the freedom to marry.
“There was no higher priority for me when joining Freedom to Marry than reversing our streak of losses at the polls,” Solomon recalled in his book. “It was the one talking point our opponents had that we couldn’t rebut: that every time this issue went to a popular vote, our side lost. And after shuttering the California ballot effort” — an attempt to put an initiative to repeal Proposition 8 on the 2010 ballot, abandoned when a group unaffiliated with California’s Queer establishment filed a federal lawsuit challenging it instead — “I was doubly hungry to help bring about a win at the ballot.” Solomon personally worked on the initiative in Maine, where a previous marriage-equality ballot measure had failed in 2009 with a namby-pamby campaign similar to No on 8’s. In November 2012, aided not only by the new messaging strategy but the higher voter turnout in a Presidential election year, marriage equality won at the polls in Maine — and in Maryland, Minnesota and Washington.
The “Inevitability” Myth
Marc Solomon told his audience at the Center December 5 that he started thinking about a book on the marriage struggle right after the 2007 victory in Massachusetts, but as the community got more sophisticated on how to fight for marriage and public support grew, the story he had to tell also grew and changed. His final book included the struggle to get the New York legislature to pass a marriage equality bill — an often sordid tale of political egomania which can’t help but remind the reader of the old adage that laws are like sausages: you don’t want to watch either being made. It also includes the story of how an old friend of Michelle Obama’s became the key figure in lobbying her husband to “evolve” on the issue from opposing to supporting marriage equality.
“We’ve had so many victories over the course of the last five or six years,” Solomon told his audience at the Center. “A lot of people are now saying that we’re done. I want to caution against that notion. People say it’s ‘inevitable’ that we’re going to win. I think that in some ways it is inevitable, but the question of whether we’re going to win in 10 years or five years or two years or one year makes a big difference in the lives of same-sex couples in places like Texas, where it’s very difficult to adopt if you’re not married; or in Florida, where we’ve been working with a woman who got married in New York, moved back to Florida, and her partner passed away. She is now moving out of her house because of Social Security survivor’s benefits that don’t apply to married couples if you didn’t get married in the state where you reside. Then there are the human costs, including parents who are getting older and want to be able to go to their children’s weddings. There really is truth to the notion that justice delayed is justice denied.”
Solomon said he and a lot of other marriage-equality activists got “heartburn” when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who’s in her 80’s and who refused to retire despite calls for her to do so while the Democrats still controlled the Presidency and the Senate, got a heart attack and was hospitalized late last year. He reminded his audience that the Supreme Court’s 2013 Windsor decision invalidating the part of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act that denied federal recognition of same-sex marriages was decided by a 5-4 vote — and if Ginsburg dies or retires while a Republican President is in office and the GOP controls the Senate, her replacement is likely to swing the next marriage equality decision 5-4 against us.
“When people talk about ‘inevitability,’ I think back to where we started about a decade ago when so many people said, ‘It’s impossible,’” Solomon said at the Center. “‘Impossible’ and ‘inevitable’ have a lot in common. They both allow you not to work. If something is ‘impossible,’ you don’t have to do anything because it’s impossible. And if something is ‘inevitable,’ then of course you don’t have to do anything because it’s going to happen anyway. The sweet spot of this movement, and the sweet spot of any real movement, is between ‘impossible’ and ‘inevitable,’ and doing the work to make what many people think of as ‘impossible’ happen and make it inevitable. So let’s not let up. We have great momentum, but we still have one-third of the country where same-sex couples can’t marry. Let’s finish the job, and then we can have a big party and celebrate the ‘inevitability’ of it being done. But we shouldn’t move on or rest and say, ‘It’s going to happen on its own,’ because even with powerful momentum, this stuff really doesn’t happen on its own.”