supreme countdown

10 Heroes Of Marriage Equality


With Supreme Court on the eve of two major marriage decisions, much will be said and written about the prominent players in Hollingsworth v. Perry and U.S. v. Windsor.

No matter how the court rules, now is the  to time to celebrate some of the people who moved the issue of marriage equality to this point in history. The list could easily be the top 100 by including all the behind-the-scenes players. But here is Queerty’s list of some of the most important players. Please make your own nominations in the comments section below.

1. Tom Stoddard

Position: Executive Director of Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York from 1986 to 1992

Contribution: Tom was one of the first LGBT activists to urge the community to seek equal rights in marriage. He did so as early as 1989, five years before the first lawsuit seeking to establish the right to marry for same-sex couples in Hawaii unfolded. He promoted discussion in the community about the virtues of equal marriage rights for same-sex couples at a time when most couples did not consider it a realistic goal.

Today: Stoddard succumbed to AIDS in 1997 at the age of 48. He is survived by his companion Walter Rieman.

2. Mary Bonauto

Position:  Civil Rights Project Director for the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders in Boston since 1990

Contribution: Mary was lead attorney in Goodridge v. Department of Health, the lawsuit that led to the historic 2003 ruling from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. That ruling was the first state supreme court to say that a state constitution required same-sex couples be treated equally with male-female couples in the issuance of marriage licenses. The ruling became a pivotal leap forward in an effort that had been hobbling along for decades. But Mary played yet another crucial role: She also led two GLAD lawsuits aimed at challenging the key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). She won both cases and was the first to have her DOMA challenges reach the Supreme Court.

Today: Mary, 52, continues in her role at GLAD and lives in nearby Portland, Maine, with her spouse, law professor Jennifer Wriggins, and their two daughters.

3. Chad Griffin

Position:  Founder, in 2009, of the American Foundation for Equal Rights in Los Angeles

Contribution: Chad was a key fundraiser and driver behind the campaign against Proposition 8 in 2008 as it went to the ballot. After voters passed the ban on marriage for same-sex couples, Chad enlisted one of the best legal teams imaginable to file a lawsuit against the measure. He then created AFER to raise the money to fund the litigation. The lawsuit, now known as Hollingsworth v. Perry, has won every step of the way, and the involvement of prominent lead attorneys Ted Olson and David Boies has garnered enormous publicity for the cause and won over hearts and minds in the American public.

Today: Chad, who turns 40 on July 16, is head of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest and best-funded national LGBT political organization. 

4. Evan Wolfson

Position: Founder of the Freedom to Marry, a New York-based national group with chapters in nearly every state

Contribution: Evan was part of a two-man legal team that pressed one of the first lawsuits seeking the right to marry for same-sex couples. He did so while serving as a staff attorney for Lambda Legal in 1996, helping Honolulu attorney Dan Foley represent three couples in Baehr v. Lewin, seeking the right to marry. Within a few months of the trial –and even before the trial judge’s decision was released– Congress passed DOMA, turning this one-state battle into a national war. Wolfson left Lambda in 2003 to devote his career to marriage equality, founding Freedom to Marry to help organize grassroots efforts across the nation to educate the public and fight for rights in the court of public opinion.

Today: Evan, 56, still leads the national group and is a frequent voice for the right to marry all over the country. He is married to husband Cheng He and lives in New York City.

5. Jack Baker and Michael McConnell

Position: Private citizens in Minnesota

Contribution: Just months after the Stonewall rebellion, at a time when nobody in the LGBT community had any rights to speak of, this gay couple walked into the clerk’s office for Hennepin County, Minnesota, and applied for a marriage license. The year was 1970. When the clerk refused, they filed the first ever lawsuit seeking to secure their right to be treated the same as male-female couples in the issuance of marriage licenses. The courts of Minnesota rebuffed them but, undaunted and determined, they appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court summarily dismissed their appeal, but their effort and their willingness to appear on national television shows at a time when publicly identifying as gay was an uncommon act inspired many gay people around the country to look at themselves in a more positive light.

Today: The couple, each in their seventies now, lives in Minnesota but decline interviews.

6. Ronald Reagan

Position: President of the U.S. (Republican) from 1981 to 1989

Contribution: It was President Reagan who appointed Justice Anthony Kennedy to the high court. Kennedy wrote the landmark decisions striking down sodomy laws and anti-gay initiatives. Had Kennedy’s vote not been with the majority in Lawrence v. Texas and Romer v. Evans, marriage equality cases would have had a much longer and steeper slope to climb. The 2003 decision by the Massachusetts state supreme court, which paved the way for marriage licenses to be issued to same-sex couples beginning in 2004, quoted Lawrence and Romer extensively, as did the decisions striking down DOMA and Proposition 8 in the lower federal courts. And to think that Reagan initially wanted Robert Bork in that seat… Keep an eye out for Kennedy’s role in the decisions this week.

Today: Reagan died at home in California in 2004 at the age of 93. He was survived by his second wife, Nancy, a supporter of same-sex marriage.

7. Barack Obama

Position: President of the U.S. (Democrat) from 2009 to present.

Contribution: The “Evolver in Chief” delivered for marriage equality in ways that have been both legally and symbolically powerful. The country watched his high-profile “evolution” from a position where he supported equal rights for LGBT people but “hesitated” on equal rights to marriage–a hesitancy that many Americans seemed to identify with. Asked in July 2010 to explain why the administration continued to defend the DOMA in court even though the president said he considered it discriminatory, Obama domestic policy chief Melody Barnes said the president “hasn’t yet” determined whether it might be constitutional under certain circumstances. Seven months later, Attorney General Eric Holder notified Congress that he and President Obama had determined that DOMA violates equal protection and that the courts should give their toughest degree of scrutiny to laws disadvantaging people based on their sexual orientation.

At long last, in May 2012, six months before the vote on his re-election, President Obama arranged for a national network reporter to interview him about the subject. His message: “I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married.” As Evan Wolfson, head of the national Freedom to Marry group, put it, “The President’s support marks a historic turning point for the freedom to marry movement.”

Today: President Obama, who turns 52 in August, was re-elected to a second term in November 2012 with 51 percent of the popular vote.

8. Ted Olson

Position: Partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher’s, based in Los Angeles

Contribution: The former Republican Solicitor General under President George W. Bush, Olson is the attorney who was most responsible for bringing us eight years of George W. Bush, by representing him before the Supreme Court in the infamous square-off Bush v. Gore, which threw the election to Bush. Olson startled everyone in 2009 when he became the lead attorney in a lawsuit challenging Proposition 8,  perhaps an attempt to make amends for the anti-gay wrongs of his party and his presidents.

Olson was a well-respected Republican with roots deep in the party. For Reagan, he served as legal counsel during the Iran-Contra investigation (and was succeeded by now Yes on 8 attorney Charles Cooper) For George W., he served as solicitor general (and was succeeded by now DOMA defender Paul Clement). His conservative credentials made both liberals and conservatives take a second look at same-sex marriage beyond the traditional ideological lines drawn by the political parties. He also argued the case against Proposition 8 before the Supreme Court.

Today: Olson, 72, remains partner at Gibson, Dunn, and continues to speak out against the injustice of Proposition 8.

9. Modern Family

Position: Behind Sunday Night Football, American Idol, and The Voice, Modern Family, on ABC, is the most watched program on television.

Contribution: The spectacularly successful network comedy series about families in America today has, during the past four years, reached millions of middle class Americans with an illustration of what gay couples are like. Not just in one episode, but in every episode, it “depicts a gay male marriage in which both partners are refreshingly dimensional, believable human beings…they’re not flawed in the silly, stereotypical ways that once dominated such portrayals,” said Washington Post television critic Tom Shales.

Mitchell and Cam are not married, but they’re just like the opposite-sex couple who are the other main characters. They’re raising a child, they get tired, they have fun, they worry, they divide up the chores, and, if real life plays out just right, they may get married, too.

Today: ABC has announced Modern Family will return for the fifth season.

10. Married same-sex couples

Position: The estimated 114,000 couples with marriage licenses throughout the U.S.

Contribution: Every one of these couples has made a contribution to the marriage equality movement by simply being honest and visible. That visibility inevitably touches the conscience of everyone they meet.

Each time someone comes into contact with a married same-sex couple, no matter how briefly, a teaching moment takes place. Not all our heroes are famous, not all our battles are in court. Sometimes, taking a stand for marriage equality is as simple and quiet as showing up in church or the synagogue together. It is these brave pioneers that have formed the foundation for equality.

Today: They’re here, they’re queer, and, thanks to them, America is definitely getting used to it.

Lisa Keen, co-author of Strangers to the Law: Gay People on Trial, will be posting nearly daily on legal matters leading up to and beyond the Supreme Court decision. Her coverage on this and other issues is also available at

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  • Dakotahgeo

    WOW!! Stupendous article. I thank you!
    Dakotahgeo, M.Div. Pastor/Chaplain

  • Sherri

    progress IS being made…thank goodness. my marriage equality song has received 35000+ hits on youtube and i have gotten wonderful comments from folks in 150 countries all over the world. the ones which touch me most are from people who live where it’s a crime to even ‘come out’, let alone marry the person they love.

    please listen to the song, ‘What If We Are Just Like You’….

    the message is about love, compassion, inclusion, and equality.

    Thank you,

    Sherri Gray
    [email protected]

  • jeff4justice

    Thanks to everyone who helps the advancement of LGBT progress whether its regarding marriage or any issue.

    Now then, Ronald Reagan? Really? Certainly not by deliberate active support (unless you buy the theories he was closeted). And Obama… he was calculated, not principled. His anti-equality words were used to help pass Prop 8. What’s more, like Regan, he’s done so much to hurt this nation by moving so far to the right that it overshadows his historic actions for LGBT people. Ask Bradly Manning or Glen Greenwald how great Obama is.

    Also, Gavin Newsome (and other mayors and clerks who tried to allow gays to get marriage licenses) is missing on the list.

    What’s more, I think celeb power went a long way to make supporting marriage equality trendy and I would credit Lady Gaga and the NOH8 campaign with that. I worked on the No on 8 campaign in SF & Sacramento and back then a lot of fellow gays were still apathetic.

    How about the Foes of Marriage Equality? Aside from the obvious Republicans and anti-LGBT religious right bigots, there’s Senator “too much, too fast, too soon” Dianne Feinstein, Democrats throughout the US who still oppose equality, adulterer Arnold Schwarzenegger for vetoing marriage equality bills in CA in 2005 and 2007, all of the LGBT mega groups that tired to hinder Ted Olson & David Boise from taking Prop 8 to court, and the apathetic gays who sat on their asses during the ballot battles – those people really don’t deserve the freedom to marry.

    Onward to definitive equality.

  • Cam

    So wouldn’t Anthony Kennedy be the hero rather than Reagan?

  • Adam1222

    Given Ronald Reagan appointed many more anti-gay judges and officials, the inclusion of him because he appointed Kennedy is illogical.
    Ted Olsen is responsible for the conservative judiciary, via his work prior to this case and on behalf of GW Bush. That his paying client this time is AFER does not make him a hero. He and his law firm have consistently made money by fighting for discrimination and narrow interpretations of civil rights.
    And isn’t calling Chad Griffin a hero a bit premature?

  • ouragannyc

    Ronald Reagan should not have been part of this list.

  • jeff4justice

    @Adam1222: Not to mention Olson still backs anti-LGBT Republicans.

  • lelandt

    If Bill Clinton had not signed DOMA then there would have been a constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage. DOMA’s passage prevented a constitutional amendment barring marriage equality. Therefore, for anyone who is an ACCURATE student of history and a supporter of marriage equality then one must say, “Thank you Bill Clinton for signing DOMA and thank you DOMA for preventing the passage of a anti-marriage equality constitutional amendment. Now, DOMA, it is time to go away.” To put Bill Clinton on the marriage equality enemies list and Ronald Reagan on the heroes list is backwards or just plain insane.

    Clinton appointed Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, two strong support of marriage equality, to the Supreme Court. Reagan wanted to appoint the monumental homophobe, Robert Bork. When Bork failed to be confirmed Reagan appointed Anthony Kennedy who does not support marriage equality.

    Anthony Kennedy will vote in favor of marriage equality by default because of technicalities in the law. In the case of Prop. 8, Kennedy does not believe those defending Prop. 8 (a group of California citizens and not the California Attorney General nor the California Governor) have the legal right to defend it, therefore, the lower court ruling against Prop. 8 will stand. Kennedy will NOT say that states cannot ban same-sex marriage because he believes states can ban same-sex marriage. Bill Clinton’s appointees believe states should not be allowed to ban same-sex marriage. Kennedy will vote to through out section 3 of DOMA because it violates the rights of individual states to regulate marriage. Kennedy supports section 2 of DOMA, unlike Clinton’s appointee. Section 2 of DOMA will continue to be in force for many years to come because of Anthony Kennedy (and, therefore, because of Ronald Reagan).

  • lelandt

    The journey to Marriage Equality started in earnest in 1984 when the City of Berkeley & the Berkeley School District passed the first Domestic Partnership policies giving same-sex couples some of the rights and benefits of marriage for the first time in world history. The small group of dedicated activists who thought of the concept of domestic partnerships, wrote the policy, and helped get it passed changed the world by beginning to change everyone’s concepts of marriage, the rights of marriage and who should get those rights. This is documented in James Chamber’s documentary CITIZEN CHANGE.

  • Murphy

    Lavi Soloway-Immigration attorney and founder of The DOMA Project, which represents all of us in bi national relationships -separated because of DOMA or living in other countries because DOMA prevents us from sponsoring our same sex wives or husbands for immigration.

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