Lessons from the movement for marriage in a fractious age

The jury is still out with regard to what the Trump administration will mean for hard-won protections for lesbians, gay men and transgender people.

Surely no one is anticipating an expansion of protections, such as the passage of the long-proposed Employment Nondiscrimination Act, so the question is asked in terms of how much retrenchment can we expect? Will a nationwide “religious liberty” law be passed that would make anti-LGBT discrimination tacitly legal? Will Trump go further than just overturning Obama’s 2016 guidance on protections for transgender students and advocate for newly restrictive laws? Or will a more conservative Supreme Court reexamine marriage equality and potentially allow states to determine eligibility, thus excluding same-sex couples?

Support for the freedom to marry remains strong, and lessons learned in achieving such backing may be helpful to other causes now under political attack, says historian Martin Meeker.

On this last point, Trump has said that marriage equality, as decided by the Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), is settled law, but we might have good reason to doubt his sincerity. Given that public opinion in our country remains strongly in favor of the freedom to marry — over 60 percent in 2016 — Trump and the Supreme Court would be swimming against a fairly strong tide if an attempt were made to in some way overturn Obergefell.

But in fewer than his first 100 days, Trump has made clear that he tends to overplay his hand and give the American people things that they don’t actually want.

It is within this context that the campus Oral History Center, a research unit of The Bancroft Library, releases the first major oral history project documenting the decades-long legal, political and public opinion campaign to extend to same-sex couples the government sanctioned right to marry. The Freedom to Marry oral history project produced 23 interviews — totaling nearly 100 hours of recordings — which document the strategies and tactics of the movement that convinced 40 percent of the American people to change their minds on a hot-button social issue in less than a generation.

Freedom to Marry’s interlocking lessons

Contained within these oral histories are not simply accounts of what was done to transform American public opinion, but multiple and interlocking lessons that might well be applicable to other issues as well — lessons that could well prove useful for advocates of populations at risk of losing rights and liberties during the Trump administration, such as immigrants and women.

One lesson, for example, centers on the idea that, with proper handling and well-conceived messaging, some current foes might become unlikely allies. In my interview with Tyler Deaton, a gay Republican politico from New Hampshire, one finds a compelling and useful account of how Republican state legislators, some elected in the 2010 Tea Party wave, were convinced not to vote to overturn marriage equality in their state — even though some in fact had voted against marriage just a few years earlier. In other words, these legislators were convinced to change their minds on a hot-button social issue.

How was this done? Deaton provides a partial explanation: “The reason why we won a majority of house Republicans and every Democrat but one was because of that comfort that we created…. We acknowledged the conflict that people themselves felt internally and said, ‘That’s okay.’ Like, ‘You can feel that.’ We’re validating people’s concerns. We’re not dismissing them. We’re not saying, ‘Oh, you’re a hater. You’re a bigot.’ We weren’t doing that. And that was, I think, sophisticated for our campaign to differentiate between the truly far, far, far right, the truly anti-gay people, versus the people who were concerned and who were thoughtful and were respectful and who had just voted no months earlier.”

This lesson — that activists should not actively alienate current foes who might yet be allies — seems obvious enough, but it is something worth exploring in greater detail because it bore real fruit in this context. This lesson, of course, must fit within a much more complex, broader and deeper strategy that is detailed in the oral histories. But if a singular lesson can be drawn it is that allies are not won through accusations and shaming. People changed their minds on an issue because they were given the opportunity to see support for marriage equality not as contrary to their core values but actually, and newly, in tandem with the beliefs they considered most important.

Lending a hand to freshly challenged causes

Although we are not yet two years out from Obergefell, the change in public opinion driven by a real values-based adjustment seems to be holding. As advocates for women’s reproductive rights, environmental regulation and immigrant rights try to hold their ground — let alone make progress — it might be time to turn a critical eye toward time-honored tactics for social change, such as the spectacle of mass protest, and study what has worked in the recent past and attempt to apply those lessons to new circumstances.

Indeed, many of those active in the campaign for marriage equality interviewed for this project are now applying what they learned in other contexts. Thalia Zepatos has been working on reproductive rights, Thomas Wheatley on climate change and Matt McTighe on LGBT employment protections while Freedom to Marry founder Evan Wolfson has devoted countless hours to bringing the freedom to marry overseas.

With the political parties moving ever closer to their extremes and with any semblance of compromise and agreement a distant memory, we seem to be entering a new world. Our leaders are unable to engage with one another, and a populist bent among our fellow citizens has produced opinions ever more calcified into strongly held beliefs. Perhaps the Freedom to Marry oral history project can be one source of ideas for how to build a new and progressive vision of shared values in our fractious age.

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