The follow excerpt is from The People’s Victory: Stories from the Front Lines in the Fight for Marriage Equality. The book tells the extraordinary stories of everyday volunteers doing the grassroots work to win marriage equality. Its stories are meant to inspire the next generation of activists to fight for their critical issues. The book is available to download or order at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Google Play and more at marriageequality.org/book.
When same-sex couples gained the right to marry in Massachusetts, Frank and I made plans to be there when it happened. It was 2004, and we had been a part of the Winter of Love in San Francisco. In fact, we were even lucky enough to have the opportunity to be married at SF City Hall, but the legality of the marriage certificates was questionable at best. The first truly legal same-sex marriages in the United States were going to happen in Massachusetts later that year, and we wanted to be present to bear witness and be a part of history in the making. What is more, Frank had never been to Boston, so we took a few extra days there, and we did a little sightseeing.
For the first time in our lives, we were truly filled with national pride and joy. We, same-sex couples, were going to be included in the American Dream (at least in Massachusetts) and it felt great! So, we hit the Freedom Trail, to revel in our nation’s progressive history and the American Revolution for Independence. If you don’t know, the Freedom Trail is literally a line painted on the ground that you follow around downtown Boston from one historic tourist site to the next. We went to the Old North Church, Faneuil Hall, the Old State House, and the Paul Revere House. Revere was a Freemason like me, and I felt really akin to him and the other Masons that led the way in the revolution and the founding of these United States.
On the Trail, we passed several other historic sites that have Masonic significance. One location, the Green Dragon Tavern, is a two hundred year old tavern that used to house a Masonic Lodge upstairs, where the Boston Tea Party was actually planned. We stopped in to rest our feet, to have a nostalgic beer, and to toast my long dead brethren for their belief in fraternity, liberty and equality that led them to put their lives on the line to fight tyranny and oppression. Honestly, the tavern was kind of dark, so we sat up front, where there were seats adjacent to open sets of windows, which faced out onto the street and Freedom Trail. We were enjoying our beers, the rest, and nostalgia, when a chance encounter led to a cross country bus trip, a crash course in public speaking and marriage law, many close friendships, and an eleven year struggle for marriage equality that became a revolution in itself.
Molly Mckay & Davina Kotulski, leaders in the movement to secure legal marriage for same-sex couples in California, turned the corner. We’d met during the Winter of Love in San Francisco, and we recognized one another immediately. I think that they were as shocked or more to see us, as we were to see them, and we ran outside to give them big hugs. We asked if they had also been in Cambridge, which was the first locale to give out marriage licenses at 12:01am on May 17th. It was absolutely amazing, and I will never forget the feeling of camaraderie and joy that I felt with those around me in attendance that night. Molly and Davina said yes, they had been in Cambridge, but there were so many people at the Cambridge City Hall that the police had to close the streets for several blocks in each direction, so it wasn’t surprising that we didn’t see them. In fact, in all of the jubilation, I lost my “Newly-Weds, Married in San Francisco” button, that was given to us by Shelly Bailes & Ellen Pontac, who soon thereafter would become bus-mates, long term fellow activists, and good friends. Coincidentally, as I was searching the ground for my lost pin, I found another one that was shaped like a heart that had presumably been lost by someone from Massachusetts. It had “We Made History! Celebrate Gay Marriage” printed on it, and finding it made me feel better about losing mine. I hope that the person who found mine felt good too.
Molly & Davina asked if we wanted to join them and 45 others on a cross country bus trip, to speak about why marriage was important to us. The trip would come to be known as the Marriage Equality Express Caravan*, and it followed in the footsteps of the 1960’s Freedom Riders. We were elated, and we said yes immediately. I don’t even think that we hesitated for a moment, but then, I am not sure that we really even gave deep consideration to what they were actually proposing, what it would take to make it happen, or the potential threat of physical harm that could come to us in response to our actions. Earnestly, none of that mattered. This was an opportunity of a lifetime, and the kind of thing that stories are written about years later!
At the time, the Marriage Express Caravan was cutting edge queer politics; an army of Love Warriors on a national campaign that culminated in a national rally at the US Capitol. Little did we know what we were really getting ourselves into. In six days, we crossed the country, covered nine states and the District of Columbia. The bus was our classroom, and the team of organizers taught a curriculum that included marriage facts and law, essays to be written, and speeches to give. Through the process, we found our story, the essence of why marriage mattered to us, and we honed our speaking skills by practicing our stories for hours among our captive audience. With every mile and every stop, we became a little more comfortable with our knowledge of the materials and our ability to speak concisely in public. In short, our ragtag group of naive idealists quickly became a strong core group of educated, outspoken, and engaged marriage equality activists. Consequently, we came to know our fellow riders and their narratives intimately too. In truth, by the end of the trip, we became a well oiled machine and kindred spirits; in many ways, we became a family.
In each state, we stopped in one or two cities, meeting with supporting communities in each locale, and often, we passed through more than one state a day. At some spots, we held large rallies, and sometimes, where communities still couldn’t be open for threat of physical harm, losing their jobs, or homes, we gathered in smaller groups, with affirming congregations or at a community nonprofit. Once, it was just us. We had a scheduled stop at the University of Wyoming, which is just outside of Laramie, where Matthew Shepard was murdered. Many of us wanted to make pilgrimage to the spot where Matthew died, and to the Fireside Lounge, where his killers picked him up. The affirming clergy among us suggested having a prayer for Matthew and for peace, and we descended into the valley, where Laramie and the Fireside sit. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, when we exited the freeway and made our way toward the Fireside, but by the time we reached our destination, the sky had covered over with clouds and the wind had picked up. I remember standing as a group near the front door of the vacant building under the roof of the exterior patio. Because of the wind, we had a really hard time lighting candles that were to be a part of our ceremony, and when we began our collective prayer, the sky opened up and released torrents of rain and then hail. It was like Matthew was sending a message to us, or he was welling up with emotion and crying along with the rest of us. Many riders spoke of their own experiences of being shamed and bashed for being LGBTQIA. It was lugubrious and somber, and as the last speaker uttered her final words, the precipitation ceased. As we boarded the bus, the clouds began to clear, and as we climbed slowly out of valley for UW the sky was clear again, and we had all been profoundly affected by the unusual experience.
Each stop-over was equally unique, and each encounter along the way was truly moving for all involved. We spoke our truths, and we listened to the stories of our hosts. We heard testimony of life experience, much like our own, that all too often ended in tragedy because same-sex couples weren’t allowed access to legal marriage. With each attestation, our motivation and conviction to secure marriage for all solidified, and by the time our bus reached Washington, D.C., we had really become a force to be reckoned with, and we weren’t going to be stopped.
We learned that our stories had real power, and that by speaking out about the truths of our experience, we could connect with others in a very human way. By doing so, they often related to our commonality, if even in just a small way. Telling our stories became our battle cries, and we told them time and again for the next eleven years to all who would listen and to some that just wouldn’t. Heck, we even told each other’s stories, and most of the time, love conquered hate. That’s not to say that there weren’t a whole lotta bumps along the way, because I can recall some very low and scary points, but the bonds that we formed, the principles that we established, and the determination that we shared, kept our hearts steadfast, as we transformed obstacles into cobblestones and paved a rainbow path to marriage equality. Thereby, extending our nation's collective freedom trail a little bit further. In the end, love prevailed.
*The “Marriage Equality Express” (2004) was a cross-country bus caravan organized and attended by MEUSA and other marriage equality activists in response to the invalidation of over 4,000 marriages performed during the San Francisco 2004 “Winter of Love.” Designed to provide education and awareness in communities across the country, the bus tour culminated at the first national rally for marriage equality in Washington D.C. on 11 October 2004.