10/31/2009 03:40 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Advocacy on Behalf of All Unmarried Americans -- Single or Coupled, Gay or Straight

Think for a moment or two, and you can probably come up with the names of GLBT advocacy groups, and even the names of leaders who pursue same-sex marriage rights and broader social justice on behalf of the GLBT community. But if, for example, same-sex marriage became legal nationwide, that would still leave millions of Americans of every sexual orientation left out of the protections that come only from being legally married. Not every gay or straight person is married or wants to be, and that will never change.

So who is advocating for the rights of all unmarried Americans -- single or coupled, gay or straight? At the forefront of the movement to create a more just society for all single people is Nicky Grist, Executive Director of the Alternatives to Marriage Project (AtMP). AtMP is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to the goals of erasing marital status discrimination from our laws and policies. Its members come from all 50 states as well as Canada.

She agreed to discuss her work with me. Here is our interview.

Bella: Is there one particular issue or goal that is especially important to you as you try to create social change?

Nicky Grist: Generically speaking, I believe public policies should be fair and should respect the reality of people's lives. That means looking at actual behavior, not just profiling people. I believe policies should help people do and be their best, not create obstacles that hold them back.

More specifically, AtMP spends a lot of time on various aspects of health policy because so many of our members have experienced discrimination in access to health care, and because so much of the public conversation about right and wrong is focused on health care.

Bella: So much of the cultural and political discussion around marital status is about people who are officially married compared to couples who are unmarried -- whether same-sex or not. I know that many uncoupled singles feel left out of that conversation, and they find that inappropriate. Is that a tension you've faced? What are your thoughts on creating change on behalf of all legally single people, regardless of whether or not they are socially coupled?

Nicky Grist: AtMP has been on the receiving end of that criticism, and it has been a major topic of strategic discussion among our Board of Directors.

Our mission statement has long stated that AtMP advocates fairness and equality for all unmarried people. That's an amazingly wide range of people and of reasons for being unmarried and emotions about being unmarried. One of the things I like best about AtMP is that we don't favor one type of single over another, we don't try to tell people how to live, we don't judge relationships by what they're called, and we do think all adults should be free to form the relationships they want. That's why we look forward to the day when same-sex couples can marry if they want. However, our work focuses on making it not matter whether a couple marries, or an individual remains single, or a family includes more than one or two adults. We think relationships are good for people, caring relationships are good for society, and society should treat caring relationships fairly based on what the people in them do for each other, not what they call each other.

This year our Board of Directors carefully examined and reaffirmed this basic principle. The board recommitted AtMP to not only challenging policies that use marriage to give people rights and resources, but also proposing policy alternatives that maximize equality, autonomy and protection for singles and non-sexual relationships as well as intimate couples.

Bella: Can you describe an especially positive or memorable experience you've had in your role as a single-minded change agent? It doesn't have to be a big thing -- it could be something small but especially meaningful or poignant.

Nicky Grist: Last weekend I attended a fancy dinner for Charles's 75th birthday. Charles has been close friends with my partner for over 40 years. During those years he has literally become a guru to hundreds of people around the world. (We aren't followers; in fact, we like to needle Charles about learning to accept help.) At the dinner each guest stood up to tell a story, usually about how the guru had helped her or him. The story I told: Charles, my partner and I were in a taxi, and my partner said something foolish about a single mother who was "all alone in the world." I chided my partner, pointing out that the mother in question has an extraordinary network of support. I added it would be just as foolish to say that Charles is alone in the world simply because he never married -- just look at the hundreds of people who would do anything for him if he'd let them. Charles was in the front seat; he turned around to reveal tears (continue reading here).