How We Won Marriage: 10 Lessons Learned

06/26/2015 11:04 am ET | Updated Jun 26, 2016
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

As the whole country knows by now, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that same-sex couples will soon have the freedom to marry and equal respect for their marriages across America. This ruling will bring joy to families, and final victory to the decades-long marriage movement. Here are some of the lessons learned over the years that could apply to other progressive social movements.

1. Convey a bold, inspirational vision.

Identify a vision -- what you really want to accomplish -- and communicate it early and often. The aspirational possibility of being able to marry spurred hundreds of thousands of regular people to become champions -- something a watered-down goal, like civil unions, wouldn't have accomplished. While half-measures along the way are part and parcel of our political system, accepting increments must not preclude always holding up the true goal, reminding people and politicians why it matters, and ultimately not settling for anything less.

2. Have an overarching strategy.

A strategy keeps focus, provides structure, and is crucial when the going gets tough. When Evan Wolfson embarked on winning marriage nationwide, he had a pathway to victory that envisioned a national ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. However, to get the Court to act, he knew -- based on the lessons of history -- that we needed to rack up victories in a critical mass of states and grow public support beyond a majority. That big-picture strategy for marriage was called the "Roadmap to Victory," and it provided a simple (not easy, but simple!) approach that served us well when the going got tough and people questioned whether we were on the right path.

3. Focus on values and emotions.

With a cause that is as fundamentally important to so many as marriage, tapping into people's fundamental values in making the case is essential. We showed straight America why same-sex couples want to marry -- out of profound love and commitment (the same reasons they want to!). We thus helped them see that supporting marriage for same-sex couples syncs up with their own deep-seated values of the Golden Rule -- treating others the way you'd want to be treated if you were similarly situated -- and freedom -- the right to live the way you want as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else. Tapping into those values was a powerful antidote to the fear-mongering that our opponents employed (that the freedom to marry would harm children, for example). One of the mistakes some of our campaigns made along the way was in focusing on messages that polled well but that didn't have emotional resonance.

4. Meet people where they are.

To make lasting change in America, it's crucial to make the case -- and give time -- to people who are conflicted about your cause. On marriage, we knew that pretty much everyone grew up in a society where they were taught that marriage was between a man and a woman, and in a faith tradition where they were taught that homosexuality was wrong. Many good people were conflicted, and we were asking them to take a journey, challenging some of their deep understandings about marriage, family, and religion. That required engaging with them, leaving no question unanswered, and tackling their concerns head-on. To get them to yes, we had to encourage people to open their minds and hearts, listen, question, and reconsider. That meant starting early and staying with it, making the case in multiple ways. A shift like that is much less likely to happen if you write someone off or call those who aren't with you yet a bigot or bad person.

5. Find the right messengers.

Who delivers the message and how it is delivered matters as much as what the message is. The target audience -- conflicted Americans -- must identify with and trust the messenger. In person, same-sex couples making the case to those in their lives -- family members, neighbors, friends -- about why marriage mattered so much to them was crucial. Over the airwaves, however, it was parents who were most effective. They could speak to their own struggle of accepting their child's sexuality and about their journey overcoming that struggle and ultimately wanting their gay kid to have all that they had had, including the right to marry. Straight people could identify and empathize with that story. Also, unexpected champions, like Republicans, first responders, service members, and clergy were especially effective in explaining -- and modeling -- how their own deeply-held values -- of freedom, faith, and service to the country -- were squarely in line with the freedom to marry.

6. Build state campaigns designed to win.

Winning at the state level requires an experienced campaign manager running a professional campaign, with field organizers, communications professionals, and lobbyists reporting to the manager and a tight board managing the campaign and helping raise sufficient resources to carry out the campaign plan. And the campaign must be designed to meet the challenge. For example, when we needed to fight against repeal of a freedom-to-marry law in New Hampshire where the legislature was 80-percent Republican, we built a campaign heavy on GOP operatives and business leaders.

7. Invest heavily in local organizing.

Inspiring and mobilizing supporters -- and then enlisting them to persuade undecided elected officials and voters -- takes a robust organizing campaign. On challenging issues, too often advocates think they can win in a legislature with top-notch lobbyists or at the ballot exclusively with good television ads. That's simply not the case. Lawmakers and citizens are most often persuaded because they hear from people locally -- from regular citizens, same-sex couples, and influential leaders living in their own communities. On marriage, it's especially crucial to show that we're talking about same-sex couples and families living locally who are active participants in their communities, not "those people out there in the big city."

8. Accept this political reality: Politicians care about reelection above almost everything else.

The most important priority for the vast majority of elected officials is continuing to be an elected official. That means that if elected officials think they're going to lose their seat by supporting your cause, you're going to lose. So you need to be relentless about engaging electorally. First and foremost, that means helping ensure that those who vote with you win reelection. In the first marriage state of Massachusetts, we reelected every incumbent who voted our way on marriage -- 195 out of 195 in 2004 and 2006 -- in spite of a concerted effort from Gov. Mitt Romney and social conservatives to defeat some of them. And there's simply no better way to show lawmakers you're serious than defeating a small number who vote against you. That means figuring out who is vulnerable, finding quality candidates, and using tried-and-true campaign techniques to defeat them. Fight Back New York, a PAC that marriage equality advocates set up in 2010, did just that: They took out three incumbents who voted against us on marriage and completely changed the political calculus in New York state.

9. Be serious about reaching across the aisle.

In today's terribly divided political climate, in order to get an issue to break through, it's extremely helpful -- and in many cases essential -- for the cause to be bipartisan. For causes that originate as liberal or progressive causes, it's so important to have Republican voices making the case. And to do so effectively, it means years of dedicated and serious focus, demonstrating to sympathetic Republicans that you're serious about enlisting them, sensitive to their political concerns, and committed to helping them make the case in a way that serves both your needs and theirs. Having a Sen. Rob Portman, a Laura Bush, or a Dick Cheney speaking out on marriage was worth its weight in gold in shifting the center of gravity politically on the cause.

10. Build momentum every day.

A cause is either moving forward or backward, and at the heart of my job as the national campaign director for Freedom to Marry has been figuring out how to grow momentum every single day. That meant being consistently creative and nimble in identifying opportunities to move the ball forward, building a narrative in the media that your campaign is succeeding. So whether it's enlisting an unexpected Fortune 500 company or a new Republican member of Congress, amplifying a new public opinion poll that demonstrates growth in support, focusing attention on a winning streak in court, or going on television with a TV spot, it's connecting these accomplishments to your compelling and cohesive narrative that demonstrates that you're continuing to progress toward your goal. An especially crucial element of building momentum is conveying optimism -- even in the face of defeats, reminding the base and the media that we can do this and highlighting wins -- whether small, medium, or large -- that the campaign has already secured.