How our protests won marriage equality

June 14, 2017

Keegan O’Brien explains how an upsurge of activism led to a sea change in public opinion--and a victory for civil rights that had seemed distant just a few years earlier.

GAY MARRIAGE leads to "the deterioration of marriage and the family" and "societal collapse." Keeping same-sex couples from marrying isn't discrimination, but simply enforcing "God's idea." These are just a few of the ugly statements by Vice President and religious bigot Mike Pence about marriage equality.

And it doesn't stop there. In 2015, Trump's second-hand man signed a "religious freedom" law as governor of Indiana that gave permission to businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ people.

During his short time in office, Trump has already come close to implementing a similar executive order, but he was forced to back down after a series of humiliating defeats on other issues and pressure from LGBTQ organizations.

With Trump and Pence controlling the White House and a Republican majority in Congress, it's understandable that millions of LGBTQ people, their family, friends and supporters are fearful that rights won in recent years will be rolled back.

There's no predicting what will happen in the next four years, but with LGBTQ rights under threat in the Trump era, it's important to look back at how marriage equality was won--and generalize the lessons for the struggles ahead.

More than 200,000 people raised their voices for LGBT equality
More than 200,000 people raised their voices for LGBT equality (Kit Lyons)

IT'S HARD to overstate how profoundly social attitudes and legal rights for LGBTQ people in the U.S. have advanced in the past 20 years. In order to understand where we've come from and how we've gotten here, some history is in order.

In 1992, in response to pressure from the gay and lesbian movement and AIDS activists, Democratic President Bill Clinton ran on a platform of supporting gay rights. But on February 1994, only a year into his first term, Clinton turned his back on the LGBT community and caved to the religious right, instituting the military's "don't ask, don't tell policy that prohibited gays and lesbians from coming out in the country's largest employer.

Then, in September 1996, in response to a ruling by the Hawaii Supreme Court opening the door to legalizing same-sex marriage, Clinton signed the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defined marriage for federal purposes as a union between a man and women. DOMA also allowed states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriage granted in other states. It passed the House and Senate by veto-proof, bipartisan majorities.

The LGBTQ movement encountered major setbacks in the 1990s with these policies and laws that were supported by a supposed Democratic "ally."

But important social and cultural shifts were underway during the late 1990s and early 2000s that couldn't be reversed: More people, especially millennials, were coming out. As time went on and more and more Americans now knew someone who was LGBT, the future of discriminatory laws became more and more untenable.

On November 18, 2003, history was made when Massachusetts became the first state to legalize gay marriage.

In the case of Goodridge v. Health Department, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples had the right to marry. The court's ruling stated in unambiguous terms that separate was not equal:

The Massachusetts Constitution affirms the dignity and equality of all individuals. It forbids the creation of second-class citizens...We declare that barring an individual from the protections, benefits and obligations of civil marriage solely because that person would marry a person of the same sex violates the Massachusetts Constitution.

Despite attempts to delay implementation of the ruling by anti-gay Republican Gov. Mitt Romney--later the Republican candidate for president--and homophobic state legislators of both parties, the movement beat the bigots. On May 17, 2004, the first marriage licenses were issued to same-sex couples in Massachusetts.

Over time, more people realized that far from leading to "societal collapse," marriage equality was a guarantee of basic civil rights.

The victory in Massachusetts inspired a wave of protests for marriage equality in towns and cities across the country.

In San Francisco, thousands of couples lined up for marriage licenses when Mayor Gavin Newsom defied California's discriminatory state law banning gay marriage and ordered the county clerk's office to begin issuing licenses to same-sex couples. This continued until the state Supreme Court stepped in.

But beyond exceptions like Newsom, the Democratic Party worked to shut down the new movement for same-sex marriage. Marriage equality activists were accused of being divisive and told to get behind John Kerry's unsuccessful presidential campaign in 2004, despite the fact that Kerry opposed marriage equality.

The best-known openly gay member of Congress, Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank, told couples in San Francisco that the "timing wasn't right." "When you're in a real struggle, San Francisco making a symbolic point becomes a diversion," he lectured.

Not only did Kerry lose to Bush in the 2004 election, but 11 states passed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage in that vote, taking the total number of states with anti-gay marriage laws to 38. Once again, the strategy of relying on the Democratic Party proved to be an enormous failure.

FOUR YEARS later, the fight for marriage equality entered a new phase.

In June 2008, the California Supreme Court overturned its previous ruling and legalized same-sex marriage. Thousands of couples began receiving marriage licenses.

But the victory was short-lived. On Election Night in November, as the country was celebrating the election of the first African American president, Californians learned that Proposition 8, a ballot measure funded by the Religious Right and Mormon Church, had passed, overturning the state Supreme Court ruling and once again banning same-sex marriage.

This time, though, the response was immediate and overwhelming. Starting on Election Night itself, hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands poured into the streets in cities across California and around the country for the largest protests for marriage equality yet.

Young LGBTQ activists new to organizing took the lead, and the movement spread largely through the Internet. Generation Stonewall 2.0 took matters into their own hands, motivated by the gap between increasing social acceptance of LGBTQ people on the one hand and the persistence of legal discrimination on the other.

In the face of spreading protests, Barack Obama came out against Prop 8, but maintained his shameful opposition to gay marriage. Obama, the son of an interracial couple, hypocritically declared that marriage was a "state's rights" issue, using the same rhetoric once spouted by segregationists to oppose civil rights for African Americans.

The established LGBT organizations were ill-equipped to respond to the task at hand--and caught completely caught off guard by the outpouring of protests against Prop 8. To fill the vacuum, new activist groups emerged, like Join the Impact, and became centers of grassroots organizing where new people could plug into the movement and participate in democratic debates and discussions about its direction.

The wave of protests built and built, culminating in the call by veteran LGBT activist and union organizer Cleve Jones and others for the National Equality March in Washington, D.C., on October 11, 2009.

Organized by the new generation of activists and on a shoestring budget, the march drew over 250,000 people to the first national demonstration for LGBT rights in over 15 years. Organizers intentionally broke from Gay Inc.'s myopic politics and emphasized the importance of solidarity, incorporating a wide spectrum of LGBT issues, including transgender rights, into the March's platform.

That platform came down to a simple demand: full LGBT equality now!

Speakers were a diverse group, including the parents of murder victim Matthew Shepard, same-sex couples, undocumented immigrants, union militants, queer and trans activists of color, youth organizers, open socialists, Broadway performers, poets and artists, and, yes, even Lady Gaga.

The call for the repeal of Prop 8 was in the spotlight, but marchers challenged "don't ask, don't tell" and DOMA as well and called for federal protections in employment and housing and full equality for trans people.

Only at the last minute, when it became clear that the march was gaining momentum, did mainstream LGBT organizations like the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force sign on to endorse the march, after initially opposing it.

But Barney Frank showed his disdain for grassroots activism yet again, lecturing that the National Equality March would be a "waste of time at best" that would do little to make change. "The only thing they're going to be putting pressure on is the grass," Frank smirked. History proved him wrong.

THE LEVEL of protests as well as grassroots organizations ebbed in the following years. The movement became dominated by a legalistic strategy that emphasized court battles over bottom-up organizing. But the eruption of anger after Prop 8 leading to the National Equality March marked a turning point in the battle for marriage equality and LGBT rights.

Over the next six years, the victories rolled in as laws codifying discrimination and second-class citizenship were torn down.

In September 2011, Congress repealed "don't ask, don't tell." In June 2013, in the landmark United States v. Windsor case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled DOMA was unconstitutional.

Between 2008 and 2012, seven states legalized gay marriage; in 2013, eight more were added their names to the list; and in 2014, 19 joined the ranks. By 2015, there were 37 states--three quarters of the total, accounting the vast majority of the U.S. population--where same-sex marriage was legal. In October 2012, responding to the accumulated pressure, Obama reversed himself to become the first sitting president to come out for marriage equality.

Then, on June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that the right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples under the 14th Amendment. Gay marriage became law of the land in all 50 states.

In the matter of 10 years, same-sex marriage went from being a "wedge issue" that the right wing could count on to mobilize their base and win referendum victories to a widely supported civil right--because an ascending movement flipped public opinion, secured legal victories and forced Republican and Democratic politicians alike to change their tune.

The demonstrations after Prop 8, leading to the National Equality March, were central to breaking the debate about marriage equality out of the confines of a narrow state-by-state issue and into the national arena. Protest gave confidence and momentum to legal battles by challenging and changing public opinion until marriage equality was the majority opinion.

This sea change in popular consciousness put pressure on politicians and judges, altering altered the landscape in which legal campaigns were taking place.

Court battles were important to winning marriage equality, but it was the pressure from below, created by masses of ordinary people participating in a grassroots movement, that drove the struggle forward to victory.

That's the lesson to take with us in the struggles ahead as we tell Trump and his legion of bigots and reactionaries that we won't go back.

Further Reading

From the archives