The Real Story Behind the Fight for Marriage Equality

A new book from gay rights activist Marc Solomon sets the record straight about how gay marriage victories were really won.

Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty

“Did you hear what the gays did to Vinnie?”

That’s my favorite line in Marc Solomon’s terrific campaign memoir, Winning Marriage: The Inside Story of How Same-Sex Couples Took on the Politicians and Pundits—And Won. Solomon’s is the first book—others are coming—to give a true-to-life picture of the gritty, day-to-day, one-on-one work that the freedom to marry movement has done over the past fifteen years; the movement that we’ve all seen succeed with jaw-dropping speed.

What does that have to do with what “the gays” did to Vinnie? Recall that the nation’s marriage equality breakthrough came in 2004, when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court opened marriage to same-sex couples in response to GLAD (Gay & Lesbian Advocates and Defenders) civil rights director Mary Bonauto’s marriage lawsuit. (Bonauto, now an official MacArthur genius, is rightly known as the Thurgood Marshall of the marriage movement.) Bonauto had selected Massachusetts in part because undoing a court victory would be difficult here: getting a constitutional amendment on the popular ballot requires legislative approval two sessions in a row. As part of the MassEquality coalition, Marc Solomon, a former Senate aide, was working to get Bay State legislators to vote no. But the coalition got nowhere with longtime state representative Vinnie Ciampa, who voted for the amendment, and said he would do so again.

In the next election, MassEquality took Vinnie out, replacing him with a young gay man, Carl Sciortino.

A colleague overheard two conservative Mass. lawmakers talking about what “the gays” could do. That, writes Solomon, was “music to my ears.” Reading those sentences made me laugh out loud. I remember how giddy we all were when Ciampa went down, proving that “the gays” had not merely moral righteousness but also political muscle on our side.

Solomon’s campaign memoir delivers the first real picture of how the LGBT movement won marriage equality: through person-to-person moral suasion, on the one hand, and hardball politics, on the other. The deepest message of Solomon’s book is that the arc of history doesn’t bend toward justice on its own: it’s dragged there by thousands of people working thousands of hours in hundreds of cities and counties and towns.

Solomon’s book is an urgently needed corrective to the narrative peddled by Jo Becker’s Forcing the Spring, the behind-the-scenes story of the lawsuit that knocked down California’s Proposition 8. You remember Prop 8: California’s Supreme Court had awarded marriage equality in the spring of 2008. Over the next six months hundreds of same-sex couples married. But California’s initiative process is notoriously simple—and that fall, Prop 8 yanked marriage equality away. In Becker’s book, celebrity lawyers Ted Olson and David Boies were the (heterosexual) heroes, riding to the hapless LGBT community’s defense on their expensive white horses. That distorted view infuriated many LGBT insiders.

By contrast, Solomon can tell us a great deal about what really changed the country—because at key moments, he was there. While it’s a memoir—he reports on efforts in which he was involved, not on all of the marriage equality movement—the book is structured in way that gives real insight into the organizing involved nationwide. Solomon goes into detail about the campaign in Massachusetts from 2004 to 2008, in which he was deeply involved in preventing marriage equality from getting repealed. He offers a higher-level view of the machinations involved in affirmatively passing legislation in New York, as Andrew Cuomo played old-school arm-twisting politics in Albany to get New York state legislators to pass a marriage equality bill in 2011. He goes into some detail into what it took to persuade voters to pass marriage equality at the ballot box in four states in 2012. Throughout, he reveals the essential work of strategic and committed major donors like tech millionaire Tim Gill and hedge fund billionaire Republican Paul Singer, who both gave and helped raise enormous sums to pay the movement’s bills. Finally, he takes us behind the scenes into how Obama came out in favor of marriage equality that same year. And at key moments, he reports on strategic efforts that shaped the movement as a whole, even if he wasn’t there.

The Massachusetts section is brimming with stories about how disciplined organizers and lobbyists used big data, sophisticated analysis, and personal stories to change minds. They used creative efforts to get through, too, as when Solomon discovered that one on-the-fence Massachusetts legislator was a musical theater fan—and persuaded Massachusetts novelist and newlywed Gregory Maguire to invite that legislator to visit Maguire’s home, husband, and kids, and take home some Wicked memorabilia. In one moving story, organizers persuade a reluctant couple in a conservative rural Massachusetts town, two women who had lived quiet lives under the radar, to talk about their love and commitment to their legislator. He is so moved by their story that he wrestles with his conscience, and ends up voting on behalf of equality despite pressure from church and constituents.

By 2012, the marriage equality movement had won in courts and legislatures—but not at the ballot box. Solomon credits longtime organizer Thalia Zepatos combing through masses of notes from conversations with voters, and glimpsing a message and strategy that would more effectively change minds. After the message was carefully refined, Freedom to Marry helped coordinate efforts in which thousands of volunteers knocked on doors and had open-hearted one-on-one conversations with strangers, and helped sponsor television spots in which local veterans and firefighters talked about how they wanted marriage equality for their lesbian and gay friends and relatives. That November, many of us were stunned as voters in four states supported marriage equality at the ballot box.

Finally, Solomon reports on how he came to work for visionary marriage equality strategist Evan Wolfson (the movement’s other key leader, alongside Bonauto)—and how they simultaneously pressured and enticed President Obama to stop “evolving” and support marriage equality. They made sure Obama got a copy of the script that the state campaigns’ volunteers were using to change minds—a script that, in his interview with Robin Roberts, Obama followed to a T. Solomon stitches all these sections together with reporting on some of the most strategically significant moments in the marriage movement, even if he wasn’t there.

In his preface, Solomon suggests that other movements can learn from this one. I’m not so sure; this movement has some unusual advantages. LGBT folks come from every possible zip code and demographic slice of the United States, from families rural and urban, Democrat and Republican, black and white and Latina and Asian, rich and poor and middle-class. That means every American can see for themselves that we’re just people who love and care for one another, just like everyone else. That means we’re backed by family members who range from professors to construction workers to Dick Cheney. What’s more, marriage equality comes at absolutely no economic cost. Most other social justice movements are seeking some shift of power and money. Solomon shows many individual legislators and political figures realizing that with marriage rights, same-sex couples gain happiness, security, and peace of mind—and our religious opponents lose nothing but an idea.

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Solomon’s book is not perfect. Even in the parts of the movement he does cover, some people and efforts are missing. But Winning Marriage will be essential for the historian who, someday, tries to tell the full story. Right now, it’s the essential read for anyone who wonders how “the gays” managed in just a decade to turn an impossible dream into an all-but-complete reality. It still puts a ridiculous grin on my face to realize that, unbelievably, today there are 35 marriage equality states, with still more on appeal—and that within a year or two, the Supreme Court will almost certainly sweep the laggards into line. I’m grateful for the visionaries like Evan Wolfson and Mary Bonauto, and the ferocious workers like Marc Solomon. And I’m afraid I’m not at all sorry about what we had to do to Vinnie.

E.J. Graff, senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, is the author of What Is Marriage For? The Strange Social History of Our Most Intimate Institution.