UUs in Rhode Island, Delaware, and Minnesota celebrate equal marriage rights in rapid succession.
Marriage equality supporters sang as the Minnesota Senate debated, including (from back left) the Rev. Luke Stevens-Royer, of White Bear UU Church, Mahtomedi; the Rev. Kelli Clement, executive director of Minnesota Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice; the Rev. Rob Eller-Isaacs, co-minister of Unity Church-Unitarian in St. Paul; David Lohman, with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (with hands upraised). On the far right is Jie Wronski-Riley, a member of the Church of the Larger Fellowship.
The month of May 2013 might forever be known as the month that created unstoppable momentum for the marriage equality movement. First Rhode Island, then Delaware, and then Minnesota authorized same-sex marriage, becoming the tenth, 11th, and 12th states to grant that right to all residents.
To outsiders, Minnesota’s approval may have been the most startling. Just last November, same-sex marriage advocates were in an all-out campaign against a constitutional amendment that would have banned gay marriage. The amendment was defeated. On the same day voters returned control of state government to Democrats. That’s how Gov. Mark Dayton came to sign a measure May 14, approved earlier by the House and Senate, granting full marriage rights to all Minnesotans.
Laura Smidzik, a ministerial intern at First Universalist Church in Minneapolis, has been working for marriage equality in Minnesota for 16 years. Still, when it arrived it took a little getting used to. “None of us thought we’d see it this quickly,” Smidzik said. “It was only three months ago that it seemed like a possibility. We are just thrilled.”
She noted that the groundwork was laid in the buildup to the fall election. “We probably had 40,000 volunteers working to defeat the amendment. Then for the legislative push this spring we didn’t need that many. We mainly focused on legislators who we thought could be moved.”
The tactic that worked last fall was that of having conversations across neighborhoods and in workplaces, telling personal stories rather than trying to argue with people. “We told stories about how being married mattered—to everyone,” said Smidzik. That tactic was used in a more focused way this spring, talking primarily to legislators and people in specific districts.
The Rev. Meg Riley, senior minister of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, a 3,500-member church without walls, lives in Minneapolis and has long been active in the fight for marriage equality there and elsewhere. “I feel like I’m over the rainbow,” she said a few days after the measure was signed into law. “I worked so hard for so many years trying to bring both sides to a point where we could have the civil, respectful, thoughtful conversations that no one—not gays, not the other side—was ready to have.”
In addition to the role of personal stories about the need for marriage equality, she credited the creation of an interfaith coalition with some of the success in November and now. “Faith was absolutely in the center of this. The Evangelical Lutherans were astounding. And the individual Catholics who stood up to the leadership of their faith. Over the years I’ve just watched the denominations change. It feels like a different world. Homophobia is not gone; it’s just that so many conversations that just took so long to have, finally took. It’s an awesome feeling.”
Another factor, said Riley, is that young people—who tend to support equality—have come of age. “In November I was bossed around by organizers who were 20 and 30 years younger. And I loved it.”
And something else. She said, “We need more songs about celebrating. In the hours that we were waiting for the final vote we noticed that so many of our songs are about losing—`Sometimes I feel like I’m a motherless child’—we’re just so used to being the victims. But now, our young people are growing up with win after win, starting with electing an African-American president. It’s what they expect.”
Amid the celebration Riley said she was “flooded by grief” for all those who didn’t live to see this day, including those who died from AIDS. “We need to honor them by telling their stories and then move with them into this new land.”
In Rhode Island the Rev. James Ishmael Ford, senior minister at First Unitarian Church of Providence, noted that Rhode Island is the last New England state to approve marriage equality. “I am enormously pleased. Also a bit on the exhausted side. We’ve been at this hard for at least five years.” He noted that with a Roman Catholic bishop lobbying hard against marriage equality, it was important to have a liberal religious presence.
“This makes me inclined to believe in miracles,” Ford added. “This is the great marker of social approval, as well as the path to ordinariness. Despite what I knew in the front part of my brain, there were times I wondered if we’d ever see this in my lifetime.”
Annette Marquis, LGBTQ and Multicultural Ministries program manager for the Unitarian Universalist Association, said that having 12 states approve marriage equality makes it feel like “we’re over the hump. We’ve reached a tipping point. We need to keep the momentum going.”
She said that three things contributed to the success, especially in Minnesota. “One was having an organized faith community involved in support of this. Before, the perception was simply that the faith community was opposed. The second thing, which was done particularly well in Minnesota, is the one-on-one conversations—activists really listening to the concerns of people they’re talking to and sharing their own stories. That had incredible power and Minnesota is really where that strategy rolled out.”
A third factor, Marquis said, was creating coalitions with the immigrant community—seeing immigration as an LGBT issue and marriage as an immigration issue.
Marquis said that UUs have been deeply involved in all of the states where marriage has been approved. “We’ve been present every step of the way, whether doing phone banking, going door to door, being on committees, or doing strategizing.”
Two other states, Illinois and New Jersey, have the potential to become numbers 13 and 14, said Marquis. And the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on California’s Proposition 8 ban on gay marriage, expected next month, could have an effect on marriage momentum.
“Until we have 50 states in the marriage column, plus federal legislation, we’ll always have the risk of sliding back,” said Marquis, adding that the best thing individual UUs can do is to hold honest conversations with friends, family, and coworkers. “The most critical work we can do, whether we are gay or straight, is to talk to family members, people at work, and others, about how important LGBT family members and friends are. Make them visible. The more we do that, the harder it is for people to turn their backs on them.
“We also need to recognize that marriage equality does not give LGBT people full equality. It’s just one aspect of people’s lives,” Marquis said. “Ending discrimination in housing and employment through passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) is also important.”
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Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.
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