Appealing to better angels: A Q&A with gay-marriage warrior Marc Solomon

[dropcap]M[/dropcap]arc Solomon’s book, Winning Marriage, is the book on the gay marriage movement to read. It was published last month and has been met with glowing reviews that read like a sigh of relief. “Finally,” wrote Mark Joseph Stern at Slate, who said the book serves as “an important corrective.” That’s a fact.

Two high-profile books came out this year ahead of Solomon’s and they seemed doomed to fail to satisfy the people most interested to read them — that is, people who, on the one hand, haven’t followed the movement and really want to learn about it and, on the other, those who have been doing hand-to-hand combat in the trenches of the movement for decades and know that the legislative and court victories that piled up over the last few years were the fruit of very difficult work, tenacity, political skill and lots of money.

Forcing the Spring, is the work of New York Times reporter Jo Becker, who embedded herself with lawyers and operatives and seemed to get so swept up in what she was witnessing she either lost or never really looked for the context that made the recent battles winnable.

The other book, Redeeming the Dream, was written by Ted Olson and David Boies, the lawyers who mounted and eventually won the case against Proposition 8, the ballot initiative that banned same-sex marriage in California. That book reflects the magical thinking that has spread this year, fueled by euphoric hindsight — the idea that the victory for gay couples was pre-ordained, as if the “arc of history” were a god in robes who descended from the clouds, tuned into Glee and then set about putting things right for gay Americans.

Soloman is neither embedded journalist nor magical-thinking lawyer. He is a man of the trenches — the national campaign director for Freedom to Marry, the organization that has been at the forefront of the movement for gay marriage since 2003. His book is a fast-paced account of efforts mounted on voter doorsteps and state capitol hallways that helped bring about the remarkable changes in personal opinions and political calculations that form the backdrop of the movement’s recent historic victories.

Solomon will be speaking along with Colorado philanthropist and pathbreaking gay-rights advocate Tim Gill at the Denver Museum of Contemporary Art tonight (Monday) at 6:30 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.

I spoke to Solomon on the phone Friday afternoon.

John Tomasic: The book starts with the 2003 Goodridge decision in Massachusetts that made gay marriage legal there. But the decision also energized opponents of gay marriage, who orchestrated a string of defeats with gay-bashing campaigns for marriage bans that passed in 11 states. I know you had planned for setbacks but, still, how did the movement retain energy and momentum?

Marc Solomon: Actually, those ballot initiatives weren’t our fights. We weren’t preparing defenses for those so it didn’t have such a direct effect… Opponents of marriage were taking us on in ruby red states — Alabama, Georgia…

But the strength of our victory in Massachusetts, it was much larger by comparison. Suddenly, we were seeing same-sex couples getting married, and that was enough to energize supporters all over the country. You could see what the movement was all about, the possibility. In Massachusetts, straight people and gay people cooperated to make it happen.

Yours was a populist or people campaign that took you out into the country. What did you learn there, good, bad, ugly?

Well, it’s not a new insight, but it was still a lesson: Politicians don’t lead; they follow. If you want to convince politicians to take a stand, you have to convince them they won’t lose their seat. There’s nothing more important to an elected official than continuing to be an elected official, so we had to show them that they would have support — and that’s where Tim Gill and the Gill Foundation came in. That was critical. The politicians knew there would be backing… that they wouldn’t be left out on a limb at election time. [Edit note: Solomon is referring to the fact that the Gill Foundation’s political arm made a point of financially supporting candidates who supported gay marriage.]

We also had to appeal to people’s loftier sides by arguing that gay couples’ desire to be married was the best of this country — it’s about commitment and community. So lawmakers and others, they had to see that — and many of them made amazing personal journeys on the road to embracing that idea. Most people, when you have honest conversations with them, they open up. But many, too, were struggling with conflicting information. Most people grew up thinking marriage was just about a guy and a girl. They grew up in faith traditions where homosexuality is viewed as problematic. So you have to talk about marriage and why we want to marry, about abiding commitment and love, and people start to see it.

But that acceptance, it seemed to have turned around so quickly from the opposite — antipathy, or at least indifference. That’s what we’re all talking about. Does it look the same way from inside the heart of the movement?

Well, the plan was always to just win as much as we could, to get a critical mass. The plan was not — it was just illustrative. It was put together just to see a way forward. It was always less about dates… It was just about trying to see that it was doable. Until Massachusetts, it was cloudy to say the least, and we didn’t have a second state until Connecticut in 2008. So the idea that things have gone so well in the last couple of years, well, yes, we hit a turning point. We got the consensus of the law and among judges.

I know marriage as a goal was controversial even within the gay-rights movement. Some said it was beyond reach, that it hit on religious buttons —

Yes, but of course there was the other side of the argument, too: If we make the case for marriage, we make the larger case for gay people in family units, that we are full citizens.

Here was another lesson from the campaign: We had to have a really robust field operation-grassroots campaign. I’m talking about us eventually engaging in parts of the country where there are not a lot of open LGBQT people and we had to give them confidence to tell their stories to their communities. A lot of voters in those parts of the country, just thought “Oh, you’re talking about those people out there.” So we had to show them, no, that we’re here, too, regular people. Not the people out there, from a faraway place. We’re the couple down the street. The people with the dogs. The couple with the gay son who wants to get married. We had to change perceptions about who we are and what we care about. We’re not the “other” portrayed in the media. We’re part and parcel, members of every community.

You’re a campaign person. You have led an incredibly successful historic national political campaign. Do you look around at other kinds of campaigns — especially campaigns for things that the vast majority of Americans support, like campaign finance reform and support for clean energy and efforts to address income inequality. Do you look at those campaigns that seem to be limping along and say “No no no, you’re doing it all wrong”? What lessons do you have to impart?

I don’t pretend you can transpose a lot of what happened for us… but there are things.

One, you have to have a concrete goal you’re fighting for — and it has to be motivational, aspirational to those most engaged. Regular same-sex couples were motivated (by the campaign) to have very tough conversations with strangers… You have to inspire.

Two, You have to talk about it in the context of American values. You have to make it clear that, in order to be our best selves, we have to get on board with this. That’s different from just impressing voters from the base — the ones who already agree with you. You have to take people on the journey. You can’t see it as us versus them. You have to look at everyone as a potential supporter.

Three, it’s about brass tacks. You ask: Where can we put wins on the board — even if they won’t be the ultimate goal. You need to notch wins. For that you need solid data and analysis. I worked on a (gun-purchase) background checks bill in Washington State recently. The proposal won 60 to 40. The campaign was based on deep research that asked “What can we win?’ You have to have talented people and you have to be politically shrewd.

Four, you have to do the Gill Foundation kind of work. They really protected our friends and allies and helped work to defeat opponents. The commitment was there.

Opponents of marriage equality have turned to campaigns around religious freedom. How do you view that strategy?

They have conceded on marriage, which is great for us and our cause. And with the religious freedom argument, I think it’s an attempt to conflate the two issues — objections to same-sex marriage and the absolute guarantee of the Constitution that no one can be made in the religious arena to act against their faith: a Catholic priest can’t be made to marry a person who divorced and an Orthodox rabbi can’t be made to perform an interfaith marriage. The argument is off. They’re confusing that protection, making it an excuse to discriminate in the public square. It’s about not being comfortable with someone and so refusing to serve them. I think that’s a dangerous place they’re going. It’s a vivid line in our country’s history. Americans know what that looks like.

They’ll find that — what happened in Arizona. The religious freedom law sailed through the legislature there, but in practice it was clear it would be a license to discriminate. Businesses across industries brought pressure to kill it… I think the images of people being kept out of restaurants and stores — that is familiar to Americans. They’ll see it as discrimination. I think those efforts will fall apart.

Note: The Gill Foundation is a contributor to the Colorado Independent.

[Photo via Todd Franson for Freedom to Marry.]