Starting a Marriage Equality USA Chapter
Thank you for your interest in starting a Marriage Equality USA Chapter in your community. This page provides an overview of the chapter organizing process from your initial gathering of concerned individuals to full accreditation as an official chapter. Please feel free to contact Marriage Equality USA, the national organization, at any time with questions you might have. Contact: email@example.com
Marriage Equality USA's Mission Statement
Marriage Equality USA's mission is To secure legally recognized civil marriage equality for all, without regard to sexual orientation or gender identity, at the state and federal level through grassroots organizing, education, action and partnerships. We welcome any and all individuals who share this philosophy.
About Marriage Equality USA
Marriage Equality USA's work focuses on four main areas:
Action: We organize and/or participate in rallies, petition drives, phone banking, canvassing, protests, and sometimes carefully orchestrated non-violent civil disobedience. Each year we have our annual events: Coast-to-Coast Wedding Marches for Marriage Equality, Marriage Counter Actions on Valentine's Day, Tax Day Actions in April.
Education: Speaking engagements, forums, and outreach functions provide our greatest opportunity to educate people on marriage equality. Our educational material gives us the opportunity to explain ALL the issues. We meet with organizations and individuals, explaining why marriage matters. Through these meetings we build coalitions with other gay and non-gay organizations, thus increasing the number of individuals who believe in marriage equality.
Media Campaigns: Greater awareness lessens the fear many people have around same-sex marriage. That is why Marriage Equality USA actively sponsors and engages in letter-writing to publications, large media events and press conferences, statewide rallies, speak-outs, and other high-profile activities. We believe exposure through film, TV commercial advertising, photography and print are extremely effective. By putting same-sex marriage in the news, we can ensure visibility, as well as putting individual human faces on the issue.
Partnerships: Organizing and building coalitions and alliances with social and civil groups, communities of faith and individuals (gay and non-gay) are key to getting our message out. Co-sponsoring events, discussion groups and outreach to the business community are just some of the ways to get the greater community involved with marriage equality.
What Makes Us Different
Certainly there are other good organizations in the marriage equality movement that do very important work. Why choose to be a part of Marriage Equality USA? What makes us different? We can offer several reasons.
- Our grass-roots organization was founded by activists who "do" rather than just talk. Marriage Equality USA continually invests in its members and volunteer leaders – real people, "regular folks", on the frontlines of this movement are where our most successful and innovative ideas have come from.
- We welcome all points of views and visions for projects and events. Marriage Equality USA listens to new ways of thinking. We don't believe there is only one "right" way to do things, or only one message that can be heard. We understand that our movement will only succeed with the energy and passion of a multitude of people. We are pros when it comes to team work.
- Our approach has something for everyone! Whether you enjoy communications, speaking to groups and individuals on why marriage matters, doing research work, writing, planning events, graphic arts, data entry, canvassing… everyone has an opportunity to be a part of the organization and to enjoy their role.
What do Marriage Equality Chapters Do?
Chapters determine their work within the scope of Marriage Equality USA's Mission. They focus on educational efforts, events and projects developed with the consultation and support of Marriage Equality USA's Community Liaisons and Board of Directors, who can provide assistance to help make these events successful. Here are some examples of what we do:
- Conduct talks on the issue of marriage equality to gay and non-gay faith communities and for educational institutions.
- Host/participate in forums, panel discussions and Town Hall meetings to educate the general public on same-sex marriage.
- Leaflet/table/distribute educational informational literature on marriage equality.
- Ask social organizations, faith communities, companies and elected politicians (as well as the general public) to educate themselves and others about the issue of marriage equality and promote the reinterpretation of existing marriage statutes so as to include LGBTIQ couples and their families.
- Hold fundraising events for the organization.
- Conduct outreach at various events to discuss marriage equality, i.e. wedding expos, LGBTIQ Pride Day, street fairs, farmers' markets, etc.
- Write Letters to the Editor and to public officials on why marriage matters.
- Hold public demonstrations to bring greater awareness on why non-heterosexual couples and the gay community are discriminated against (e.g. Valentine's Day/Freedom to Marry Day, Tax Day, Marriage Equality Marches, and National Coming Out Day).
Many of these projects can be done easily on a local level. As chapters become increasingly self-sufficient, they develop the technical and financial resources needed to sustain local projects.
The Very First Step
Beginning a chapter can feel overwhelming, even though this is something you truly believe in. The most important and most basic step is to ask yourself the following questions:
- Do I have the commitment and the ability to work towards the goal of equality?
- Does marriage equality matter enough that I would commit time and energy to it?
- Do I have some friends and colleagues who can help me?
We believe these questions must be asked because the road ahead can be sometimes uncertain; sometimes frustrating. However, what lies at the end of that road is equality - and that makes every step of the journey worthwhile!
Okay, let's get started!
How to Become a Marriage Equality Chapter
Step 1. Get In Touch With Marriage Equality USA - Once you or a group of people in your community have decided they are interested in organizing, contact our Executive Director and let him know you would like to create a chapter: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Step 2. Send an Email Outlining your Interest – Please send the Leadership Coordinator an email with a brief bio describing any volunteer leadership experience you have, why you are passionate about the cause of marriage equality, and why you would like to serve with this particular organization.
Step 3. Host an informal local gathering and invite everyone you know in your area who is supportive of marriage equality and/or civil rights in general – Let us know when your event will be and we will arrange to have some MEUSA brochures, sign-up sheets, a couple of posters, and a t-shirt sent to you prior to your event. At this event, talk with the attendees about the issue of marriage equality, why it is so important to you, describe the organization, and then have the group talk together about how to begin a chapter. Ask for a couple of other people to join you as volunteer Chapter Leaders, and ask the other people present to become your core group of volunteers – together you will form the leadership team for your area. At this gathering please also ask those present to contribute a donation to help purchase a Chapter Start-Up Kit for your new chapter. This kit will include a MEUSA banner, brochures, bumper stickers, posters, thank you cards, and a sample DVD. Start-up kits cost the organization over $200.00, so it is important to help offset some of this cost.
Step 4. The Leadership Coordinator will then provide the necessary legal paperwork to you and your fellow Chapter Leaders; once the signed paperwork is received, the Webteam will create your chapter on the Marriage Equality USA website; a MEUSA email address will be created which will forward to the personal email addresses of the Chapter Leaders; and we will help you to create a Facebook page for your chapter. The Leadership Coordinator will order MEUSA business cards for you.
How Do We Get Started?
Decide Your First Action
How will people hear about your group? What will be the first gathering in which other like-minded people will be able to participate? In New York, for instance, Marriage Equality held a town hall meeting in which 200 people gathered to learn more about the issue and support the idea. The California chapter asked for marriage licenses in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Couples tried to receive licenses, only to be turned away. This proved hugely successful as an event, received a lot of media attention and in 2004 led to the issuing of marriage licenses by Mayor Gavin Newsom and the famous Winter of Love. In rural counties chapters have held pancake breakfasts at a local firehouse, marched in rodeo parades and had booths at county fairs.
You know your local community and state. What do you think would get people out and involved?
- Town Hall Meeting to educate
- Fundraiser-House party or a variety show
- Screening of a film on same-sex marriage
- Educational Forum with Guest Speaker
- Asking for marriage licenses on Valentine's Day
- Tabling at a local Farmer's Market or County Fair
People - Your Most Vital Resource
Depending on how many people want to become a part of your chapter even before it has been formed (otherwise, organizing can be a lonely job), you must try to bring more people into the fold who are committed to fighting for the right to civil marriage. This sometimes can be difficult, especially if you live in a rural area. If you are not sure where to look, contact your local PFLAG, ACLU, and progressive faith organizations or, if there is one relatively close to you, the local Gay and Lesbian Center. Often times, other organizations know people who are interested in this same issue.
Decide Where to Meet
Again, having a Gay and Lesbian Center in the city of your choice is always a good beginning. Normally, centers will rent, or give, space to you for your needs. If not, contact a Metropolitan Community Church, UU, UCC, Senior Center, or any other friendly place. Or, PFLAG might help you with a meeting space. Any place in which your group can meet comfortably is where you can lay the foundation for the chapter. Some chapters choose to meet in a back room of a cafe or restaurant in the early evening. It is also possible to do meetings via tele-conference calls in rural areas, or with chapters that cover a wide geographical area, or those where traffic is a major barrier to meeting in person. Contact the Leadership Coordinator if you would like to schedule a call using the MEUSA teleconference call service.
Getting Your Name and Message Out
Advertising on the cheap - here are some suggestions:
- Spread your message with MEUSA heart stickers, MEUSA brochures, and fliers. You can create a specialized flyer announcing your local events and meetings on your computer and distribute at wherever LGBTIQ and politically progressive people congregate. Bars, clubs, restaurants, train stations, coffee shops and bookstores are great places to start.
- Make sure you tell people where, when, and especially why you are meeting.
- Mailing. If you have the resources, a limited mailing of everyone you know or that friends of friends know is another way to ensure people will save the date of your event.
- Put an ad in a local gay/non-gay newspaper, or a posting on the local community bulletin boards and community calendars. Often times, other people want the same thing you do and comb the papers for information on meetings.
- Use the Internet. Communicating your message has never been easier than in the last 5 years! When you become a Chapter Leader for Marriage Equality USA we provide you access to technology that allows you to communicate easily and effectively with marriage equality supporters in your chapter. You can send e-mails to chapter members and post your local event on the chapter webpage we provide you. You can also ask other gay organizations who have websites to post a link to your chapter page on Marriage Equality USA's website. And, be sure to use your chapter Facebook page!
Once you have been successful in bringing together people who want to be involved, it is essential to pull them in and help them to fully understand why they should give a damn about marriage equality! Here are some areas on which to focus:
- Explain that if gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people want equality, we must work for complete and full civil marriage rights.
- Clarify the difference between civil and religious marriage.
- Explain all the legal protections, benefits and responsibilities on the state and federal levels which we are denied.
- Articulate the differences between civil marriages and civil unions/domestic partnerships.
- Ask people to share personal stories illustrating how being denied the right to marry, and all the legal protections marriage affords, has affected their own lives.
- Explain why we, as LGBTIQ people, should not stop the fight until we receive the validity our relationships deserve!
Some of the participants may think fighting for smaller, incremental steps is the answer. Others may believe the institution of marriage should be scrapped all together. Fighting for marriage is the ultimate prize we set our sights on, and we believe that civil unions or domestic partnerships are valid steps on the way to full civil marriage. If people fight for only for civil unions, watered down domestic partnerships are all they will reap. Furthermore, though the institution may be far from perfect, we are asking for access to it because of its benefits, its responsibilities, and because it elevates status within society; this is a human rights issue, and changing the institution because LGBTIQ people want "in" is counter to our desire for equality.
Begin to Build Your Membership
As a grass-roots organization, Marriage Equality USA depends on the volunteer work of individuals, as well as their financial support, to survive and grow. As you build your membership, you can build toward larger projects. Ask initial attendees to do outreach, and compile a local mailing list of people interested in Marriage Equality from their networks. Make sure you have Marriage Equality USA educational material to take with you to appropriate venues (educational conferences, your friend's potluck, the local gay and lesbian community center, and similar places) to encourage more people to join. Remember that the most important goal of every member should be to get more people involved so that the impact of our work spreads as far as possible.
Experience shows that groups that simply offer individuals the chance to meet, but are not focused on action, rarely prosper. It is vital early on to give focus to your group's work by determining projects you will want to work on. This can include some of those listed above or new ideas developed by your members. The key thing is this: DO SOMETHING. People are more enthusiastic and focused when they are working toward a concrete goal.
Call Your Fellow MEUSA Leaders to Brainstorm Your Projects
This is where assistance and teamwork will be invaluable. Programming, some limited funding, and general ideas on how to pull off what you want to accomplish can all be supported by Marriage Equality USA, so that each chapter does not have to "reinvent the wheel." Take advantage of Marriage Equality's support by learning what has worked and what has not. Use your Leadership Directory to call and email the Leadership Coordinator, your fellow Chapter Leaders, our Community Liaisons, and our Board Members, to share ideas, ask for suggestions, seek answers to challenges, and to share your successes.
Many other groups should be informed of your work. These might include a local legal organization which can help support you if you should need such assistance, civil rights organizations such as the NAACP which are addressing related issues, community groups such as PFLAG which share some of our concerns, and so forth. Designate members who will take responsibility for meeting with representatives from these groups to discuss how you might work together on common concerns. They will often have resources and ideas that can help you and you can undoubtedly do the same for them.
Develop a Funding Base
Fundraising is a subject with which many educators are unfamiliar and to which many seem highly allergic. The importance of fundraising can be summed up in one sentence: Without money, we can't do anything. It helps to think of asking someone for money as doing a favor for them: you're providing an opportunity for them to support something they care about, instead of asking for a favor yourself. Check out the book "Fundraising for Dummies" to learn more!
Major Sources of Funding for Marriage Equality Chapters
- Individual donors, memberships, monthly donor club;
- House Party Fundraisers;
- Variety Shows or Karaoke Night Fundraisers;
- Screenings of movies on same-sex marriage (Freedom to Marry, Tying the Knot);
- Telemarketing/direct mail solicitation.
Marriage Equality USA's goal is for all chapters to help raise funds to continue to provide materials and services (brochures, stickers, signs, banners, website hosting, our email service, PRIDE booth fees, insurance for events etc.), pay for events for existing chapters, and to help start new chapters so you can do the work you want to do. Remember, we are a registered 501(c)3 and all donations are tax deductible!
How Does Marriage Equality's Structure Work?
Marriage Equality USA has a national Board of Directors whose Members, as on all such Boards, are legally and fiscally responsible for the corporation. The Board meets monthly. Within the Board, officers oversee daily operations. States that have a sizable number of chapters are overseen by an Operating Committee, which adheres to the by-laws and policy directives set out by the National Board and which works with the National Board to coordinate efforts and ensure that chapters in their state do not violate the guidelines for 501(c)3, 501(c)4 or 501(h) election status outlined by the IRS.
No chapter or state Operating Committee can incorporate as a separate entity, or form its own Board of Directors.
We do not function in a strict dictatorial "top-down" hierarchy and we encourage our volunteer leaders to actively participate in creating the policies, choosing the strategy, and determining the direction of the entire organization. We believe that our Chapter Leaders know best what kind of events and messaging will work in their local areas and that Community Liaisons know best what kind of education is needed by their communities, as well as what their communities have to offer the movement.
Chapters who compromise Marriage Equality USA's mission or violate its policies or by-laws may be de-certified by the National Board of Directors, thus losing their rights to use the Marriage Equality USA name, logo, database, materials, and will no longer derive any income from the organization.
Members may join through their local chapter or through the organization's website at www.marriageequality.org. Regardless of their point of entry, members have joint membership in both the local chapter and the national organization.
It is important for us to recognize and respect that our leaders and our members are people belonging to a wide variety of political parties, holding different faith beliefs or none, of different ethnicities and cultures, LGBTIQ and straight, of different abilities, from young adult to the elderly. The one thing we all share in common in a passionate belief in marriage equality for all and the willingness to step up and work towards that goal.
Thank you again for your interest in forming a Marriage Equality USA Chapter. We are pleased that you value our work and are interested in joining us to ensure full equality in the eyes of the law for all LGBTIQ people.