Equal marriage leaders say Bay State paved the way for recent successes
November 6, 2012 will be remembered as a milestone in the equal rights movement, as for the first time Americans voters were responsible for advancing same-sex marriage at the ballot box. Maine, Maryland and Washington welcomed equal marriage to their state; advocates in Minnesota beat back a constitutional amendment that would prohibit it. But reflecting on the success, it’s clear that another state was still on the minds of many: Massachusetts. Yes, the Bay State is the first in the nation to have granted equal marriage. But the battles fought here also produced some of the most influential leaders in the movement at both local and national levels; HRC national field director Marty Rouse and Freedom to Marry national campaign director Marc Solomon both previously led MassEquality. And the lessons learned here provided valuable models for success that they are still using in other states.
“Politics is a blood sport in Massachusetts, and I think because of that Massachusetts is willing to wrestle down issues earlier than a lot of other places,” says Josh Friedes, director of marriage equality at Equal Rights Washington. “Therefore, it becomes something like a laboratory.”
Friedes had ample opportunity to examine the guinea pig of gay marriage: he was previously a board chair for the MassEquality Education Fund and an advocacy director for the Massachusetts Freedom to Marry Coalition. This informed the experience he brought to ERW. “The first thing we have to recognize is that there is always long-term education work to do,” says Friedes. “ERW has been doing it since 2005, and it was remarkably similar to the work that was done in Massachusetts beginning in 1997. It included electing equality-minded legislators so we had a majority in the legislature. And making people recognize that it was everyone’s responsibility to share their stories.”
In fact, the value of storytelling is paramount, says Boston-based political consultant Mary Breslauer, who famously led the communications strategy around the Goodridge case in Massachusetts – and more recently provided her expertise to Washington. “I’m a big believer in pushing out positive storylines,” says Breslauer. Though she certainly won’t dismiss the need to “counterpunch and discredit” false claims from opponents; and this year, she says, national orgs HRC and Freedom to Marry shared the cost of opposition research in the four state campaigns, which allowed for the creation of MarriageFactCheck.org, a website refuting popular anti-equal marriage talking points using cited research.
Still, she says, it mostly goes back to sharing positive stories about the value of equal marriage with reporters, opinion leaders, and average Americans. “The subtle messaging and language may change. But the fundamental model that we established in the Goodridge case, telling stories to sway hearts and minds, continues to be used.”
While gay couples are clearly central to such storytelling, efforts need to evolve to highlight more “unexpected allies,” says Friedes. He says Washington focused that outreach not just on faith leaders and straight folks, but labor movements that speak to blue-collar constituencies; big businesses like Starbucks, Amazon, Microsoft, and other major employers in Washington; and the Asian-Pacific Islander community. He says the API community’s WWII-era internment in Washington offered a uniquely compelling platform from which to speak to the masses about civil rights.
That speaks to another point made by equal marriage activists: that while the fight in Massachusetts offered successful models, strategies must always be always with respect to the makeup of specific states. Friedes remembers back to when the Massachusetts legislature once put domestic partnerships on the table: “But we said no, we’re going for marriage,” he recalls. But in Washington, they accepted the advent of domestic partnerships in 2007 because “We knew [in Washington] the incremental approach would take us fastest to marriage equality.”
That’s significantly different than the situation in Maine, which enjoyed a rapid turnaround from a previous defeat of equal marriage by referendum just three years ago. Maine’s 2012 success marked the first time that citizens proactively ran a gay marriage ballot campaign, says Matt McTighe, campaign manager for Mainers United for Marriage and a former political director at MassEquality. “Our opponents always used the ballot process against us,” says McTighe. “To adopt it as a tool wouldn’t work in every state. But we showed that it is possible to go back to voters and change minds if you run a smart campaign, personalize it and do the outreach.” Part of that personalization involved an approach gleaned at MassEquality, says McTighe, where a strong central campaign empowers grassroots teams to do outreach and carry on conversations where they have real personal connections. That way an activist from Portland isn’t knocking on disinterested strangers’ doors in northern Maine. “You have local messengers carrying the water to where it matters,” explains McTighe.
From education to storytelling to campaign outreach, vestiges of a Massachusetts model are clear. But what about the state’s legacy of producing leaders?
“There is something special about Massachusetts,” says Friedes. He credits local LGBT leaders like Sue Hyde and Mary Bonauto for paving the way. “Even if we didn’t have direct contact with them, they created an environment where other leaders could flourish,” says Friedes. “People used to joke about the [Massachusetts] gay mafia. I joke that we’ve taken it out west, as a second generation.”
Josh Friedes (l) celebrating Washington state’s win. (Nate Gowdy / staff, Seattle Gay News)
Matt McTighe, campaign manager for Mainers United for Marriage.
Mary Breslauer, center.