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  • Sasha Issenberg

March 25, 2010: Gay-rights operatives revise national marriage strategy

ON THIS DAY IN 2010…


Officials from the nation’s leading gay-rights organizations met outside Boston to revise and update the movement’s then-five-year-old strategy to secure marriage rights nationwide.


The original 2005 plan had been motivated by the movement’s failure to block any of the thirteen ballot measures that had written gay-marriage bans into state constitutions the previous year. Some of the gay-rights movement’s largest donors agreed after the November 2004 election that, instead of merely spending to defend against future efforts to amend the federal and state constitutions, they would commit to a common vision that for the first time defined equal marriage rights as a movement-wide ambition. After two days of secret deliberations in Jersey City, the nation’s leading gay-rights organizations agreed to what they considered an optimistic yet plausible strategy that they believed could put the matter before the U.S. Supreme Court under favorable conditions within two decades. (Due to some of the plan’s internal benchmarks, it became known as the 10-10-10-20 strategy.)


While the plan’s general priorities held — a gradualist approach that recognized the value of incremental gains like domestic-partnership programs that fell short of marriage — many of the specifics were moot well before its 2025 horizon. Most importantly, so many states had, over the course of the 2006 and 2008 election cycles, written marriage definitions into their state constitutions that any progress in those jurisdictions would be impossible without first repealing those amendments. (The most notable of these was the passage of Proposition 8 in California, a state where the 10-10-10-20 plan had anticipated the possible legalization of same-sex marriage within just a few years and instead found itself as far away from that was possible. The new conditions required an improved political capacity, a national organization designed to fight ballot measures from coast to coast, without losing sight of the work still to be done in courtrooms and legislatures.


Many of the Jersey City participants gathered again in Somerville, Massachusetts, nearly five years later to revise their plan. With so many state-level impediments, the new strategy focused more on moving public opinion nationally, so as to create the conditions under which the Supreme Court would be more receptive to cases that touched on the legitimacy of gay families. But the biggest departure was not about timing or tactics but rather organization. Freedom to Marry, a nearly decade-old entity that focused just on that single issue, was anointed the hub for future advocacy around it — ensuring not only political support but enough donations to support robust campaigns. In 2005, established groups had not been willing to cede their position to what they saw as a rival entity. But by 2010, they knew the time had come to try something new.

The Engagement:
America's Quarter-Century
Struggle Over Same-Sex Marriage

​By Sasha Issenberg

The riveting story of the battles over gay marriage
in the United States – the most important
civil-rights breakthrough of the new millennium.
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