This Is What a (Marriage Equality) Movement Looks Like

03/07/2015 02:34 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

A little over a week ago, same-sex couples from Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee, and Kentucky filed briefs with the U.S. Supreme Court seeking the freedom to marry nationally. Just last Friday, hundreds of Fortune 500 corporations, faith leaders, Republican and Democratic officials, civil rights organizations, law professors, and the Obama Administration filed supporting amicus briefs. And the Supreme Court finally set oral arguments for April 28. For thousands of same-sex couples across the country, the day when their families might be fully protected and their love equally recognized seems closer than ever.

Arriving at this moment was neither an inevitability nor the work product of a few heroic individuals. Rather, it's the culmination of a movement's work over decades - careful strategy; individual story-telling; grassroots organizing; setbacks and recovery from setbacks; litigation, legislation, and ballot questions - involving all kinds of people and organizations putting in blood, sweat, and tears.

It's notable, for example, that like most of the cases currently before the Supreme Court, the first significant marriage equality case was brought back in the early 1990s by a private attorney in Hawaii, Dan Foley, on behalf of Nina Baehr and Genora Dancel. While their initial victory in the courts was eventually overturned by constitutional amendment, their lawsuit catapulted the marriage equality movement to the national stage and, with the help of movement leader Evan Wolfson, kicked off a broader conversation about the injustices and harms of excluding same-sex couples from marriage.

Twenty years later, after a narrowly averted car accident, April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse of Michigan, visited their attorney Dana Nessel to ensure that both of them would be recognized as the legal parents of their four children. They were shocked to learn that without the ability to marry, they could not jointly adopt and ensure the security of their family. For April and Jayne, their journey to the doors of the Supreme Court has been guided both by their own moral compass and their parental instinct to protect their children.

And certainly, "the movement" writ large has come together in this moment. All four major LGBT legal organizations that have worked long and hard to get us to where we are today are co-counsel in the cases before the high court. GLAD's Mary Bonauto, who won the first marriage case in the country in Massachusetts in 2003, is co-counsel in Michigan with Dana and a team of talented private attorneys, including Carole Stanyar, Kenneth Mogill of Mogill, Posner & Cohen, and Wayne State University Law Professor Robert Sedler. Lambda Legal, which won the first unanimous judicial victory in Iowa and later helped secure marriage throughout the 9th Circuit, is co-counsel in Ohio. NCLR, which won a game changing legal victory in California, helping reverse a string of judicial losses in the mid-2000s, is now co-counsel in Tennessee. Finally, the ACLU, whose landmark Windsor victory at the Supreme Court overturning DOMA last year set off the avalanche of federal judicial victories on marriage in the last year, is co-counsel in Kentucky and Ohio.

It's also significant that the Supreme Court cases originated in states from the heartland and the south, thanks to the movement's state-by-state strategy that began with Massachusetts and grew to 37 states just last month with Alabama. This strategy has succeeded through a mixture of judicial, legislative, and electoral wins. Statewide equality groups, as well as national organizations like Freedom to Marry, the Equality Federation, the National LGBTQ Task Force, and HRC, knew that to win nationally at the Supreme Court, we needed as many states as possible in the pro-equality column, and we needed to win those states by every means possible. And did. As a result, there are now only 13 states, all in the most conservative areas of our country, left that discriminate against same-sex couples in marriage.

This is what a movement looks like. Ordinary people exercising their ordinary rights with extraordinary courage. Private attorneys sacrificing their time and livelihoods for a just cause. Movement organizations planning a strategy of incremental progress to be included within one of society's most cherished institutions. And the transformative power of LGBT people and families sharing their lives with their neighbors, friend, coworkers, and family. None of this profound change was inevitable; instead, every piece had to come together, along with a bit of luck and a lot of hard work, in order to climb to where we are today.

But this cannot be all that our movement looks like. Even as we reach the top of this mountain, if we fail to see the mountains beyond, then all we will be left with is a steep climb down. Even if same-sex couples begin marrying across the country in June, those same couples still face discrimination in their everyday lives, especially as our opponents seek to expand religious exemptions to undermine anti-discrimination protections. Even as same-sex couples gain greater acceptance within society, the same is not true for all in our community, including youth, elders, people of color, transgender individuals, and HIV-positive individuals.

The real test of a movement is whether it has the vision to imagine an even more just society for everyone, and the tenacity to get it done.

The marriage equality movement has given us the tools to tackle these new challenges. We have built shared values of love, respect and family that we can now use to fuel society's greater understanding of all LGBTQ individuals, in all aspects of our lives. We have learned how to use personal stories to teach about the realities of our lives in a way that highlights our common humanity as opposed to our differences. And we understand the power of everyday actions by ordinary people - every person who has ever come out to a family member, placed a photo of their partner on their desk at work, or shared a story about their transgender child.

We may not know exactly what the movement will look like going forward, but the many faces of our ever diverse LGBTQ community is not a bad place to start.