How Gays Won a Marriage Victory

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 15, 2009

NEW YORK -- For most of the country, the unanimous decision this month by the Iowa Supreme Court to legalize same-sex marriage was an unexpected and seemingly random victory for a movement that has long drawn its deepest support from major cities in liberal coastal states.

But for Camilla Taylor, a Chicago-based lawyer for the gay rights group Lambda Legal, it was the logical conclusion to a deliberate seven-year effort to make the Midwestern state one of the first in the country to allow same-sex marriage.

Coming just months after voters in California outlawed same-sex marriage, the decision was also a much-needed jolt for a group of loosely coordinated gay rights activists and legal experts who had been quietly building the case for marriage equality in states where they thought conditions were favorable, including Iowa and a handful in the Northeast.

"We were all deeply disappointed by the vote in California, but we were all hopeful for Iowa," said Taylor, a married mother who is not gay but calls same-sex marriage "the civil rights cause of my generation."

"I was brought up to think there's nothing more fulfilling than trying to achieve social change and do something right for society," added Taylor, a 38-year-old Cleveland native and Columbia Law School graduate.

Activists such as Taylor work mostly out of the spotlight -- she traveled regularly to Iowa from Chicago for years, doing research and laying the groundwork for her landmark case.

Their techniques differ, though, depending on whether they are pursuing same-sex marriage through the courts, as in Iowa, or through a state legislature, as in Vermont, which legalized gay marriage April 7.

Lawmakers in Maine, New Hampshire and New Jersey are debating similar measures. New York Gov. David A. Paterson (D) has said he plans to submit a same-sex marriage bill this week. The D.C. Council voted unanimously last week to recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere, and lawmakers are expected to take up gay marriage legislation this year.

When taking the court route, the activists identify same-sex couples to bring test cases, typically after meeting and spending time with scores of couples. They prepare the selected couples for what is likely to be intense, sometimes harsh media attention. They study the state's constitution and review past court rulings, waiting to move until they feel the political and legal climate is favorable.

When taking the legislative route, the activists first get to know the political dynamics to identify friendly and potentially friendly lawmakers. They find residents to call lawmakers to express support for same-sex marriage. They start phone banks and petition drives. And, as with court action, they wait until they think their chances are good.

In Rhode Island, for example, activists said they won't push gay marriage until at least 2011, when Republican Gov. Donald Carcieri, a an opponent of gay marriage, leaves office because of term limits.

Opponents of same-sex marriage say activists are using the courts and legislatures because they are afraid to put ballot measures before voters. Using these routes is "most certainly not fair to the voters -- and it's not fair to the people of Iowa and Vermont," said Carrie Gordon Earll, a spokeswoman for Focus on the Family.

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