It happened in a moment. With one decision the United States became a more free and equal place.
On June 26, 2015, when the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-to-4 vote that the right of same-sex couples to marry is guaranteed in the constitution.
This decision ended the fastest and most successful equal rights campaign in American history. The marriage equality campaign in the United States won the freedom to marry nationwide in less than two decades. This required a massive shift in public opinion about LGBT individuals and their right to marry, as well as a carefully orchestrated strategy of legal change.
How did they manage to accomplish this in such a short period of time? What was the game-changer that allowed to this decision to happen far earlier than predicted? The answer is that they started with WHY.
The movement toward marriage equality began with one man at Harvard Law School in 1983 writing his dissertation on how LGBT people could win marriage rights in the US. Evan Wolfson, father of the marriage equality movement, had his vision of a world that did not yet exist—a country where all people had the freedom to marry. At the time, no one thought this was possible. There were some places in America where people could still be arrested for sodomy. And yet, Wolfson saw how winning marriage could actually be the catalyst to a larger change within American society. Wolfson began to make the vision real by winning the historic 1996 case in Hawaii for marriage equality, the first state to recognize the right. But at the same time the Defense of Marriage Act was passed nationally, and two years after Wolfson’s victory Hawaii amended the state constitution to ban marriage equality.
He may not have won marriage yet, but Wolfson began a movement with that case, and the notion of marriage equality suddenly became a real possibility.
The movement for marriage was underway, and for more than a decade court cases and ballot measures ensued—in some cases winning the freedom to marry for a given state, in others preventing it. Public opinion had not yet turned in favor for marriage equality, and something needed to change if marriage equality was to win.
Marc Solomon, National Campaign Director of Wolfson’s organization Freedom to Marry, wrote in his book ‘Winning Marriage: The Inside Story of How Same-Sex Couples Took on the Politicians and Pundits—And Won’ that at a certain point the campaign realized that, “We could run the best field campaign ever, but if we weren’t making a persuasive enough case, we’d lose,”(229).
So what did Freedom to Marry do in order to make their case persuasive? What did they do to ultimately win marriage? They started with WHY.
Rather than continue to focus on turning public opinion their way by explaining the facts of legal arguments or the specific enumerated rights and protections that marriage affords, Freedom to Marry realized that in fact they needed to change the conversation to why marriage mattered in the first place. They developed a public education campaign called Why Marriage Matters in 2010, changing the way in which people thought and spoke about marriage equality. (They literally started with WHY!)
The new public education campaign focused not on legalistic arguments but on the core values of marriage. They asked why couples get married, and the answer was love and commitment. Solomon writes, “Our opponent’s best message point had long been that gays wanted to “redefine” marriage. But we didn’t want to “redefine” it; we wanted to join it. The core of marriage is love and commitment, and that applies to both gay and straight couples,”(231). Focusing the conversation on the freedom to marry as the way in which gay couples express their love and commitment just like everyone else does became a key message of the movement.
Another key message was that no one should be discriminated against because of whom they love. As Solomon explains, “We needed to make the case to people that, in order for them to live up to their own value systems they needed to support the freedom to marry,”(232). And so the conversation changed from rights and protections to standing up against discrimination, living the principle of The Golden Rule, and honoring love and commitment.
And it paid off. As the conversation shifted, marriage equality was won in more states and public opinion quickly shifted to a substantial majority in the US favoring the freedom to marry. During the summer of 2011, I was a Communication Intern at Freedom to Marry, and had the opportunity to see first hand the power of this new language of marriage equality. That summer, I watched as this new language helped to win marriage in New York. And four years later, the freedom to marry was won in the highest court in the land.
Starting with WHY, as Simon Sinek argues in his Ted Talk and book, ‘Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action,” was ultimately the key to achieving success in this case. Evan Wolfson, the leader with a vision of a world that did not yet exist and the ability to communicate it, inspired people to take up the cause. And as the movement grew, getting past the marriage what-based rights and protection conversation to why people want to get married in the first place shifted public opinion.
The day that marriage was won, Evan Wolfson wrote in The New York Times, “America got it right. Love won. We all did.” But beyond celebrating this, he reminded us that while this is the end of the marriage equality movement in the US, it is not the end of the work that needs to be done. There is a vision still waiting to be fulfilled. “The transformative power of seeing couples marry—and the empathy that inspires—will energize us advocates as we keep pushing toward the more perfect union America promises,” he wrote. “The work of our movement, and the broader quest for justice, is far from over.”
And so now the LGBT rights movement comes together to figure out their next battle to create what Wolfson calls ‘the more perfect union America promises,’ we will wait and watch again as the new vision of the world is revealed and communicated and, most importantly, why Americans should commit to this next cause.