Lesbian couple poses for family portait with their kids in San Francisco Photo by Sarah Deragon

Equal Effort

How intentionality and collaboration have helped gay rights progress

In this SSIR article, Sylvia Yee talks about the decade of careful planning and diligent collaboration that helped further marriage equality.

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Ten years ago, the fight for marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples in the United States looked like a lost cause. When Massachusetts became the first state to extend the freedom to marry to same-sex couples, in May 2004, the reaction from opponents was fast and furious. Within six months, voters in 13 states approved amendments to their state constitutions that banned same-sex marriage, bringing the number of states with such amendments to 17.

Fast-forward to 2014. Same-sex marriage is now legal in 19 states and the District of Columbia. It’s been a truly stunning shift. Ten years ago, 2 percent of the US population lived in a marriage equality state; today, more than 40 percent of Americans do. One year ago this summer, moreover, the US Supreme Court ruled that the federal government must treat same-sex married couples equally under the law, no matter where they live.

How did this turnaround happen? How did marriage equality shift from what many considered to be a fringe issue—and a politically charged one as well—into a mainstream concern that now draws support from a majority of the American population? As an early funder of the marriage equality movement, I have had a front-row seat from which to observe this transformation. (In 2001, my organization—the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund—became the first foundation to make marriage equality a priority.)

There are, of course, enormous cultural factors in play—the rise of a more socially tolerant younger generation and the increased visibility of gay people in mainstream media, for example. But in my view, the turnaround resulted in no small part from the way that gay rights leaders bounced back after the 2004 defeats and came together around a long-term, cross-organizational strategy for social change. There is still a great deal of work to do to secure equal marriage rights across the country. Even so, the success of the marriage equality fight over the past 10 years holds important lessons for leaders and funders of other social change movements.

All Intents and Purposes

Reflecting on the twists and turns in the drive for marriage equality, I believe there is one overriding factor that has enabled the progress of the past decade. That factor is intentionality. After surveying the wreckage of 2004, funders and their partners in the gay and lesbian rights movement launched a deliberate effort to turn things around. Among the critical components of this effort were a common game plan, a collaborative approach to funding the movement’s work, and a set of shared messages that helped generate public support for change.

Intentional Planning

The months after November 2004 were a dark time for the movement to promote gay and lesbian rights. Many participants in the movement doubted that pushing for marriage equality was the way to go. They said that such a push was premature or that other fights—such as securing basic civil rights protections—were more important. But two arguments tipped the scales in favor of making marriage a priority: First, marriage is the gateway to more than 1 ,000 other rights and benefits conferred by the federal government, from Social Security survivor benefits to the ability to sponsor a spouse for immigration. And second, winning the right to marry would provide a marker of social acceptance that would lead to other advances toward true equality for gay and lesbian people.

But the long string of losses at the ballot box taught funders and movement leaders that something had to change. In response, the Gill Foundation, the Haas, Jr. Fund, and other foundations supported a process in which 22 movement leaders worked to craft a new game plan—a strategy that aimed to achieve marriage rights (or some other form of relationship recognition) for same-sex couples in 30 states within 20 years. This 20-year plan, which still guides the movement today, brought an unprecedented level of focus to the work of advancing marriage equality across the United States.

The new strategy focused on reaching a tipping point by moving more and more states into the marriage equality camp. Although the strategy involved making painful choices about which states to target, it also allowed diverse players—foundations, 501(c)(4) donors, legal groups, and state and national organizations—to follow a common game plan. We did so in part by creating or strengthening collaborative funding arrangements. Too often, funders act separately to support groups whose work may be uncoordinated with (or even redundant with) the work of other players. In this case, however, funders deliberately aligned their investments with consensus priorities that were part of a bigger plan.

One vital source of pooled funding has been the Civil Marriage Collaborative, an entity created in 2004 by some of the same groups that launched the 20-year plan. The collaborative has awarded nearly $20 million to support research, public education campaigns, and a wide range of other activities. At a time when foundations often come under fire for pushing collaboration on grantees without taking the same pill themselves, the Civil Marriage Collaborative provides an example of funders and grantees coming together to advance a shared strategy for change. According to Funders for LGBTQ Issues, foundation support for marriage and civil-union advocacy grew from slightly more than $2 million in 2002 to nearly $12 million in 2012.

One organization that has played a crucial role in aligning the movement is Freedom to Marry. Started in 2001 with a grant from the Haas, Jr. Fund, Freedom to Marry has become the unifying voice for marriage equality nationwide. It now attracts broad foundation and individual donor support, and its staff—starting with its founder and president, Evan Wolfson—includes some of the movement’s most seasoned and successful strategists.

Intentional Alignment

As the marriage equality movement set out to work toward its 20-year goals, it soon became clear that the messaging that advocates were using to talk about marriage wasn’t working. For many years, movement leaders had framed their effort in terms of “equal rights under the law.” Messaging tended to highlight the many rights and benefits—including rights as basic as hospital visitation—that restrictions on marriage had denied to gay couples. The losses of 2004 and afterward showed that this argument was falling flat with the public.

In 2006, the Haas, Jr. Fund and several partner organizations made a significant investment in psychographic research that explored what really goes on inside people’s minds when it comes to marriage equality. On the basis of that research, my colleagues and I arrived at a crucial insight: When we straight people think about marriage, we don’t think about hospital visits or taxes or dental plans. We think about love, family, and commitment.

These findings led the movement to change the language and the imagery that it uses to communicate with the public about marriage equality. Advocates, for example, have become adept at sharing stories of gay and lesbian couples who want to marry not so that they can gain new rights and benefits, but for the simple human reason that they love each other. The coordinated use of such messaging has contributed to dramatic gains in public support for marriage. This shift in messaging has also had a huge impact on gay people: It has enabled them to claim the issue of marriage equality directly and emotionally. As a result, they are now able to find and use their voice both within their communities and in the media.

All Hands on Deck

The intentionality of the marriage equality movement has enabled participants to stick together through many ups and downs over the past decade. A low point came in 2008 with the movement’s loss on Proposition 8, a ballot initiative in California that amended the state’s constitution to deny same-sex couples the freedom to marry. Following that defeat, it would have been natural for people in the movement to rethink their goals and priorities. After all, if the movement couldn’t win in California—which has the largest LGBT population of any state in the country—then what hope did it have in other states?

But instead of changing course, the movement doubled down on its 2004 plan. On multiple fronts, funders responded to the Prop. 8 loss by increasing their investment in the fight for marriage equality. As 501(c)(3) foundations stepped up their support for public education, research, and organizational infrastructure, a separate group of 501(c)(4) donors worked on lobbying legislators and funding initiative and electoral campaigns. Even though these groups of funders were not allowed to coordinate their activities, they shared the same core vision and strategy.

The results speak for themselves. The patient, deliberate, and strategic approach of the marriage equality movement has yielded a steadily growing roster of wins at the state level. In November 2012, for example, voters in four states embraced the freedom to marry at the polls—a sea change from the series of defeats that the movement suffered in 2004. And California, too, has become a marriage equality state.

The work of the movement is not over. Despite state-based wins and despite a wave of pro-marriage federal court decisions, most Americans still live in states that deny same-sex couples the freedom to marry. But the finish line is in sight, and a plan to reach it is in place.