When the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act in June, alumnae on the front lines of the marriage equality movement rejoiced. Their stories reflect the challenges and triumphs of their journey to change hearts, minds and laws.
When Jo Deutsch ’82 began to come out as a lesbian during her senior year at Smith, she had long ago put away her girlhood vision of a fairy-tale wedding—or any wedding. “As a little girl, you hear that Cinderella story, the white dress and marrying the man of your dreams. But when you realize you’re a lesbian, there’s no story that fits,” Deutsch says. “In 1982, there were no images of weddings between two women or two men. Marriage never occurred to me at that point.”
More than three decades later, Deutsch—now the federal director of Freedom to Marry, a nonprofit organization dedicated to winning marriage rights for same-sex couples nationwide—finally got her fairy-tale wedding. On May 18, 2013, in a historic Maryland home overlooking the Patuxent River, she married Teresa Williams in front of 90 guests, including their three children. The couple had been together for 30 years, but it wasn’t until Maryland voted to legalize marriage for same-sex couples that they were able to become each other’s wives, and gain benefits previously denied them.
Like any newlyweds, they love to recount special moments from the ceremony. The brides, both in their 50s and wearing white wedding dresses, walked each other down the aisle—“two proud feminist lesbians who no one can give away!” Deutsch says. “When the officiant said, ‘By the power vested in me,’ we both just took a deep breath,” Deutsch recalls. “We had heard those words in TV shows and movies. We’d gone to weddings of our straight friends. Never did we think we would actually be in the place where somebody would say that to us. I still get goose bumps.”
After being together for 30 years, Jo Deutsch ’82, federal director of Freedom to Marry, wed Teresa Williams this year.
For Deutsch, the walk down the aisle was preceded by a much longer walk to the aisle. As Freedom to Marry’s chief lobbyist in Washington, D.C., Deutsch has been lobbying Congress to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) to ensure that, as she puts it, “Any loving and committed couple in this country that wants to get married can get married.” As it turned out, Deutsch’s wedding marked the intersection of her life with her life’s work; she made her own marriage possible. “The wedding was an incredibly personal event, and yet we understood that we had been a voice in the movement and a voice for Freedom to Marry,” Deutsch says. “Partially our work got us there, and so did our lives. It’s hard to separate the two.”
Deutsch is one of several Smith alumnae who have been fighting on the front lines for marriage equality—and who have played crucial roles in the movement’s success. Among others, the activists include a U.S. senator, a lawyer, a pollster and advocates for LGBT couples and families. Their work has taken them inside Congress, the Supreme Court and even the Oval Office. While at times it is almost uncanny how the path to marriage equality winds back to Smith, it’s not exactly surprising. “Smith is a place that tells you that you can change the world,” says Jennifer Chrisler ’92, the college’s new vice president for alumnae relations. “You can be a woman who can lead, take on something that isn’t fair and change the power structure.” Before coming to Smith, Chrisler was the executive director of the Family Equality Council, a national organization that supports, represents and connects families headed by LGBT parents.
It’s partly thanks to these alumnae that today the country is a little more equal than it was before their journeys began. They marched, rallied, lobbied, wrote legislation and laid the groundwork for change long before “marriage equality” was a term or even a concept. Still, after years of activism, they were as surprised as anyone at how rapidly change can occur. On June 26, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down two historic rulings: In United States v. Windsor, the court ruled that a key section of DOMA was unconstitutional. It also let stand a lower-court ruling that had found California’s Proposition 8 ballot initiative to be unconstitutional, effectively overturning a same-sex-marriage ban in that state.
On Decision Day, U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin ’84 (D-Wis.) was in her office glued to the Supreme Court’s blog when the opinions came in. “A number of folks on my staff had been following this very closely, and we heard a ‘hurray!’ ripple through the office,” Baldwin remembers. At Smith, Chrisler was at her desk when she heard the news. “I called my spouse and cried,” she says. “I called my new colleagues who I knew cared about the issue and said, ‘Can you believe this just happened?’”
It was a day of landmarks, and a final push for a movement that had been gaining unprecedented momentum. A few months before the rulings, an ABC News/Washington Post poll indicated record support for the freedom to marry, with 58 percent of respondents saying they supported marriage for same-sex couples. (A full 81 percent of young adults 18–29 were shown to support the freedom to marry, regardless of political affiliation.) In part, the shift in attitudes toward marriage equality is due to the growing number of same-sex couples who have come out in their communities and their growing visibility in popular culture. “Instead of being the strange ‘other,’ they became your neighbors, your friends, your family,” says Susan Murray ’80, an attorney and partner at the Vermont law firm Langrock Sperry & Wool. “It’s a lot harder to discriminate against someone you know.”
The dramatic change in attitudes is no accident; rather, it’s the result of deliberate strategizing. “The primary factor,” says Carrie Baker, associate professor and director of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith, “is years of hard work by gay and lesbian rights activists working politically, legally and personally to make same-sex relationships visible and normalized.”
Prominent political pollster Celinda Lake ’75, for instance, has been involved in polling on LGBT equality issues since 1989. Over the years, she and her firm tested and developed messaging pertaining to attitudes toward same-sex marriage. In the 2006 and 2008 campaigns to overturn California’s Proposition 8, Lake’s firm found that the most effective messages focused not so much on civil rights but on relationships. “Those campaigns demonstrated that the message had to move from equal rights and the right to marry to whom you love and relationships,” Lake says.
As the first openly gay person elected to the U.S. Senate, Baldwin is in a unique position to talk about marriage equality. Though she is single now, she was in a serious relationship for 15 years, and during the time she served in the House, many of her colleagues got to know her and her then partner. Some took the opportunity to ask Baldwin frank questions in private. “One that I got asked frequently in the earlier years is, ‘Why do you all have to press for marriage equality? Why isn’t civil union enough?’” Baldwin recalls. Her response: “Because it’s not equal.”
All of the activists have heard some version of that question: “Why is marriage so important?” They acknowledge the sense of legal and financial security that marriage brings in the face of life’s big What Ifs, but the underlying messages are just as significant. Baldwin sees the freedom to marry as part of a much larger fight for equality in general. “It is about realizing the basic founding values of our country: equal opportunity and fairness and justice,” she says. “I want to leave for the next generation a country that is a little more equal than the one that I was born into.”
For Deutsch, marriage is so important, in part, because of what it means to her children. In 2000, Deutsch had been with her partner, Teresa, for more than 15 years. They each wore a wedding ring, and for the most part they had gotten used to the stares and slights they sometimes encountered as a lesbian couple in suburban Maryland. For their children, having two moms was the norm; they were Mommy Jo and Mommy T. But one day, their younger son, Matthew, then 6, came home upset. “It was the first time he realized that we weren’t married, and he was just devastated. It was this dawning moment for him that we were different in some way,” Deutsch recalls. “That’s when we realized how important being able to say we were married was not only to us, but also to our kids.”
In recent months, the progress toward marriage equality has taken on the patina of inevitability, but to longtime activists the outcome seemed anything but certain. “We had a lot to learn about messaging and what people care about,” says Rea (formerly Kim) Carey ’89, the executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, which trains LGBT activists and organizes campaigns to build public support for freedom-to-marry initiatives. “When you get down to it, marriage is about love and commitment. It’s also about a simple desire to be seen as human,” Carey says. “What everyone wants is to be respected, to be seen as human and to be valued.” She recalls the heartbreak of watching state after state defeat ballot measures in support of marriage rights. “The question was essentially, ‘Is our family as valued as your family?’ It was hard being in those states on election night and experiencing the disappointment of so many couples and families when their neighbors and friends and family members voted no.”
Many of those same voters would later change their minds, a fact that Carey attributes to grassroots work by organizations like hers. “We had thousands of conversations with those friends, neighbors and family members about our lives, in states across the country. It has made a difference that people have told their stories.”
Indeed, in many ways “marriage matters to families” has been the message that has won over millions of Americans. Pollster Lake saw this trend early on through her research and helped develop strategies to deal with opponents’ fear tactics about the effect of gay and lesbian parents on children. In fact, the increasing visibility of children of same-sex couples has been particularly effective in changing hearts and minds. For many activists, the fight for the freedom to marry has been a family affair. “We marched together, we rallied together,” Deutsch says. “The kids really became the voice for us, because everybody loves the 8-year-old who speaks out on behalf of his moms.”
When Chrisler had the opportunity to meet with President Obama in 2009, she drove home that message by bringing a photo of her then 7-year-old twin boys to the Oval Office. The president had just signed an executive order granting some benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees, and Chrisler was there with Carey to recognize this important step. After thanking the president for his support, Chrisler told him he needed to do more on behalf of families. His reaction? As Chrisler recalls: “He said, ‘Yeah, you’re right. We are going to do more, and I’m going to do it with your help.’”
The Supreme Court rulings will go down in history, but for alumnae activists who have been fighting for equality for years, the personal milestones are just as vivid.
Murray can pinpoint the moment she became an activist fighting for the legal rights of gay couples and their families. In the late ’80s, she saw a newspaper article about a local Vermont woman who was killed in a car crash. The victim had been sitting in the passenger seat, and her “female companion,” as the papers described her longtime partner, had been driving. In the backseat was their toddler, who soon became the subject of a custody battle between the surviving woman and her dead partner’s parents.
“Here’s this woman who is grieving over the loss of her partner, and she’s worried about what was going to happen to her son, and were they going to take him away from her? That’s what went through my mind,” Murray recalls. Moved by the story, she reached out to the woman and ended up representing her in the custody case. Murray won, making national headlines.
The victory marked a turning point in Murray’s career: It brought her more gay and lesbian clients, and it underscored the need for legal protection of same-sex couples and their children. At the time, civil unions and “second-parent adoption” did not exist in Vermont. Murray won the state’s first-ever second-parent adoption case, and she subsequently helped overhaul legislation to make sure that the right of gay couples to adopt each other’s children remained in the law. “If you can picture a triangle, I now had the two sides of the triangle that connected each parent to the child, but I didn’t have the line that connected the two parents to each other,” Murray says. “The only way to connect them to each other was through marriage.”
It’s a bit of a mischaracterization to say that Murray and other LGBT activists were fighting for the freedom to marry at this early juncture. That happened later. For Baldwin, the march toward marriage equality started in her home state of Wisconsin, where she worked in the state legislature in the early ’90s. “I would describe my earliest activism as fighting for protection of same-sex relationships. We were fighting for civil unions, marriage, domestic partnership, whatever we could get,” Baldwin says. “I convened a group of legal experts and activists and brainstormed. We were not necessarily dead set on marriage equality, but just [asked], ‘Where do we start?’”
In Vermont, Murray was also strategizing—and getting the word out. In the mid-’90s, Murray and her then law partner Beth Robinson traveled all over the state to talk to, as Murray says, “anyone who would listen” about the financial and emotional hardships that gay and lesbian couples and their families were facing because they were being denied the right to marry. “We went to Rotary clubs, county fairs and church basements,” she recalls.
Eventually, they went to the Vermont Supreme Court with a lawsuit, Baker v. Vermont, and argued that it was unconstitutional to deny Vermonters in same-sex relationships the right to marry.
On December 20, 1999, the court ruled that gay and lesbian couples were entitled to the same legal rights and benefits of marriage as heterosexual couples. While they weren’t able to get a marriage-equality act passed just yet (that happened in 2009), Vermont in 2000 gained the distinction of being the first state in the country to have civil unions.
Both the Vermont Supreme Court ruling and subsequent legislation became national news. As Murray points out, the phrase “gay marriage” had once been incomprehensible. “It was like putting two nonsense words together,” she says. “Vermont was the little engine that could, and we put that phrase on the map.”
For supporters of equal marriage, there is still a lot of work to be done and much uncertainty. Marriages that are legal in one state may not be recognized the next state over. (Though in light of Windsor, an alumna judge in New Jersey, Mary Jacobson ’75, ruled in September that since federal benefits are now guaranteed for legally married couples the state must allow same-sex marriages, which paved the way for full legalization in that state in October.) Still, as of November, more than 30 states, including Baldwin’s home state of Wisconsin, continue to ban same-sex marriage. “I live in a state where, in 2006, voters approved a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman,” Baldwin says. “In Wisconsin, I want to see the day when that’s repealed—and when marriage rights are passed in my state and certainly every other.”
Carey sees her work as ongoing, with a broader goal of changing the culture from “legal equality” to “lived equality.” In her wallet, for instance, she carries her daughter’s birth certificate to prove her parenthood. “Straight couples don’t do that,” she says. “It’s legal for me to be a parent, but sometimes that is questioned.”
For now, at least, the movement toward marriage equality seems inevitable. “A really bad workday for me is coming home, and when my wife asks how my day was, having to admit it was uneventful,” Deutsch says. “When I started, I never thought we’d be as far as we are right now. It has been the most remarkable roller-coaster ride because it has only gone up.”
Brooke Hauser is the author of The New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens.