Celebrating the Work of Freedom to Marry, Through Oral History

By Katie Gonzales

The Oral History Center’s Freedom to Marry collection features interviews from key members of the Freedom to Marry organization. Officially launched in 2003 by Evan Wolfson, the campaign worked to legalize same-sex marriage across the United States. The campaign originally worked on helping same-sex couples get married on a smaller case-by-case scale, as at the time, no state in the country had legislation protecting same-sex marriage. The first state to even do so was Massachusetts in 2004. Throughout the organization’s lifespan, same-sex marriage went from being legally unprotected on a state level to federally protected as an unequivocal right across the United States. 

FTM Logo
Freedom to Marry

However, in June 2024,  the Supreme Court countered this ruling in Department of State v. Muñoz, in which it declared that the right to bring a noncitizen spouse to the United States is not constitutionally protected. This ruling could be detrimental towards married same-sex citizens and noncitizens who would have to leave the United States, a country where their marriage is legal, back to a home country where it isn’t. 

Given the June 2024 Supreme Court ruling, as well as this being Pride month, it’s a great time to look back on the work that Freedom to Marry did to legalize same-sex marriage. The lessons from the organization remain as important today as they were twenty years ago. When initially proposing the Freedom to Marry campaign to potential investors, Wolfson remembers:

I would be saying things to them like, look, if you just want to sprinkle some money around and do some ordinary building programs and helping people, I’m not the right person for you. And if you want to stay in your work up till now, which has been primarily in the Bay Area, and certainly only in California, not nationally, I’m definitely not the right guy for you. But if you really want to make a difference, what you really ought to do is support a campaign to win the freedom to marry. They went, “Marry?” “Yes, marriage. Marriage is the engine of change, marriage is what we’re going to have to be fighting for. You can do good work this way, but if you want to be transformational, you need to do this.”

One major battle that Freedom to Marry faced was when Proposition 8 passed in California. This ballot proposition intended to ban same-sex marriage measure passed in 2008. At the time, this was a massive blow to Freedom to Marry’s campaign, especially due to California’s reputation as a more progressive state. Tim Sweeney, a member of Freedom to Marry’s board of directors, recalls: 

We were just devastated. It was devastating. Right? In California, the progressive beacon of the west, right? And we lost handily. It wasn’t close, which would have just taken a bit of the sting out of it. But what was interesting is the number of non-LGBT people who were outraged that their friends and family that they loved and cared about were basically being told you’re second-class citizens and your love is not legitimate. It created such a wave of we’re going to commit ourselves to fix this. And we have to be willing to be with them in their anger, invite them in in a new way, let them lead with us. All of that is hard to do, I think, in a social movement because you get worried they don’t really get it, their message is not your message, are they going to do some half measure, are they going to compromise, what do they know? But you got to kind of trust that they’re with you and you got to really in some cases step aside and realize, for instance, the message you may say to yourself or within the community is different than the one the non-LGBT community needs to hear. And maybe they need to have different messengers that just talk about the journey in a way that maybe an LGBT person wouldn’t sound authentic or real on. So that was just such an interesting moment. It’s almost like after Prop 8 we needed to step back a bit and let the world realize, “Wait a minute, what happened here? This is not okay.”

After the loss in California, support for LGBT rights increased due to the sheer amount of media coverage of the loss nationally. A Pew poll from 2010 cited that over 60% of Americans supported same-sex marriage, a drastic difference from polls in the 1990s that cited 60% of Americans against same-sex marriage. But by 2012, President Barack Obama made his support for same-sex marriage clear, stating that his views had “evolved” since his first presidential term.  Thalia Zepatos, the Director of of Research and Messaging for Freedom to Marry recalls in her 2016 interview the impact of Obama’s statement: 

I think really two things happened. One was that Governor [Martin] O’Malley really got involved in the campaign, but the big one was that our long-term effort to really engage the White House and President Obama came to fruition, you know not long before the election and President Obama made his statement in support of same-sex marriage, and within twenty-four hours, polling support for marriage among black voters in Maryland went up by twenty points. I mean, it was the biggest single day increase I’ve ever seen anywhere and I think it contributed just in a very great way.

By 2015, 37 states had legalized same-sex marriage, but it would not be a federal right until the Supreme Court case of Obergefell v. Hodges, which argued that same-sex marriage was a right under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause and Equal Protection Clause. On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court announced its ruling: same-sex marriage was guaranteed as a fundamental right. The same night, the White House was bathed in rainbow lights, an unmistakable show of support for the ruling. Jo Deutsch, Freedom to Marry’s federal director from 2011-2015, recounted this event:  

It was a truth that, from every level, we had won. It was an acknowledgement from the President of the United States that our lives and our marriages mattered, in a just obvious way…This is the symbol of America and the symbol of the President of the United States, all in rainbow color.  It was just breathtaking and so beautiful…We had come so far through our lives from asking can we walk down the street holding hands, or can we actually, in an introduction, say this is my wife? And now to this moment, there we were in front of the White House, in all of its colorful glory, with all of these people holding hands. I can’t tell you how many proposals we saw, with people just dropping to their knees right and left. It was like, another one dropping to their knees, and everybody started to clap. It was just phenomenal. 

White House
The White House in 2015

As the end of Pride month nears, it is important to remember that it hasn’t even been 10 years since the legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States. In many other countries around the world it is still taboo or even illegal. When we celebrate Pride month, it’s important to remember the work that many people and organizations did to ensure LBGTQIA rights, especially as they continue to face challenges.  Celebrations can only happen as a result of triumph over tribulations, and should be remembered together. 

Katie Gonzales is currently a third-year student at UC Berkeley studying English and Anthropology. She works as a student editor for the Oral History Center. 

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