Skip to main content


Agents of change

Legal activists, wealthy foundations, and celebrity donors have been paving the road to gay marriage for decades

Agents of change

‘As time goes on, what equality means, and even the people who deserve equality, those are evolving concepts.’ —Mary Bonauto speaks to the media following oral arguments at the Supreme Court. (Kevin Wolf/Human Rights Campaign/AP )

Kim Cook/Human Rights Campaign/AP

Chad Griffin calls supporters during the Every Vote Counts volunteer phone bank in Denver, Colo.

Kris Mineau and Mary Bonauto were enemies—metaphorically speaking—when they first met in the wood-paneled lobby of the Massachusetts attorney general’s office in September 2005.

Bonauto, a star lawyer at the Boston-based Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, or GLAD, had two years earlier won a landmark case making Massachusetts the first gay marriage state. Now she was trying to stop Mineau, who was president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, from launching a voter petition drive to define marriage as between a man and woman in the state constitution. Both had arrived at the lobby to hear whether the attorney general would allow the petition to proceed.

Their opposition over marriage didn’t deter Bonauto, wearing a powder-blue pantsuit and cropped hair, from walking across the lobby’s marble floor and amicably extending her hand.

“She’s a consummate professional,” says Mineau, recalling the exchange. “Very pleasant demeanor.” But their small talk ended abruptly when someone announced Mineau’s petition drive had been greenlighted.

“Well, congratulations,” Mineau remembers Bonauto saying. “But this is by no means the end.”

She was right.

Fast-forward 10 years—to April 28, 2015—and Bonauto is arguing in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, asking nine justices to declare same-sex marriage a constitutional right across all 50 states. Already, gay marriage has been declared legal in 37 states, usually the result of court rulings initiated by legal advocacy groups.

The movement to legalize homosexual marriage in the United States didn’t spring up overnight. It has involved a half-century of moral shifting sand, decades of social advocacy, years of funding from wealthy foundations and celebrities, and tens of thousands of hours of tedious legal work by attorneys like Bonauto. What seems like an overnight surge in American support for gay marriage has really been decades in the making.

Activists credit Bonauto for promoting a long-term strategy of incrementally obtaining legal privileges for gays and lesbians, state by state. The week she began working at GLAD in 1990, she turned down an opportunity to sue a state on behalf of a gay couple who wanted to marry. It’s too soon, she told them. Instead, she made small advances, like winning adoption rights for Massachusetts same-sex couples in 1993.

In 1999, Bonauto helped win a Vermont case resulting in the first state law permitting civil unions for gay couples. In 2003 she convinced the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to rule 4-3 that the Massachusetts Constitution—the oldest functioning constitution in the world, drafted by John Adams in 1780—entitled gay couples to marry. She told The Boston Globe she based her argument on the “living principles” of the document: “As time goes on, what equality means, and even the people who deserve equality, those are evolving concepts.”

For Bonauto, the work is personal. She was raised Catholic but left the faith after beginning a relationship with a woman at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., and realizing the church could not accept her sexuality. Bonauto has twin girls and married a longtime partner in 2008.

After Mineau began his 2005 petition drive, collecting a record 170,000 signatures in favor of a constitutional marriage amendment, Bonauto fulfilled her word by suing the state to stop the effort. The lawsuit proved unsuccessful, but GLAD and its growing allies weren’t giving up.

MassEquality, wielding a $2 million annual budget, hired dozens of organizers to lobby voters door-to-door. They looked for gay couples willing to meet with lawmakers who were undecided on the marriage amendment. Some gay couples took bouquets of hydrangeas, roses, and bupleurum to their legislators’ offices.

Marc Solomon, MassEquality’s former executive director, claimed his organization helped convince nearly 100 lawmakers to support gay marriage. By June 2007, the marriage amendment Mineau had spearheaded failed when it fell five votes short of the number needed to proceed.

What GLAD and MassEquality did in Massachusetts has been replicated nationwide over the past decade, enabled by ever-increasing funding from foundations and wealthy donors.

U.S. foundations gave $1 billion for LGBT causes between 2002 and 2013, according to Funders for LGBTQ Issues, an organization that tracks such grants. Annual LGBT funding reached a record $129 million in 2013. Of that total, the largest chunk—$42 million—was spent on advocacy for legal rights and privileges, including same-sex marriage. (Only $18 million went toward health programs specifically for LGBT adults and youth, such as HIV and suicide prevention.)

The biggest single recipient of 2013 LGBT grant money ($3.6 million) was Freedom to Marry, an advocacy group that runs national print and TV ads to build American sympathy for gay couples. Solomon is the group’s national campaign director.

Other top recipients of foundation money are advocacy groups like the National LGBTQ Task Force, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union, GLAD, and Lambda Legal, an organization involved in over 100 LGBT cases last year.

In its 2014 year-end report, Lambda promised to “continue to challenge laws and decisions that use religion as a shield to increase discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, or HIV status.” Its budget last year was $26 million.

In a twist of history, some of the fortune amassed by Henry Ford’s Model T is now driving the new marriage model. The Ford Foundation has given $85.7 million since 2002 for LGBT issues—including a $1 million grant to Freedom to Marry last year.

Other top foundation donors to LGBT issues include the Gill and Arcus foundations (both started by gay philanthropists), Wells Fargo Foundation, George Soros’ Open Society Foundations, H. van Ameringen Foundation, Pride Foundation, Tides Foundation, Human Rights Campaign Foundation, Levi Strauss Foundation, and American Jewish World Service.

Much of the money has fueled organizations fighting traditional marriage throughout the United States, such as the American Foundation for Equal Rights, co-founded by Chad Griffin in Beverly Hills in 2009 specifically to oppose California’s Proposition 8 marriage amendment.

Griffin, now president of the Human Rights Campaign, worked with Hollywood director Rob Reiner (The Princess Bride) to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in support of gay marriage from celebrities like entertainment mogul David Geffen, actor Brad Pitt, and director Steven Spielberg. Some influential conservatives threw their weight behind the cause as well—like billionaire hedge fund manager Paul Singer and former Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman.

Dozens of private law firms, too, have donated thousands of dollars to LGBT advocacy, many offering pro bono services. “There’s a full-court press in big law to line up on the side of redefining marriage for all 50 states,” said Greg Scott, a spokesman for Alliance Defending Freedom, which has defended traditional marriage in court.

David French, a former ADF attorney, says we’re still reaping the fruit of the 1960s sexual revolution. A decades-long philosophical shift in U.S. law schools and courtrooms is enshrining consensual adult sexual expression as the ultimate American right, even above religious rights.

“The legal left is trying to enforce a legal right to radical sexual autonomy,” French said.

A decade after the gay marriage battle in Massachusetts, Mineau says the Massachusetts Family Institute, where he remains board chair, is fighting another sign of long-term culture shift: a transgender “bathroom bill” that would allow boys to use girls’ restrooms.

“We have a generation growing up now without a clue about Christianity and Christian values,” Mineau said. “I believe the pendulum has to come back. Or it’s going to go right off the clock.”

Daniel James Devine

Daniel James Devine

Daniel is managing editor of WORLD Magazine and lives in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.


  • Janet B
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:17 pm

    Also, I can't help but wish that an article like this had been written a decade or two ago.

  • Janet B
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:17 pm

    I haven't bought Fords in a long time, but I realize it is time to get our church's finances out of Wells Fargo.BTW, JDub75, the Church will, if Christ doesn't back first, but only after we have had a generation or two of martyrs.

  • Laneygirl
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:17 pm

    Thank you for some useful information. Short of God's miraculous intervention, we all know this tidal wave of homosexual marriage is coming in to shore no matter what, but now in two small ways I can protest. Don't buy a Ford. Don't bank with Wells Fargo (who, by the way has a new TV ad showing a lesbian couple adopting a daughter).  

  • JDub75's picture
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:17 pm

    Very helpful article. Thanks for clarifying a much needed perspective : the push over legalizing gay marriage as a long-term consequence of the sexual revolution. I still don't understand how gender identity and sexual preference can be perceived as a civil right. But I suppose that if one claims complete sexual freedom, one can also logically claim the necessity for legal protection for sexual identity. It's a slippery slope towards unnatural behavior that inevitably leads to self-destruction. Who will pick up the pieces?