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Op-ed: What I Learned Meeting the Heroes of the Marriage Movement

Op-ed: What I Learned Meeting the Heroes of the Marriage Movement


Now that we've won marriage equality across the country, it's time to tackle the next important question: Who gets the credit?

I've been covering the movement for marriage equality for the last decade or so, first as a news reporter, then covering the trial over California's Proposition 8, and then as an independent journalist producing weekly updates for my YouTube series, Marriage News Watch. In the process, I've crossed paths with countless figures fighting for equality, including community leaders, lawyers, politicians, volunteers, journalists, protesters, pollsters, and just plain people.

A few years ago, I started noticing that all of the people working toward the freedom to marry had been deeply affected by the movement, and in very different ways: For example, in conversation with director and American Foundation for Equal Rights cofounder Rob Reiner, I learned how he had inherited a passion for social justice from his real-life parents and his television family.

I met Molly McKay, a San Francisco woman who showed up at marriage counters to demand a license every Valentine's Day for a decade until someone unexpectedly told her yes. At a bar in Los Angeles, I met Juan and Tim Clark-Lucero, who recounted how they had to race against the clock to marry, moments before their legal window closed. And I sat down with Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, who picked up the mantle of LGBT liberation after the death of a friend and mentor.

Those stories, and many more, are what inspired me to write Defining Marriage: Voices From a Forty-Year Labor of Love. The book, which I just released and is free to download on Amazon through Friday, tracks the trajectory of marriage through stories told by LGBT leaders, allies, and grassroots activists. Of course, it's impossible to recount the story of every person who was involved in the fight for equal marriage, because there are literally millions of them. But my hope is that Defining Marriage can be a representative sampling of just a few of those people's lives.

It's tempting to credit our most recent win only to the most recent activists. But one of the most important lessons that I learned from talking to people in the movement is that we all stood on the shoulders of giants who came before.

After all, our latest win at the Supreme Court coincides with public support for the freedom to marry surging to 60 percent. That couldn't have happened without the outreach conducted by Freedom to Marry's Thalia Zepatos, a straight woman who dedicated herself to the cause of equality, even after she learned that a skinhead group might be targeting her for attack.

In turn, Zepatos's research wouldn't have have happened if it wasn't for folks like the National Center for Lesbian Rights' Kate Kendell and Equality California's Geoff Kors, who fought to bring marriage to the public's attention during the Prop. 8 campaign in 2008. That campaign wouldn't have happened if not for a court case triggered by then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who stunned the world by issuing marriage licenses to gay couples in 2004 -- even though, Newsom told me, his queer colleagues privately urged him not to.

Newsom's surprise licenses only happened because President George W. Bush threatened to sign a constitutional marriage ban, and that wouldn't have happened if not for the work of people like Mary Bonauto, who fought for marriage and won in Massachusetts. But that victory wouldn't have been possible without first suffering painful losses, like those experienced by Ninia Baehr and Genora Dancel, the first lesbian couple to sue the state of Hawaii for marriage, in the 1990s. Though they were deeply in love for many years, their relationship faltered under the public scrutiny brought on by the lawsuit.

The Hawaii case wouldn't have been possible without the advocacy of Evan Wolfson, whose law school paper on marriage equality in the 1980s was met with so much incredulity that he nearly couldn't find an adviser for his thesis. It also couldn't have happened without Andrew Sullivan, whose push for marriage equality earned him unexpected enemies among his conservative and progressive friends alike.

And even that foundational work wasn't the true start of the marriage equality movement; it rested on the brave actions of people like Clela Rorex, a young county clerk who defiantly issued licenses to same-sex couples in the 1970s. Those couples were emboldened by the work of radicals like Faygele Ben Miriam, known for causing a ruckus with his "gay power van."

And those pioneers of the '70s would never have had the launching pad that they did without the grueling work of mid-century forefathers like the confrontational Harry Hay and "Gay Is Good" inventor Frank Kameny.

Those names bring us full circle back to today: I open Defining Marriage with my experiences in Washington, D.C., as the Supreme Court considered the issue of marriage equality. I was visiting D.C. to witness those arguments when I stopped into the Library of Congress and looked through the papers of Kameny, a founding father of the modern LGBT equality movement. There, tucked away in a little manila file folder, I found decades-old invitations to weddings of same-sex couples dating back to before I was born.

I have stories from all of the above figures (and many more, including Dan Savage, Dustin Lance Black, Ken Mehlman, Broadway Impact cofounder Jenny Kanelos, and so on) in Defining Marriage. But I'll never be able to track down stories from those couples who married decades before it was legal, because they simply aren't with us anymore.

Who were those early same-sex couples who held marriage ceremonies in defiance of what was then the law? What were their lives like? And did they ever imagine that the country would, within just a few generations, extend the freedom to marry to couples like them?

Because secrecy was so vital at the time, and because so many of them saw their lives cut short, the historical record is littered with gaps when it comes to queer couples. We might never know their whole stories, but now, having won, we owe it to those lost pioneers to document the lives of those who helped change marriage for the better.

It's to couples like those that Defining Marriage is dedicated.

Mattbaumex120_0MATT BAUME is a writer, storyteller, and video-maker based in Seattle, whose work focuses on LGBT issues, nerds, and anything that is strange and wonderful. He's the author of the book Defining Marriage and created the popular podcast The Sewers of Paris, the long-running marriage equality show Marriage News Watch, and a cavalcade of fun videos on YouTube.

You can find his work on various outlets, including The Advocate, The Stranger, and public radio's Marketplace, and follow him on Twitter @MattBaume.

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