Replicating Our Victories

06/26/2015 04:00 pm ET | Updated Jun 26, 2016
Mark Wilson via Getty Images

It's the question everyone working on nearly every progressive cause wants to ask, and hopes can be answered: "How do we win on our issue as quickly, and as convincingly, as the LGBT movement has?"

At some point over the past few years, I've been asked that same question, in one form or another, from advocates working on gun control, the death penalty, climate change and immigration reform, to name just a few. The rapid progress our country has made for LGBT people -- from repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" to today's landmark Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality -- has captured the attention of our allies in other movements who want to know how they can replicate that success.

Part of the equation, of course, is putting together talented people to lead the way. Brilliant minds -- like Mary Bonauto, the architect of the legal fight for marriage equality -- planned and persevered when even many in our own community doubted the prospects for success. Visionary thinkers -- like Dixon Osburn and Michelle Beneke, who skillfully explained the domino effect that open service would have on other rights - understood that hard data and compelling stories could move even the military to charge. And even entertainers -- like Ellen DeGeneres, who knocked down television's closet door even when it sent some advertisers running - played a critical role in moving public opinion on equality.

Yet, even with such forward-thinking leaders working on the cause, the fight for equality often required serious collective soul-searching among advocates who faced formidable roadblocks and setbacks along the way. And ultimately, those are the moments that can teach us the most about how to win.

Take 2008, for example. As the country and the LGBT community were celebrating the election of our country's first African-American president, voters in California, Florida and Arizona blocked marriage equality in their states. At the time, they joined 27 other states that had already done so.

Those losses at the ballot box, especially during the 2004 election, when 11 states passed marriage bans, led many to look to the courts for victory. Even as they did, however, opponents of marriage equality began peddling the idea that "activist judges" were poised to overturn the will of the people and "impose" their views on the country.

What happened then was remarkable.

As couples began filing suit to have their relationships recognized, their stories made headlines in the national news. These new faces of the movement - couples who had spent decades together, raising families, building businesses and serving their country and their communities -- ushered in a sea change in public opinion. As their suits were filed, and their stories were told, more and more of the public understood that these families were just like all families.

The courts, in eloquent and often passionate rulings, cited these same experiences of same-sex couples who were simply asking the court to recognize that their families were entitled to the same protections as other families.

Using the power of stories, the courts went from over-ruling public opinion to helping shape it.

(Just today, Justice Kennedy noted in his majority opinion bringing marriage to all 50 states that, "As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves." He went on to write that, "Their stories reveal that they seek not to denigrate marriage but rather to live their lives, or honor their spouses' memory, joined by its bond.")

Marriage equality, everyone quickly understood, wasn't what the right-wing had been so effectively selling for years. In truth, it was about Edie Windsor, her partner of four decades and their wish to build and bequeath an estate just like their straight neighbors. It was also about Bradford Wells and Anthony Makk, who desperately needed the federal government to recognize their marriage so that Anthony, who was caring for Bradford as he battled HIV, would not be deported. And it was about the men and women in uniform who were fighting for freedoms abroad that they were being denied at home.

Their experiences, and the victories they helped make possible, tell us two things: First, that telling our stories, and standing up to do so even when the consequences may be dire, has immense power. And secondly, that the courts must remain open to, and working for, everyone because they have a pivotal role to play not only in protecting our constitutional rights, but also in shaping how we see our country and its pledge of liberty and justice for all.

Today, a majority of Americans support marriage equality. That's in large part because LGBT people came out, spoke up and asked for change. But it's also in part because the courts did their job, too.
Moving forward, these lessons can continue to lead us to greater equality still.

Even as the Supreme Court has recognized this historic tipping point in our nation's history, other issues are still at their starting point. The marriage equality blueprint - of stories told hand-in-hand with smart legal strategies - can help there as well.

At Public Justice, we've seen that when brave students, for example, speak out against bullying, their stories can move courts and schools to make sweeping changes that help ensure others aren't harassed and abused. That's why we launched our Anti-Bullying Campaign in 2013. We've worked with students who have been bullied, harassed and assaulted based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender, race, ethnicity, and religion to create change in local school districts that can be a road map for national progress. It doesn't matter why a student is targeted; the solutions for addressing and preventing bullying are the same.

And as states struggling against the tide of change answer the Supreme Court's ruling with new laws designed to implement new forms of discrimination against LGBT people, an effective response will be critical to battling those attempts in the courts and in communities.

That, in essence, is how we can replicate the marriage equality victory and win other fights for LGBT equality and other issues, too. Telling our stories - to our neighbors, our co-workers, the media and the courts - has the power to change history and change many, many minds, too.