Marriage Equality: It's the Stories

There will be a natural tendency to focus on the legal challenges and the political fights, but history will show the true story of how we achieved marriage equality and how it was in fact a quilt woven of thousands of personal tales, most of which existed entirely outside the courtroom.
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At San Francisco's "Gay Freedom Day" in 1978, city supervisor Harvey Milk urged the crowd to come out. "Once and for all, break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions," he said. "For your sake. For their sake." Milk's reasoning was simple: When people realized that their friends, family and neighbors were gay, it would be much harder for them to think of gay and lesbian Americans as "other," and the foundations of bigotry would crumble.

We took the same storytelling approach at the American Foundation for Equal Rights (AFER), where we serve as board members. And whether the stories are political, theatrical or legal, conservative or liberal, heartwarming or practical, each story serves a singular purpose: to break down the barriers to full federal recognition of the right of every American to marry the person they love. It's hard to believe AFER's story began just four years ago this month, when California voters narrowly passed Proposition 8, writing institutionalized discrimination into the state's constitution. AFER enlisted Ted Olson and David Boies who, in challenging Prop 8, made a bold strategic decision. They rejected the idea of incrementalism and opted instead to pursue the "big question." They decided to challenge Prop 8 on constitutional grounds and directly address the marriage equality question at the federal level.

This Friday the United States Supreme Court will write the next chapter of that story when they decide whether to hear the case known as Perry v. Brown or let stand a lower court ruling that declared Prop 8 unconstitutional. The court will also consider whether to hear challenges to the so-called Defense of Marriage Act.

The Perry case is, in and of itself, an incredible story. Two amazing couples -- Kris Perry and Sandy Stier of Berkeley and Jeff Zarrillo and Paul Katami of Los Angeles -- took the stand on the first day of the trial to tell the world what marriage means to them, and why marriage matters. Reams have been written about AFER's legal objective, but another part of our mission, perhaps more critical, has always been a campaign to do exactly what Harvey Milk told us to do: use stories to break down the myths, lies and distortions. The trial became a "truth commission," of sorts, as if bigotry itself were on trial. We knew right away that if every American could see what happened in that courtroom, opposition to marriage equality would evaporate. Our opponents knew this, too, which is why they made sure the proceedings would not be broadcast.

What they didn't count on was another storyteller. Dustin Lance Black, the man who had brought Harvey Milk's spirit to the screen, partnered with Broadway Impact to create 8, a stage adaptation of the trial. A reading of the play took place on Broadway with an all-star cast, and more than 250,000 people live-streamed the Los Angeles reading on YouTube, but AFER, in partnership with Broadway Impact, took the play one step further by licensing 8 for free to colleges and community theaters nationwide in order to spur dialogue, understanding and action. To date, there have been 313 confirmed readings of 8 in 47 states and six countries. That's 313 times that audiences will have had high-school cafeterias and small community theaters transformed into a San Francisco courtroom, with their neighbors, family members and friends making the case for marriage equality. If stories matter, making those stories personal breaks down barriers. That's why having a small-town mayor read Ted Olson's words in a community performance of 8 may have an even greater impact than watching Martin Sheen deliver the same lines on a TV screen. At every one of those performances, somebody in the audience related to Kris Perry, Sandy Stier, Jeff Zarrillo, Paul Katami or, even more likely, a gay friend or relative -- maybe even for the first time.

There is also a political story to be told. Ted Olson's Newsweek cover story, "The Conservative Case for Gay Marriage," was timed to coincide with the start of the legal challenge to Prop 8. Olson's passion eviscerated partisan opposition to the freedom to marry, and suddenly a myth was broken down and you could almost feel the national mood begin to change. No fewer than 17 national polls have shown majority support for marriage equality. Though support for "same-sex marriage" had grown steadily by less than 1 percent each year since DOMA was passed in 1996, support grew by 5 percent in 2010 and 2011. This year the New Hampshire legislature, a body with a Republican supermajority, voted against repealing that state's marriage equality law, and this month voters in four states embraced marriage equality, ending a 32-state winning streak for anti-equality forces just four years after California voters wrote discrimination into their state constitution. Marriage opponents in Maine, Minnesota, Maryland and Washington ran the same campaigns as they had before. They used the same lies and distortions that had won in the past. But this time they didn't work. Instead, national exit polling on election night showed a majority of Americans opposing the Defense of Marriage Act.

History will show the true story of how we achieved marriage equality and how it was in fact a quilt woven of thousands of personal tales, most of which existed entirely outside the courtroom. There will be a natural tendency to focus on the legal challenges and the political fights, on writs of certiorari and ballot measures, because that's what we tend to write in history books. But the courtroom drama is a prologue. Any true history of this fight will acknowledge the thousands of vignettes that took place in living rooms and auditoriums, in quiet conversations around the dinner table and quiet contemplation of a well-reasoned article. In the end the country will embrace the freedom to marry, one person at a time, because somebody told them a story.

Rob Reiner is an Emmy Award-winning actor and an accomplished director of films such as The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally and A Few Good Men. Bruce Cohen is an Academy Award-winning and Emmy-nominated producer of film, television, theater and live events. Michele Reiner is a photographer, producer and children's advocate.

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