Marriage Equality USA (MEUSA) began as an idea in 1996 with a handful of activists who believed that same-sex couples and their families should have the right to civil marriage. They were angry that the federal government wanted to pass a law barring LGBT people from this right (the Defense of Marriage Act, 1996).
The organization officially began as Equality Through Marriage on 12 February 1998 - National Freedom to Marry Day. By August of 1998 the name was changed to Marriage Equality New York (MENY). MENY was at the forefront of educating and building awareness on why marriage matters, including building the first public education workshop on the topic, “Marriage Equality 101.” MENY soon expanded its work to provide education and resources directly to elected officials. 2004 saw the first large-scale public awareness event, the annual Wedding March across the Brooklyn Bridge. Attended by celebrities, government officials, community leaders and more, Wedding March participants earned media coverage across the state and regionally. Other large-scale events included the “Walk A Mile in My Shoes” (2007) public art and education installation in New York’s capital, as well as the annual statewide Marriage Equality Day (2010). In 2008, a separate state political action committee was also established called MENY PAC to expand the types of work that could occur in New York. Early leaders of MENY became nationally recognized as leaders in the movement including Connie Ress, Cathy Marino-Thomas, Robert Voorheis, Michael Sabatino and James Loney.
The success of MENY inspired activists in California, who were facing that state's 2000 anti-marriage referendum (Proposition 22, the “Knight Initiative”), to start a sister organization. With the help of MENY and Ress, Marriage Equality California (MECA) was founded in 1999 and was the primary advocate for marriage equality in California. MECA became known both statewide and nationally for introducing the nation’s second civil union’s bill after Vermont (and the first that would grant full state and federal rights to couples), organizing mass-marriage actions on Valentine’s Day to request marriage licenses from county clerks, and for organizing the national Marriage Equality Express bus tour which culminated in the first national rally for marriage equality in Washington D.C. Many of MECA’s founders and leaders would become recognized nationally for their work including Davina Kotulski, L.J. Carusone, Jesús Lebrón, Molly McKay and Mark Levine. McKay in particular would be remembered for wearing a wedding dress at MECA events and Kotulski for introducing the title “Love Warriors” to describe volunteers working in the organization.
In 2006, after a short-lived merger between MECA and another statewide equality group, the previous leadership of MECA officially re-launched Marriage Equality USA (MEUSA) as a national grassroots organization. MEUSA would grow to over 20 county chapters in California, state chapters (later Regional Organizing Committee's) across the country including Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia, as well as outreach positions to work with specialized communities such as Parents, Seniors, Communities of Faith, and multiple ethnic communities. In January of 2009 Marriage Equality USA became a registered 501(c)(3).
After an unsuccessful attempt to pass marriage equality legislation in New York in 2009, MENY co-led a coalition of organizations, supported by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, to pass the New York Marriage Equality Act in June 2011. Because of their rich shared history and mission, MENY and MEUSA announced their intention to consolidate and bring their combined resources and experience to push for marriage equality in states across the country and at the federal level. Cathy Marino-Thomas, President of MENY, and Dave Janis-Kitzmiller, President of MEUSA, joined together to serve as Co-Presidents of the new Board of Directors and Brian Silva, Interim Executive Director of MENY, was brought on as the new Executive Director of the combined organization.
Until marriage was achieved in 2015 and MEUSA closed at the end of 2017, the organization continued its leadership at both the local and national levels. It launched wildly successful programs such as the National Equality Action Team, “Getting to I DO: Journeys of Marriage Equality” and a variety of education and training initiatives. MEUSA continued to be at the forefront of this movement, working with partners and volunteers, to bring marriage equality to our communities.
Marriage Equality USA pioneered multiple tools used to win marriage equality in the United States. Many of these tools became vital resources used by both the marriage and other progressive movements in general to further our common goals:
- Marriage Equality 101 Presentation (1999) - MENY created the first public education workshop on marriage equality called “Marriage Equality 101.” The workshop provided education and awareness to individuals, lawmakers and community groups about why marriage mattered.
- Marriage Counter Actions (2000) - Same-sex couples approached local clerks counters to request marriage licenses during February on either Freedom to Marry Day or Valentine's Day. These events later became known as "License Our Love" events and helped to give a public face to the discrimination and hurt faced by same-sex couples who could not marry. Started in Davis, CA in the early 1980's by Ellen Pontac and Shelley Bailes, it spread to San Francisco, CA (1998) before becoming an annual MEUSA event (2000) and spreading to communities across California and the country.
- Public Education (2002) – Volunteers began coordinated public speaking events and panel discussions on the issue of marriage equality to classes, communities of faith and community organizations.
- Marriage Declaration (2003) - MEUSA designed a declaration of support for the issue of marriage equality and began asking the public to sign it. In 2005, LGBTQ families delivered little red wagons full of signed Marriage Declarations to the California governor in support of marriage equality.
- Educating Public Officials (2003) - Individual and coupled volunteers and their families began speaking to their local officials and state legislators regarding the issue of marriage equality. This later evolved into participation in state Education Days, including MENY’s first statewide “Marriage Equality Day” in Albany, NY (2010) where up to 300 volunteers met with their lawmakers to educate and share their stories on why marriage equality mattered.
- Get Engaged Tours (2004) – Each February MEUSA coordinated marriage equality volunteers in their local states to encourage the public to "Get Engaged" in the fight for civil marriage equality. The effort was unique because of the work in rural and conservative communities where volunteers met in local fire stations, libraries, coffee shops, empty classrooms, and churches to talk one-on-one with community members or to present panel discussions. The Get Engaged Tours served the two-fold purpose of educating the public and recruiting and training new volunteer leaders and speakers.
- Bridge Walks (aka The Wedding March) (2004) – Begun by MENY in New York City and eventually spreading to locations across the state and to San Francisco, community members marched to symbolize crossing the “bridge” to equality. Midway during the walk, organizers traditionally held a long-distance call between marchers crossing the Brooklyn Bridge and those crossing the Golden Gate Bridge.
- Marriage Equality Express (2004) - A cross-country bus caravan organized and attended by MEUSA and other marriage equality activists in response to the invalidation of over 4,000 marriages performed during the San Francisco 2004 “Winter of Love.” Designed to provide education and awareness in communities across the country, the bus tour culminated at the first national rally for marriage equality in Washington D.C. on 11 October 2004.
- Tax Day Actions (2005) - Marriage equality supporters gathered outside of local post offices on April 15 each year with signs and leaflets highlighting the financial discrepancies and discrimination endured by couples who are unable to marry.
- Door-to-Door Canvassing (2006) - MEUSA volunteers, working in coalition with allied organizations, organized and coordinated a mass-canvassing project in San Diego, CA, going door-to-door to speak with local residents regarding the issue of marriage equality.
- The Loving Quilt (2007) – Each panel on the Loving Quilt featured stories and photographs of Marriage Equality USA members and allies with their families to honor the historic 2004 same-sex weddings in San Francisco as well as the 40th anniversary of the United States Supreme Court's Loving v. Virginia decision. The quilt toured and was displayed extensively in locations around the country.
- Walk a Mile in My Shoes (2007) – Coordinated by MENY, this public art installation along the walkways of the New York state capital displayed the stories, with shoes attached, of those affected by a lack of marriage equality. Afterwards the shoes and stories were sent to key legislators on a regular basis to remind them of the real stories of families affected by the denial of marriage equality.
- Post Card Campaign (2009) - Members of the public completed pre-printed post cards stating their own personal reasons for supporting marriage equality. Thousands of post cards were mailed to the President.
- Legal & Policy Online Resource Center (2011) - Provided one of the first comprehensive online locations for marriage equality resources including tracking legislation, polling and court cases, as well as a marriage equality map of the United States.
- National Equality Action Team (NEAT) (2012) – Began as the “20 Million More Campaign,” NEAT was the first national coalition built to engage organizations and volunteers across the country to bring resources to states facing marriage equality votes. MEUSA coordinated coalition volunteers to provide phone banking and canvassing support in multiple, successful state campaigns.
- Election Project (2012) - Tracked and documented presidential candidates' positions on LGBTQ issues and provided a chart tracking position changes throughout the 2012 election cycle. On Election Day provided an all-night service updating the results of races important to the LGBTQ and marriage equality communities.
- Getting to "I DO": Our Journeys to Marriage Equality (2014) - A project to collect and share multimedia-rich personal stories about relationships, family, marriage, advocacy, and equality in an online gallery. Sharing the personal stories of our own dreams, ideals, and experiences with our families, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and communities is one of the most powerful ways to bring people to support civil marriage.
- SHE4MarriageEquality (SHE4ME) (2014) - SHE4ME, a viral video PSA on YouTube and national television, premiered on Valentine's Day. 2014. The project is a five+ minute video directed by award winning Writer/Director Nicole Conn and born from the song “She,” written and performed by singer-songwriter Jen Foster, a favorite within the lesbian community for over a decade and regularly used in lesbian commitment ceremonies. As of 2018 the video had almost 2 million views.
MEUSA Volunteers in Action
Speaking at a Fundraiser
Phone Banking to Change Hearts and Minds
Leading a Rally
Staffing a PRIDE Booth
Talking to voters from Home
Meeting with Elected Officials
Being Interviewed on Local Television
Coalition Work with Labor Union Leaders
Scooping Ice Cream to Raise Money
Requesting Marriage Licenses
Working with Faith Leaders
Being Interviewed by the Press
Celebrating the Weddings of Others