After 12 plus years living in New York City, and after taking an active part in the fight for LGBT rights and marriage equality there, I moved to Washington DC for love this past June. Three weeks later, New York passed marriage equality. Of course I was happy to see all we'd fought for become a reality, but three weeks? really? You couldn't have done it while I was still there?
Much of my early time in the city was spent as an actor onstage and doing voices for Pokemon. I then transitioned into producing Broadway concerts and events for charity and helping to found the New York Musical Theatre Festival. After some time in Africa and working with teens in the US who were dealing with HIV & AIDS, my focus turned to activism.
On November 4th, 2008, after the elation at seeing the first Black president elected, the mood shifted due to an a anti-gay measure in California. Proposition 8 took marriage rights, which had been enacted a few months prior, away from gay and lesbian Californians. While it's silly to say "I'm glad Prop 8 passed," it was the spark that ignited the new LGBT rights movement.
A generation which many described as "difficult to motivate" took to the street by the hundreds of thousands in cities across the country. With just three day's notice and using only Facebook and Twitter, activist Corey Johnson managed to get over 15,000 to march in New York in the days following the 2008 election. The same happened in dozens of cities around the country.
I had formed a group called "Talk About Equality," that worked with Broadway Impact to bring 25 buses and more than 1400 marchers to 2009's National Equality March. 70% of the people we brought to DC were under 30. The march featured speeches from heroes like David Mixner and Julian Bond, and appearances from Lady Gaga and the Broadway cast of Hair. At the front of the march though were not famous or historic faces. Carrying the banner were hundreds of young people, all motivated by an inequality they may not have realized were it not for the passage of a homophobic law in one of the fifty states.
Just two months after the National Equality March in DC, New York was facing our first Senate vote on Marriage Equality. The Assembly had already voted on and approved of marriage equality on several different occasions, but with many promises in hand and despite the virulently anti-gay Democratic Senator Reverend Ruben Diaz Sr. of the Bronx, the bill was brought to the Senate for a vote. Phone banking like mad and lobbying in Albany with hundreds of others had given us a lot of hope. But on a very cold December evening, after some of the most incredible pro-equality speeches I've ever heard, the bill lost by 14 votes (with 8 Democrats voting against it) - more of a massacre than a loss.
The next night at a rally in Union Square, I consoled a very tearful, very angry Senator Tom Duane. Tom had Senators who had promised him to his face that they'd vote for him to marry his partner of many years. He got onstage in front of me and described with no uncertain terms, just how betrayed he felt. "Not one goddamned Republican voted for our right to be married...No one in New York State should ever forget the betrayal that happened in Albany on the issue of our right to be married."
State after state has now written discrimination into their constitutions - either through a referendum or through that state's legislature. Upon examining the strengths and weaknesses of each of those battles, we have been able to discern that the idea of collaboration among organizations was almost always missing.
With a newly-elected pro-LGBT governor who campaigned on a platform to achieve marriage equality, the time was right to organize properly and win the freedom to marry for LGBT citizens. Governor Andrew Cuomo and his administration was not only supportive, but helped build the coalition to win marriage. But if we lost 2 years ago with a Democratic-led Senate, how in the hell were we supposed to win with a new Republican majority there now?
Through a first-time collaboration among several LGBT groups all fighting for a common goal, organizers found great strength and support in this unity. This is what had been missing in 2009. Together, they were able to focus the messaging, the lobbying and public outreach strategies into an cohesive campaign which convinced the Republican-led State Senate of New York to pass a marriage equality law. The passage of this law more than doubled the amount of LGBT Americans who can now legally marry.
Earlier this month, a panel made up of several members of the coalition that made this happen, New Yorkers United for Marriage. The panel included Gregory T. Angelo (Log Cabin Republicans), Jeff Cook (Allegiance Strategies), Brian Ellner (Human Rights Campaign), Emily Giske (Bolton-St. John's), Ross Levi (Empire State Pride Agenda), Cathy Marino-Thomas (Marriage Equality NY) and Marc Solomon (Freedom to Marry). The panel was moderated by Cathy Renna of Renna Communications and took place at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center of New York on October 6th.
The panelists highlighted the fact that though they have myriad disagreements over tactics, their goal of full equality for all LGBT citizens, remain the same. One overwhelming focus of the coalition was on not counting anyone out. While continuing to count on and hold our allies responsible for the promises they'd made to their constituency, it was vital to also engage those who were either moveable or have stood against us in the past.
Through a campaign which accentuated the common goals of freedom for all New Yorkers, on utilizing the power of storytelling and appealing to people's most basic ideas of fairness, the coalition was able to win the votes they needed. Additionally, online organizing tools helped the coalition enormously when it cam to storytelling. A series of videos were released featuring celebrities from both sides of the aisle including Whoopi Goldberg, NY Ranger Sean Avery, Julianne Moore and presidential daughter Barbara Bush. The hashtag #NY4M saw millions of impressions on Twitter in the weeks leading up to the vote. Opportunities for dialogue among Senators and their constituents were countless.
The "New York Marriage Organizing Debrief" was just one in a series of events that NOI has held to lift up lessons learned from successful organizing efforts. The event was a collaboration of: Empire State Pride Agenda, Freedom to Marry, Human Rights Campaign, Log Cabin Republicans, Marriage Equality New York, SEIU 1199, Gill Action Fund, League of Women Voters of New York State, and the New Organizing Institute. Besides the opening panel, there were break out sessions on both the field and communications strategies employed to win the campaign.
With New York frequently being seen as a leader when it comes to human rights legislation, the marriage win will help turn the tides for millions of LGBT Americans. Please watch this useful debrief we put together featuring a panel of real heroes to the LGBT and organizing communities.
Jamie McGonnigal is Community Fellow at NOI
P.S. Here are some additional resources and articles on the organizing that won Marriage Equality in New York.
You can also check out some of my previous blog posts regarding marriage in New York:
New York Marriage Equality, How Did We Get There: A Photo Retrospective
Thousands of New Yorkers Put a Ring on it!