Gay-rights activist Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, had a historic election night in which same-sex marriage triumphed on the ballot in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington state. The Senate will welcome Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, its first openly gay member, while the House will welcome Democratic state Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, the first openly bisexual lawmaker. The Human Rights Campaign was instrumental in helping Iowa Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins, who was part of a unanimous decision legalizing same-sex marriage in Iowa, keep his seat. Griffin talked to National Journal in his Washington office about the meaning of the victories and what lies ahead. Edited excerpts follow.
NJ What were your expectations going into election night?
GRIFFIN I was cautiously optimistic. I never expected that we would win all of our priorities. If we had just won one of the states that had marriage on the ballot, we would have made history and we would have stopped the tide of our opposition. Their advantage has always been the ballot initiatives. They were losing in the courts, they were losing in state legislatures, and they were losing repeatedly in Washington. And so this was the playing field where they always had the advantage. They had won 32 out of 32. And we made it a real priority to invest in these four marriage states.
NJ What was the extent of your investment?
GRIFFIN In the marriage states alone, in just these four ballot measures, $5.5 million was our dollar amount. Something that was really a pet project of mine and ours was the retention race in Iowa, which was a significant victory. It’s just starting to get the attention it deserves. But it was the first time that we have successfully defended a judge who voted for marriage equality. We were 50 percent of the campaign.
NJ How much were you helped by the Obama turnout operation?
GRIFFIN We weren’t talking swing states, so I don’t know the answer to that. What I do know is that LGB voters made up 5 percent of the electorate this time. So over 6 million voters self-identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. And that’s up, by the way, from 4 percent just in ’08 and previous elections in the 3s. And I think President Obama’s position on marriage helped fuel increased turnout of the youth vote and of LGB voters generally. Our support also for the president went from 70 percent Obama in ’08 to 77 percent Obama in ’12.
NJ Going forward, what strategy do you prefer: Legislative? Referendum? Courts?
GRIFFIN You can’t choose one. In order to win this battle with a sense of urgency, we have to be aggressive on every single battlefront. And right now, we have the opposition on the defensive on every single battlefront, and we’ve got to keep them there.
NJ I see November 30 as the date when the Supreme Court is going to decide whether to take up several gay-rights cases.
GRIFFIN A history-making day. There have never been so many equality cases before that court at the same time—six cases total. They’re very different. Five of those are challenging federal law [the Defense of Marriage Act], while the Prop 8 case [California’s gay-marriage ban] is state law. If they don’t take the Prop 8 case, marriage begins in California within hours or days.
NJ So are you hoping the justices don’t take it?
GRIFFIN No, I could go either way on that. I do want marriage to start as quickly as possible in California. Having said that, I do believe that ultimately this issue’s going to be resolved in the Court, and Prop 8 is one of the vehicles to do that. If this Court takes it, I am hopeful and I’m optimistic that they are going to come down on the side of liberty, freedom, and equality.
NJ Where are your next opportunities?
GRIFFIN There are legislative opportunities going from Rhode Island and Delaware all the way to Hawaii and many places in between. I saw [Chicago Mayor] Rahm Emanuel yesterday was talking about a priority of his is getting marriage equality in Illinois.
Marriage is not the only issue. There are workplace protections that are needed, and that’s ultimately a federal solution. Congress needs to pass a fully inclusive Employment Nondiscrimination Act, and we have a president who has said he will sign it. In the interim, we have the ability for this president to issue an executive order that would pertain to federal contractors. So it would protect employees, and it’s my hope that this president will ultimately do that. Other steps in the right direction would be getting statewide protections. It’s outrageous that that issue still remains. It’s the golden rule. This should not be something that in any way is controversial. This should be the no-brainer of all.
This article appeared in print as "The March of History."
This article appears in the Nov. 17, 2012, edition of National Journal.