Southerners speak out for the freedom to marry in new bipartisan campaign

Today, Freedom to Marry is launching Southerners for the Freedom to Marry, a new campaign in partnership with 12 Southern equality organizations that will amplify the voices of marriage supporters in the South. The $1 million campaign seeks to build and grow majority support for the freedom to marry in the South and will include significant field and media work over the next year. The campaign launched today in Atlanta, Georgia with a press conference at the Phillip Rush Center, featuring Atlanta Mayor (and Mayors for the Freedom to Marry co-chair) Kasim Reed, Freedom to Marry founder and president Evan Wolfson, and Georgia Equality Executive Director Jeff Graham. 

Southerners for the Freedom to Marry is launched in partnership with 12 Southern organizations committed to equality for LGBT people - including the Campaign for Southern Equality, the Equality Federation, Equality Alabama, Equality Florida, Georgia Equality, the Fairness Campaign (in Kentucky), Equality Louisiana, The Equality Network (in Oklahoma) Equality North Carolina, South Carolina Equality, Equality Texas, Tennessee Equality Project, and Equality Virginia. 

Thirteen notable and strong marriage supporters from across the region serve as bipartisan honorary co-chairs for Southerners for the Freedom to Marry. The co-chairs include civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-GA); U.S. Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA); George W. Bush advisor Mark McKinnon from Texas; Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL); and pop singer Lance Bass from Mississippi. 

Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry explained:

Our investment in the South comes at a pivotal time in the marriage movement. The South is home to hundreds of thousands of loving, committed same-sex couples – and to a majority of the nearly 50 federal marriage cases now underway in courts across the country. Our new campaign will give voice to the many in the region now ready to move forward, including clergy, business leaders, conservatives, and family members, to show that all of America is ready for the freedom to marry. 

Southerners for the Freedom to Marry Launch Event • Atlanta, GA

At 10:00 a.m. in Atlanta, Georgia, the campaign kicked off with a press conference featuring Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, Freedom to Marry founder and president Evan Wolfson, Reverend Don Saliers, Georgia Equality Executive Director Jeff Graham, and Linda Ellis and Rev. Lesley Brogan, a loving same-sex couple and mother of two from Atlanta. (Photos by LeahandMark & Co.)

Mayor Reed kicked off the event by committing his support to continue conversations about why marriage matters in Georgia and beyond. "Denying same-sex couples the freedom to marry does not fulfill the Golden Rule of treating people the way you'd like to be treated," Mayor Reed said. "As a longtime supporter of equality for LGBT individuals, denying same-sex couples the freedom to marry is harmful to families and hurtful to communities. We need to remove discrimination from Georgia's constitution, which must be done not tomorrow, but right away."

The Mayor shared his personal journey with the audience of more than 100 people who attended the kick-off event. "I was slow moving from recognizing civil unions to marriage equality," he said. "My grandfather was a minister and I grew up in a household that was pretty religious and I consider myself pretty religious and I had some struggles. My journey is the same journey that many Southerners must take."

"My journey is the same journey that many Southerners must take." - Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed

Rev. Don Saliers, a William R. Cannon Distinguished Professor of Theology and Worship, Emeritus at Emory University, spoke after Mayor Reed. "Marriage says we are family in a way that no other word quite says it," he said. "It means a commitment between that household and the larger society. That accountability and responsibility to each other. Like Georgia, like the South, my church is having an important conversation about marriage, and more and more people are coming to support the freedom to marry."

Rev. Saliers also spoke about his three daughters, one of whom is married to a woman. She lives in Atlanta and is denied respect for her marriage. He spoke about why it is painful to see that all three of his daughters are not treated equally in Georgia, and in many states across the country."

Next, Rev. Lesley Brogan and her partner Linda Ellis took to the podium with their sons, John and Sam. The women had a commitment ceremony in 1991, which Linda referenced in her remarks. She said, "In 1991, we promised forever. And for us, 'forever' is Georgia. It's home. It's where we have built our family." 

She joked, "Our sons may tell you that we're just a normal married couple - but we're not. Not yet. It's time for marriage in Georgia."  See the couple's full remarks below. 

Freedom to Marry founder and president Evan Wolfson closed the press conference with rousing remarks about the power of Southerners for the Freedom to Marry.

"We're here to celebrate the voices of people all across the South who believe in the Golden Rule," Evan said. "We want to ensure that the voices of the South are heard in this national conversation about why marriage matters. We're here to convey the message to decision-makers across the country that America - all of America - is ready for the freedom to marry."

Meet the Co-Chairs of Southerners for the Freedom to Marry

Freedom to Marry is proud to present this new bipartisan organizing effort alongside 13 honorary co-chairs. The co-chairs include representatives from nine states. Read all about them HERE.

Alabama: State Representative Patricia Todd (D); Arkansas: TV producers Harry Thomason & Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, Fayetteville Mayor Lioneld Jordan (D); Florida: Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R); Georgia: Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed (D), Rep. John Lewis (D); Mississippi: Lance Bass, musician and author; North Carolina: Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt (D); South Carolina: Congressman James Clyburn (D); Texas: Rep. Joaquin Castro (D); Mark McKinnon, Chief media advisor to President George W. Bush; Virginia: U.S. Senator Tim Kaine (D)

Congressman John Lewis Kicks Off 'Southerners' with Moving Video

In a video designed to kick off the campaign for Southerners for the Freedom to Marry, U.S. Rep. John Lewis (one of our co-chairs) talks about his history in the civil rights movement, sharing personal photos with viewers. He says, "I fought too hard and too long against discrimination based on race and color not to stand up - and speak up - against discrimination against our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. I see the right to marry as a civil rights issue." Watch the video:

Atlanta Couple Together 25 Years Shares Why Marriage Matters

At today's launch event, Rev. Lesley Brogan and her partner Linda Ellis spoke about why Southerners for the Freedom to Marry is so important to them. They explained:

Our commitment service was held in November of 1991. That day, we asked our friends and those family members who could, to celebrate our relationship, to support us and to hold us accountable to the commitments that we were making to each other, forever. And we knew that forever would be here in Georgia. It’s where our friends and family are, it’s where we met, and it’s where we call home.

"If you ask our sons, they'd tell you that we're just like any other old married couple. But the truth is, we're not. And we're ready to be." - Linda Ellis

In the 22 years since, we've worked very hard to ensure that our family, especially John and Sam, have the strongest protections possible. We are lucky, and count ourselves blessed, to live in the community that we do – to have the "village" that we have – and to be able to afford certain protections, including traveling out of state to legally marry. We know that many gay and lesbian couples across GA are not so lucky.

If you ask our sons, they'd tell you that we're just like any other old married couple. But the truth is, we're not. And we're ready to be. So, Mayor Reed, Evan - we are glad that you are here. Thank you. We stand with you - and with the thousands of other gay and lesbian couples across the state of Georgia who deserve the basic freedom to marry. We will do everything that we can to support this effort, because it’s time for marriage for all Georgians. (Photo by LeahandMark & Co.)

Read Stories of Loving Same-Sex Couples in the South

Freedom to Marry has been working with our state and regional partners to share the stories of loving, committed same-sex couples who want to marry or have their marriage licences respected in the South. Here's a look at a few of the great stories - find all of them HERE

Larry and Nolan • Atlanta, GA: "Marriage is a part of the family bond. It means that through it all, we are here for each other - I am here for you, and you are here for me. We are a team. We will work, build, and grow together. It would mean the world not just for me - but for other couples who have not yet been able to take this step - to have the freedom to marry. I look forward to the day when we have the right to settle here in Georgia and build a family. I look forward to the day when we are fully welcomed by our state."

Juan and Patrick • Tampa, FL: "We love that we have built our home here - but we need more in order to fully dignify our lives, our family, and our place in the state. We need to become a whole part of society. We need to make sure our children - future leaders of this state and this country - are protected and respected by the law. We need to make Florida a better, safer place to live - and we hope you'll stand with us as we work together for a better future. We need the freedom to marry in Florida."

Satyam and Tonja • Atlanta, GA: "Standing with our friends on the day the Supreme Court struck down DOMA was bittersweet. Our friends were elated for us, and we were thrilled, but as a community living in Georgia, our happiness was dampened. In our chosen home, we were still not recognized as equal citizens."

Mark and Tim • Winston-Salem, NC: "If we don't speak out - if we are quiet, ultimately, kids will be harmed," Mark said, "There are just too many people speaking in opposition to them that we need to make our voices that much stronger. We know that all families should matter - but these laws basically say that all families do not matter. They must be repealed so that our government can acknowledge that we do matter and that we have an equal place at the table."

Jonathan and Dwayne • Nashville, TN: "We were able to show our loved ones that we are committed to each other. We've made a promise to each other about our goals and our future together, and that's important. It's important to have that union recognized in your community, and in your home, and in your family. It's important because marriage is the ultimate commitment you can make to the person that you love, and we want our community to understand how strong our commitment is to one another - how strong our commitment is to the person we love."

Natalie and Leah • Mobile, AL: "We aspire to love each other and support each other. We aspire to be the best mothers we can be and give Hayes and our future children the best life possible. We aspire to show others that family can be made up in many ways. We aspire to show that all that really matters in family is a foundation of love and support for one another."

Jeff and Jeremiah • Houston, TX: "For us to be legally recognized everywhere would make everything so much easier. There are so many what-ifs that you have to consider, and to have that burden off of our backs would be amazing."

Clark and ElliotSarasota, FL: "Marriage matters because it would give us validity, commitment, respect, and a feeling of safety that we will know that we will be there for the other without fear of the court system intervening with our family wishes. Having the freedom to marry in any state would mean that we have finally made it to the top of the mountain."

Learn more about Southerners for the Freedom to Marry HERE. 

Photographs by LeahandMark & Co.