Gay couple weds in San Francisco City Hall when there was a legal window for same-sex marriage © Charlotte Fiorito

Celebrating Historic Win, Bracing for Work Ahead

Reflections on supporting the freedom to marry

In this San Francisco Chronicle op-ed, Haas, Jr. Fund trustee Robert D. Haas talks about the Fund's decision to support marriage equality 15 years ago.

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This op-ed was originally published by the San Francisco Chronicle here.

Now that the Supreme Court has weighed in with its historic decision to make marriage equality the law of the land, I am reminded of a heartfelt moment in 2000, when two brief sentences would spur our family foundation into becoming the first in the country to make marriage equality a top priority.

Since my father had passed away, my brother, sister and I had become more active in the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund, based here in San Francisco. As expected when a new generation becomes involved, we had begun to explore new issues where our philanthropy could make a difference. We wanted our philanthropy to remain grounded in the same values of fairness, equality and opportunity that were handed down to us.

During a crucial meeting with our family to discuss grant-making for one of those new issues—gay rights—the fund’s staff explained to us how homophobia and discriminatory laws had created huge obstacles for gays and lesbians in virtually every area of mainstream life.

Then the staff asked us to consider what was then believed to be an audacious concept: pursuing marriage equality. The rationale behind the bold idea was that securing marriage would also mean gaining rights in many other areas, such as health care and adoption rights.

At one point, we asked our mother whether she was aware of the controversy that supporting gay rights would stir in some parts of the community, including among her own colleagues and friends. Her response was in two succinct sentences: “Well, then they’ll have to get over it. It’s time for all of us to move on.”

Her forthright reaction emboldened us to move forward.

Today, America has moved forward. Sixty-three percent of the U.S. population now supports marriage equality, up from 35 percent in 2001, when we made our first grants on this issue. And while no state allowed same-sex couples to marry in 2001, 37 states already had entered the marriage equality column before this momentous Supreme Court decision—and now the freedom to marry will prevail coast to coast.

If you had told me in 2000 that these changes would take place within the short span of 15 years, I would have said you were crazy. Back then the country was in an entirely different place; marriage equality seemed light years away.

Despite our concerns, we launched our efforts to achieve marriage equality in the hopes of providing seed money for what we envisioned would be a decades-long struggle. At the time, we had no idea how long it would take for this issue to truly take hold. On top of that, many gay-rights advocates told us that focusing on marriage wasn’t the right approach.

But we believed in our hearts that it was the right thing to do.

Our foundation’s work on this issue was shaped by a young attorney named Evan Wolfson. Wolfson, who at the time worked with Lambda Legal Defense, convinced us that domestic partnerships and civil unions did not go far enough to bring equal opportunity to gay and lesbian couples.

Winning marriage, Wolfson said, would transform people’s understanding of who gay people are. He believed it would help end discrimination against them and allow for their full participation in society. In 2001, the foundation gave Wolfson his first grant to create Freedom to Marry, which ultimately became the catalyzing organization for the marriage-equality movement.

In all, the Haas Jr. Fund has invested about $70 million in our work to reduce discrimination against gay and lesbian people, with $38 million of that going to the movement for marriage equality. We also worked with a number of other foundations on this issue. Over time, the cause attracted a total of $125 million from this group of funders. And tens of thousands of people and businesses made generous gifts to advance the cause of marriage.

The movement for marriage equality wasn’t solely the work of the organizations and the leaders that philanthropy supported. It has been fueled by the passion and the commitment of millions of people of all ages and political persuasions—gay people telling their stories of love and commitment, straight people joining the fight on behalf of gay colleagues and friends, parents standing up and speaking out for gay children, and prominent people in the media and politics coming out and issuing a call for acceptance and fairness.

Since launching this effort, progress has been uneven but also unexpectedly rapid. The movement’s first victory—in 2004, when Massachusetts became the first state in the country to allow same-sex couples to marry—was followed months later by a stunning setback, when 11 states adopted constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage.

Shortly after those elections, we met, reviewed the changed landscape, and resolved to persevere. We believed so strongly in the principle of securing equality for all—and we were so offended by the injustice of barring gay and lesbian families from the opportunity to express their love and commitment through marriage—that we were determined to move forward. In fact, shortly after 2004, we began to increase our support for the movement in collaboration with other funders.

Our decision to make marriage a priority was animated by our love for the San Francisco Bay Area and everything it represents.

Back in 1953, our parents established the foundation to share their good fortune with the community they loved. For nearly a half century, the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund’s donations focused upon needs in San Francisco and surrounding communities: stronger neighborhoods, education and the arts, and services for those in need.

Marriage equality was a national issue, yet it also was very important to our community. This is a place where diversity has long been considered a wellspring for innovation. It is a place that stands as a beacon of inspiration and acceptance for LGBT people all over the world. It is where Harvey Milk set the standard for outspoken courage on gay rights, leavened with his extraordinary sense of humor. And, more recently, it is where many other leaders have helped write the next chapter in America’s gay-rights story by standing up for marriage equality.

In 2004, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom forced the issue into the national consciousness by deciding to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. In 2005, then-Assemblyman Mark Leno introduced a bill legalizing same-sex marriage in California; it was the first such measure to be passed by a state legislature (only to be vetoed later). And, in 2008, Kate Kendell, Shannon Minter and their colleagues at San Francisco’s National Center for Lesbian Rights won a historic case before the California Supreme Court extending the freedom to marry to gay couples.

Our city’s contribution to the fight for progressive social change and LGBT equality—including the actions of high-profile leaders and countless people, gay and straight, standing up, coming out and speaking out—is something we can all be proud of. And it shows what can happen when we stay true to our values, when we connect our hopes and dreams for our local community to a broader vision for the nation, and when we take action to ensure that all families have opportunities to thrive.

Whether in San Francisco or elsewhere, advocates for marriage equality didn’t give up on the fight despite enormous setbacks—and even with the Supreme Court firmly on the side of justice, I know we won’t stop moving forward. Our society still has considerable work to do when it comes to treating gay and lesbian people and their families with the respect and the love they deserve. Sixty-three percent approval for marriage equality is an important step on the road to true acceptance and dignity, but it is not the end of this important journey.

Robert D. Haas is former CEO and chair emeritus of Levi Strauss & Company, and a trustee of the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund.