For the past 13 years, Marc Solomon has found himself at the center of some of the marriage-equality movement’s most contentious battles.
“While I was in graduate school, the marriage decision happened in Massachusetts,” he says. “I was already volunteering 40-plus hours a week on the cause and after we won, I went to work full time in early 2004 and have been at it ever since, nonstop.”
Marc Solomon – Photography by Todd Franson
A former Republican staffer on Capitol Hill, it would not have been easy to predict that Solomon would spent the majority of his working life fighting for same-sex couples’ right to marry. But after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued a ruling in November 2003 legalizing same-sex marriage in the state, Solomon turned his focus to other states, including Vermont, Connecticut and California. In 2010, he joined Freedom to Marry, where he currently serves as national campaign director, and immersed himself in the legislative fight over same-sex marriage in New York. As other state legislatures have considered same-sex marriage legislation, Solomon has often been there, lending advice to activists on the ground on how to drive the issue over the finish line.
In his new book, Winning Marriage: The Inside Story of How Same-Sex Couples Took on the Politicians and Pundits — and Won (ForeEdge, $27.95), Solomon charts how the marriage-equality movement found itself on the brink of victory and provides a blueprint to other movements on how to win.
With same-sex marriage legal in a majority of states and the Supreme Court having been asked to hear five cases challenging same-sex marriage bans in five states, a national resolution legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide now seems closer than ever. Public support in on the rise, and with Democrats solidly behind marriage equality, a growing number of Republicans appear to be as well. But Solomon warns that despite those gains, marriage-equality supporters must not grow complacent or comfortable until the job is done.
“The idea that this is inevitable is really scary to me,” he says. “None of this stuff is inevitable. The Windsor decision was a 5-4 decision, so it’s one justice who gets sick or who resigns. We know we need to drive it over the finish line and be done. It concerns me when I hear people say, ‘Well that one is done already.’ Actually a third of the country doesn’t have the freedom to marry and it’s not done yet. This has been such a great success in the context of the last decade. Let’s finish it and then we can party and say it was inevitable.”
METRO WEEKLY: Who is Marc Solomon?
MARC SOLOMON: I grew up in Kansas City, Missouri. Was born a raised there from zero through 18. I went to Yale for college and I was Mr. Republican when I was a kid, and also when I was coming out of college and in my early 20s. I was a Republican staffer on Capitol Hill for a senator from Missouri — Jack Danforth — who actually I’m still very close with. He’s still sort of a mentor, father-figure kind of guy. But I was always super involved in politics from early on.
When Danforth retired from the Senate, I moved to St. Louis and helped him set up an not-for-profit project. I was on both this ideological journey as well as in the process of coming out and moved to Boston in 2001 and went to [Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government]. I also started volunteering with this grassroots groups called the Massachusetts Freedom to Marry Coalition and really got hooked on the issue. It just seemed to make so much intuitive sense to me that gay people should be able to marry. I remember looking at an array of issues and causes that the groups were fighting for in Massachusetts and that one just appealed to me so strongly. And after I came out I really decided I wanted to use the political skills that I had developed and the background I had to advance the cause.
In Massachusetts, I ended up running the campaign and we defeated two constitutional amendments that would have taken the right to marry away. When I started we were at 50 votes out of 200 in the legislature to stop a constitutional amendment when we needed to get 150. We needed 75 percent of the legislature in order to defeat the constitutional amendment in Massachusetts and keep it off the ballot. We finally did that in 2007. We reelected every lawmaker who voted our way in 2004 and 2006. It was 195 out of 195. And we were the only state in that whole period of time. We lost four court cases in Maryland, Washington, New Jersey, New York, and then after we won in 2007, I started working closely with GLAD and doing essentially consulting work in other states.
I spent some time in Vermont and Connecticut helping guide them on electoral and legislative strategy. I went out to California for the last two weeks of Prop. 8 just to lend a hand and after it passed it was so clear to me that we had to overturn it. I felt really emotional about it so I went back to Massachusetts and said I was leaving, and moved back and joined Equality California as their marriage director. People always asked me if I was planning weddings and stuff. It was really to build a ballot campaign to win back the freedom to marry in California. That was overtaken with events by the Prop. 8 lawsuit. It was a few months after I moved out there that Chad Griffin and team filed the lawsuit. Once we won in district court it was clear to me we weren’t going to go back to the ballot, and if we had a chance to win it in court we should let it play out. I started talking with Evan Wolfson around that point and joined Freedom to Marry at the end of 2010.
What Evan had seen was that from campaign to campaign, each of them was reinventing itself. There was not much transfer of knowledge and information from one state to the next. It was sort of happenstance. And Evan saw that if we could set up a centralized campaign operation that could make sure that every state is using the best practices, that centralizes messaging because the right messaging is pretty consistent state to state, if we could set that up we could really accelerate our progress. He asked me to run the campaign elements of the work. Evan is really the big picture strategist — the persuader — and I’m the one who is really the political strategist: How do we win in Illinois? How do we win in New York? What are we going to need in this campaign and that campaign? What are the smart ways to push the president? How do we build power in strategic ways to get us where we need to go?
MW: Tell me more about the young Republican aspect.
SOLOMON: I decided I was a Republican when I was probably 13 or 14 years old, which was ironic because my parents were super liberal, so it was around the time I was recognizing that I was gay. In retrospect I really think it was a reaction. It was certainly a rebelling against my parents but it was also the idea of being with the tough guys, the Republicans, the badasses — it was sort of “If I’m one of them then I’m not gay.” I didn’t map it out that way, but in retrospect I think there was plenty of that going on. I was never a gay Republican. I was a Republican and I was gay.
I also talk about in the book one of the most transformational things I’ve ever done is that was chosen to be part of this fellowship to the Rockefeller Foundation called Next Generation Leadership. They took 24 of us from around the country to focus on different elements of democracy and had all sorts of really inspiring advocates for different causes. That was during the time I was coming out. I was around all these incredible leaders like Dan Gross, who heads the Brady Campaign, and Eric Garcetti, who is now mayor of Los Angeles, and it just became clear to me that ultimately at its root the fight for LGBT equality is a fight against oppression and when it came down to it what side did I want to be on. I wanted to fight against all oppression and that meant that I was on the left, and not on the right anymore. I’ve been a pretty active liberal for a good amount of time since.
MW: Do you think that experience has informed how you approach Republicans in this fight?
SOLOMON: No question. I joke that I’m not a Republican but I can play one on TV. If you want to make real advances on a cause in America with divided government it’s crucial that it becomes a bipartisan cause. And on most causes I care about now it means working extra hard to enlist Republicans to be in support and then highlighting and touting that support. It can’t be lip service — it’s got to be real.
I think that’s why we’ve been successful with this Young Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry — people know me and they know that I’m about one cause. It’s about winning the freedom to marry and it’s not in my day job my work that’s all I’m about. I know we need Republicans in order to win, in order to make our strongest case and in order to make it a truly American issue. I’ve been able to develop a lot of trust with Republicans who know how serious I am about the cause and I’m not winking and nodding and just giving them lip service.
MW: What made you write this book? Why now?
SOLOMON: Well, it took a long time to write. I started writing this book five years ago, after Massachusetts, because nobody had really told the story of Massachusetts. After I joined Freedom to Marry in 2010 I immediately immersed myself in the New York marriage fight. That was such a powerful, momentum-shifting battle — the disgusting intrigue in Albany, which is one of the grimmest state capitols politically, working super closely with Gov. Cuomo and dealing with some of these horrible shenanigans by legislators. It was really a compelling story. But then we had the ballot fights and we did all this work with the Obama administration, pushing them and working with them. And then we had the DOMA case and the Prop. 8 case. I just kept writing and writing and writing.
There is this idea in our culture now that there needs to be a superhero, and that’s how things happen. I wanted to tell the story of how a successful movement really works. The movement is not about one person. There are certainly leaders like Evan Wolfson and Mary Bonauto and Tim Gill and a few others who really point the way with a long term vision and a plan, but the creation of this movement and the hard work of the movement — that’s the thing I wanted to show. The hard work of the movement, the unglamorous work.
MW: What’s been the highest point and lowest point for you?
SOLOMON: The highest points were the first couples marrying in Massachusetts, being at my first marriage. I remember it was one of the plaintiff couples. I remember always being wistful going to weddings and I was in a lot of weddings as a groomsman and seeing my friends get married and feeling like I wasn’t allowed to do this. I was barred from doing this by the law. I did feel like a second class citizen, and I felt like it was really wrong. And going to this wedding and seeing two guys getting married, everything felt so perfect. Hearing the officiant say, “By the power vested in me by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” — it was exceptionally moving.
The other point was on the political side when we beat back the final constitutional amendment in Massachusetts. So many people thought we’d never get a majority of the legislature, but we actually got three-quarters of the legislature to vote our way. That was such a huge emotionally powerful day. I remember Ted Kennedy called me and left this great message on my phone.
None of the states have had anywhere close to the intensity we had in Massachusetts. A lot people don’t realize how intense it was. There were religious nuts from all over the country who came. There was this one guy who carried this huge cross back and forth in front of the state house. I remember people were walking behind Mary Bonauto chanting “Evil!”
MW: Police had set-up sharp shooters, too.
SOLOMON: That sort of epitomizes it. Prop. 8 was very intense but even some of the more intense moments during Prop. 8 were nothing like the vitriol and intensity in Massachusetts because it was the first place.
As far as lows — losing Prop. 8. We were at this hotel in San Francisco and outside people were celebrating like crazy because Obama had won, and here we were. It felt like even in San Francisco, on this joyous night for so many people, our community was being left behind. The next day, the giant rainbow flag in the Castro was flying at half-mast and people were protesting. It was really devastating.
Marc Solomon: Freedom To Marry
Photo by Todd Franson
MW: What do you think the state of the opposition is currently?
SOLOMON: We’re seeing them moving into these so called religious protection — or as we call them, “license to discriminate efforts.” But ultimately, I don’t think those are going to have too much resonance because what they’re about is telling people that you can keep gay folks out of your store, out of your restaurant, not provide services to gay people. And when you remind people we’ve been through that period in U.S. history before when blacks weren’t allowed to sit at lunch counters, people really recoil because some of those images are so instilled in people’s memories. I think ultimately it’s not going to catch on.
I don’t know where they go next. We’ve seen them go to fight equality for transgender people, which is really terrible. But also other issues. Many of the people who fight against us are also the people fighting against immigration reform. There is this strain of cultural conservatism. We’re also really seeing a shift in evangelical churches away from this Pat Robertson style of fire and brimstone. Given where millennials are, if they want to keep appealing to younger people, they’re going to have to do something.
MW: After so many losses, what was the turning point for the marriage-equality movement?
SOLOMON: There have been several. Number one was gay people finally marrying. People have been working on this for years and years, and finally, in Massachusetts, gay people were able to marry. People around the country were able to see it was good and it was fine, and experiencing the real couples and why they wanted to get married really was transformational. And that’s why our opponents put so much effort into trying to stop it because they knew once people saw what we were really talking about, people would be fine with it.
Winning in New York was a huge turning point because we hadn’t won in awhile and New York was such a big powerful state. That provided real fuel. And I think losing Prop. 8 provided real intensity to everybody. It was a big wake-up call to the gay community that if we really wanted this freedom and right then we really needed to work hard for it. It wasn’t going to happen on its own and we couldn’t just expect people to vote our way.
The final one was the Windsor decision and just how powerfully it was written. Justice Anthony Kennedy was so clearly onboard, and when you read Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissent and how clearly he saw what it meant.
But that gets back to what I was talking about before. I wrote the book because I wanted to show what a movement is — how a movement works and how our movement gained power and won. The Windsor decision didn’t happen on its own. The Windsor decision happened because it rests on not only the other DOMA cases but the wins we’d had in the states and the growth in public support. It’s the cumulative effect that gets us to the point where its downhill skiing.
MW: When do you think the movement for marriage equality will come to a conclusion?
SOLOMON: I think it could happen by June 2015. There are [five] cases now pending before the Supreme Court.
I saw this USA Today piece where the reporter had my quote right next to [National Organization for Marriage President] Brian Brown’s quote and they were like the exact same quote: we want the Supreme Court to take up a case and rule immediately. I think from the states, whether you’re for or against, people want national resolution. They realize that there’s a need for national resolution and that having this patchwork doesn’t make a lot of sense. Having the unclarity doesn’t make a lot of sense. Spending all of this time and money fighting our opponents in the states fighting these suits doesn’t make much sense.
Now that there’s a split in the circuits, we’ve answered what Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said was really needed for them to take up a case. What we’re doing now is working to highlight two things — that America is ready for national resolution and that every day of denial is a day of real harm for real people, and highlighting that harm so the justices realize that punting or not taking up a case and letting it go for another year or two has a real serious impact on lives.
MW: Is there a politician you think has ever led on this issue? It seems like a lot of them are always playing catch up.
SOLOMON: The most important thing for the vast majority of elected officials is to continue to be an elected official. So there aren’t many who will take these über-courageous votes. There are a few who really led on this issue when it wasn’t in their political best interests. One is a woman named Barbara L’Italien — a Democratic then-state rep in Massachusetts. There are a few others. Richard Ross from Massachusetts, who replaced Scott Brown in the state Senate, and Brown called him right after he switched his vote and voted our way and said, “What the fuck are you doing?” He thought he was going to lose his seat, but he recognized that he couldn’t live with himself if he voted the other way. A couple of the leaders of the Republicans in New York who voted our way took truly courageous votes — they knew that it could cost them their seats and a couple of them have lost their seats.
I think Republican Sen. Rob Portman took a very principled stand on marriage. He got some flack from people in our community because they said he only did it because his son is gay. Let me tell you how many politicians I know who have gay kids who are opposed to us because they are worried about the political consequence. To me, it was really moving because he was essentially saying his kid was more important to him than a potential political future if it ever came to that. I thought that was very powerful. On the national front, that was the most courageous stand I’ve seen.
MW: Freedom to Marry has said once same-sex couples secure a national right to marry that you all are done and the organization will shut down. So what’s next for you?
SOLOMON: There’s no question that I’m passionate about issue campaigns. There are some issues I care a lot about, such as how can we reframe the issue of income inequality in this country so that we can create serious momentum to deal with it and give everybody an equal opportunity to succeed. There’s certainly the immediate need in the LGBT movement to drive forward nondiscrimination and get that passed for gay and trans folks. I love thinking about the different pressure points that a movement or a cause has that it can strategically leverage to gain power and start putting wins on the board and create this snowball effect.
MW: What lessons can other movements take from this one?
SOLOMON: Have a very clear goal of what you’re fighting for and being able to enunciate it clearly. What’s the endgame? And then to have a big-picture strategy of how to get there. Those are things that Evan really developed — they’re what we’ve always called the roadmap to victory. The freedom to marry nationwide was the end and the strategy to get there was to win a critical mass of states and achieve a critical mass of public support so we could get the Supreme Court to ultimately do the right thing.
It’s very important to have an aspirational goal. Winning the freedom to marry is something that inspires lots of folks. You need something that is inspiring enough to get people to go knock on doors in rural Virginia or Maryland or to sit down with your lawmakers.
Having strong campaigns in the states is also important. Being very strategic about where we play knowing there’s not unlimited resources or unlimited talent and when we decide on them just being exceptionally professional about the kinds of campaigns we put together. Always having those campaigns be very field focused, very strategically grassroots focused. On issues as big as ours and some of the other issues that have been tough to move along like gun violence or immigration, you need lawmakers hearing from people in their districts so they hear much more from your side than your opponents’ side.
And the framing of the issue is really important. You need to know who your audience is. Audience is sort of middle America, so you really need to figure out a way to talk about your cause in a way that resonates with regular people and the people who represent them. Always being very focused on values-laden messaging. That’s something we got wrong a lot before we got it right, and it’s something professionals in the business get wrong all the time. The messages that poll the best aren’t necessarily the ones that work the best. People need to feel ultimately that if they don’t support your position they are not living up to their best selves. And that takes figuring out how to really tell the story in a way that people can connect with.
It’s also important to be very positive and not demonizing of people who aren’t with you. When I first started on this our support was in the 30-some odd percent. If we demonized the people who weren’t with us back then we’d still be there. It’s respecting the fact that people come from all sorts of backgrounds and most people learn that marriage is not two guys or two gals. They learned that marriage is a father and a mother. That’s what you learn from your first story book as a kid and that’s what plenty of religions teach as well. People aren’t bad people because they believe that or because they were taught that. It’s how do you walk people through a journey to get to the place where you want them to get and how do you help them see that that’s where they want to get. And then welcoming them and embracing them. Not saying, “What the hell took you so long?”
I wanted this book to show how we constructed this movement and how the movement works so people get a deeper perspective of what it takes to have a social movement that really builds power for itself and wins in our American political system. It’s a very positive and optimistic story in the end because what I’m showing is that you can win in America. Even in dysfunctional Washington and divided government, you can still accomplish great things.
Marc Solomon’s Winning Marriage: The Inside Story of How Same-Sex Couples Took on the Politicians and Pundits — and Won is published by ForeEdge and available in bookstores and at online booksellers.