The right to marry the person you love is fundamental to so many people’s pursuit of happiness and fulfillment – and today millions more can share in it because of successful efforts we helped drive. Along with dignity and respect, marriage conveys a vast array of legal and economic protections and responsibilities. Bringing the freedom to marry to so many has made a profound difference in people’s lives and exemplifies that expanding justice and freedom continues to be possible in our country.
Not long ago, the notion of same-sex couples marrying was unimaginable to most Americans. After marriage was legalized in Massachusetts in 2003, the backlash was swift, with calls for a federal constitutional amendment to undo the ruling and successful efforts to amend state constitutions from Florida to Oregon, Arizona to Wisconsin. In order to secure marriage equality in any one state, let alone win nationwide, advocates needed to build and fund a movement, change hearts and minds, win more states, and grow and diversify public opinion.
Winning Marriage: The Inside Story of How Same-Sex Couples Took on the Politicians and Pundits – and Won.
Civitas was quite literally born out of the marriage equality movement. Founding partners Bill Smith and Patrick Guerriero – working for philanthropist Tim Gill – built Political OutGiving, enlisting more than 100 philanthropists behind a robust, multi-year advocacy and electoral strategy to win marriage in crucial states. Managing partner Katherine Grainger served as assistant counsel for civil rights to the Governor of New York where she helped write and negotiate New York’s groundbreaking marriage equality law, ensuring that the measure fully supported same-sex couples while also supporting the state’s existing civil rights protections. Partner Marc Solomon served as a key architect of the movement for 15 years, including five as national campaign director for Freedom to Marry. He wrote the acclaimed book on the political and organizing strategy behind the movement: Winning Marriage: The Inside Story of How Same-Sex Couples Took on the Politicians and Pundits – and Won. While we came at the marriage work from different vantage points, we were all aligned on the strategy. We knew that we would ultimately need to win nationwide at the U.S. Supreme Court, but to create the climate for that win, we needed to first win a critical mass of states and a diversified critical mass of public support. Only then would we have demonstrated to the justices that America is ready. Here are a few central principles that were core to the marriage equality victory and that we seek to imbue in other efforts we help drive:
Communicate Shared Values
With a cause that is as centrally important to so many as marriage, tapping into people's fundamental values in making the case was essential. We showed Americans why same-sex couples want to marry – out of profound love and commitment. In doing so, we helped them see that supporting marriage for same-sex couples aligns with their own deep-seated values of the Golden Rule – treating others the way you'd want to be treated if you were similarly situated – and freedom – the right to live the way you want as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else. Tapping into those values was a powerful antidote to the fear-based messaging that our opponents deployed. We had initially focused much of our messaging on the benefits and protections that accompanied marriage, but that approach was not nearly as emotionally resonant.
Meet people where they are and try to persuade them
We needed to move public opinion significantly to get to a national victory (as we did – from 27% in 1996 to 71% in 2023). To do so, we prioritized persuasion – making our case to people who were genuinely conflicted and helping them along a journey to support. We were asking them to reconsider some of their deep understandings about marriage, family, and religion. That required engaging with them, leaving no question unanswered, tackling their concerns head-on, and giving them time to reconsider. It also meant that we couldn’t write off people who weren’t with us yet, or call them bigots or bad people.
Build state campaigns designed to win
Winning state marriage campaigns in a legislature or at the ballot required experienced campaign operatives running professional efforts, with field organizers, communications professionals, lobbyists, media consultants, analytics firms, and more, along with tight governing structures and sufficient resources to prevail. We partnered with state leaders to build campaigns that were laser-focused on persuading crucial decision-makers to support our cause, with deep grassroots engagement, powerful story-tellers, and aspirational messaging across multiple communications channels to make our strongest case.
Re-elect your allies and unseat your opponents
We knew that in order to get elected officials to vote with us, they had to believe they wouldn’t lose their jobs for doing so. So we needed to be relentless about engaging electorally. In the first marriage state of Massachusetts, we reelected every incumbent in the state legislature who voted our way on marriage – 195 out of 195 in 2004 and 2006. In New York, we created the Fight Back New York PAC to unseat three incumbents who voted against marriage equality in 2010, changing the political calculus and enabling us to pass a marriage law in 2011. The Political OutGiving network of donors contributed literally millions of dollars to back our allies and defeat our opponents.
Be serious about reaching across the aisle
In 2022, Civitas was proud to partner with Centerline Action to secure enough Republican votes in the U.S. Senate to prevail on the Respect for Marriage Act. We are serious about genuine, long-term GOP engagement, and Civitas principal James Dozier leveraged long-standing relationships and managed a team of GOP consultants to help enlist 12 Republican senators to break a filibuster and ensure passage of the bill. For that work, the Respect for Marriage Act Campaign was awarded the 2023 Campaign Excellence Award for Public Affairs Campaign of the Year by the American Association of Political Consultants (AAPC).