One year after historic ruling, gay marriage win propels liberal causes

In an April, 2015 file photo, an opponent of gay marriage argues over biblical interpretation with a proponent outside the Supreme Court, where justices were hearing arguments on the volatile issue.


By RICHARD WOLF | USA Today | Published: June 25, 2016

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — Gun control advocates lobbying Congress in the wake of the Orlando shootings learned a long time ago: build momentum first in the states.

Abortion rights proponents hoping to overturn restrictions on clinics and doctors at the Supreme Court learned the value of telling personal stories.

Immigration rights activists still fighting to get undocumented parents the protections already achieved for their children learned how to influence public opinion.

All three groups have taken a page from one of the most successful campaigns in history: the gay rights movement's effort to win same-sex marriage, consummated at the Supreme Court a year ago.

As LGBT leaders reflect on that achievement and retool their campaign to battle what they see as continued discrimination in many states, they are passing on lessons in strategy and tactics to other causes. If it pays off, gay marriage will be the gift that keeps on giving.

“A lot of other social movements see the marriage movement as an example of one that was able to succeed," says Marc Solomon, former national campaign director for Freedom to Marry, which led the fight for same-sex marriage. "There was a huge interest in how we did it."

Solomon, who wrote Winning Marriage after the court's 5-4 decision struck down the remaining state same-sex marriage bans, has spent much of the last year traveling the country to advise other causes. The founder of Freedom to Marry, Evan Wolfson, has gone further — meeting with LGBT advocates in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Japan, South Korea, Australia and Cuba at the behest of U.S. embassies.

“There has been tremendous appreciation of the fact that this campaign really did something big and, for many people, unexpected," Wolfson says. "It not only succeeded in transforming the law but did so by transforming hearts and minds in an epic way.”

For leaders of other progressive causes, the unexpectedly rapid victory for same-sex marriage represented only the latest notch in the LGBT movement's belt.

“We have been borrowing from their playbook for years,” says Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which is leading a growing coalition seeking a federal response to the massacre of 49 patrons at a gay nightclub in Orlando two weeks ago.

That means building momentum for expanded background checks on gun purchasers and other measures one state at a time. Despite last Tuesday's test votes in the Senate and Wednesday's sit-in by House Democrats, Gross says, "Congress is never the first to wake up and realize that it's on the wrong side of history. The American people need to wake them up."

The fight for immigration rights borrowed literally from the LGBT movement. During the 2012 fight to win protection from deportation for DREAMers — immigrants brought to the country illegally as children — leaders of the movement staged a "coming out" week to tell their stories.

“I think the reason that so many of us are looking at the LGBTQ movement is because of how quickly the change came about,” says Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, which is still seeking equal treatment for the parents of DREAMers following the Supreme Court's 4-4 vote Thursday. That required winning in "the court of public opinion, in addition to the Supreme Court," she says.

In the same way that gay and lesbian plaintiffs told touching stories of love, adoption and even death during their campaign for same-sex marriage rights, proponents of reproductive rights this year told the Supreme Court about something even more personal: their abortions. Lawyers, doctors and public officials explained in court papers their decisions to end pregnancies.

Stephanie Toti of the Center for Reproductive Rights, who argued the case against Texas abortion restrictions before the high court in March, said seeing the same-sex marriage case play out "encouraged a lot of people to come forward and tell their stories." A decision on the case is expected Monday.

'It is just marriage'

The gay rights movement's success at the Supreme Court last June has been documented with data in the past year, all across America.

Nearly 1 million U.S. adults are in same-sex marriages, a 33% increase, according to a Gallup poll released Wednesday. That's one in 10 LGBT adults. About 123,000 gay and lesbian marriages have been held in the past year.

“I think we are getting closer to the day where it is just marriage, and not same-sex marriage, not gay marriage," says Jim Obergefell, who became the lead plaintiff in the series of cases from Ohio, Michigan, Tennessee and Kentucky. His goal: to be named as spouse on husband John Arthur's death certificate.

Obergefell's book, Love Wins, tells the story of the gay marriage campaign. “It is at its heart a love story," he says, "wrapped in a legal thriller.”

Other plaintiffs in the case have been surprised at how accepting most parts of the country have been as gays and lesbians increasingly tie the knot. The Gallup poll showed more than 10% of gay men are in same-sex marriages, and 8.8% of lesbians.

"It still continues to blow my mind," says Joseph Vitale, a New Yorker who fought with his husband, Rob Talmas, to have both their names on the birth certificate of their Ohio-born son, Cooper — "Adopted Child Doe" in court papers.

The couple has traveled as far as Bucharest, Romania, to tell their story. "I think Cooper really helps drive home what this was all about," Vitale says.

Kentucky plaintiffs Kim and Tammy Franklin-Boyd have witnessed a grudging acceptance of gay marriage in the South, which has come around slower than other parts of the country.

“I think the reality has set in for folks that this is the law of the land," Kim says. "But some people still struggle with the morality side of it. And what we try to tell people is, there’s legality and there’s morality.”

A continuing 'lash'

It has not been all sweetness and light in the year since Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that gays and lesbians deserved "not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization's oldest institutions."

As states such as Mississippi and North Carolina pass laws to protect those who deny services to gays and lesbians because of religious objections, and merchants claiming religious exemptions refuse to serve same-sex weddings, the leaders of last year's fight are fighting back.

"Marriage is wildly significant, but it does not erase all prejudice," says Mary Bonauto of Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD), who argued the Obergefell v. Hodges case in court. The latest state efforts by the other side isn't a backlash, she says, but "a continuing 'lash.'"

In Kentucky, where Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis initially went to jail for refusing to issue marriage licenses, plaintiffs Greg Bourke and Michael DeLeon ran into trouble with the Archdiocese of Louisville. The church refused to reinstate Bourke as a Boy Scouts leader and turned down some elements of a memorial the couple designed for their burial plot.

Ijpe DeKoe and Thom Kostura were Tennessee plaintiffs while DeKoe was stationed there in the Army Reserves. Now in New Jersey, the couple has found the military to be accommodating. Still, DeKoe says comments that appear online can be threatening.

"It's not just 'we don't want you here,'" DeKoe says. "It's 'we want you dead.'"

Pam and Nicole Yorksmith, Ohio plaintiffs with two young boys, empathize with the latest problems faced by transgender people as states try to restrict their use of public bathrooms. They see it as part of a continuing fight for the LGBT movement.

"It never stops," Pam says. "They're always looking for the next victim, the most vulnerable class of people."

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