“Let’s get the government … into the business of equal rights,” Republican lawyer Chrysovalantis P. Kefalas, then-former Deputy Legal Counsel to Governor Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr. (R-MD), wrote in a Baltimore Sun op-ed on November 6, 2008. He made that argument only two days after voters in California approved Proposition 8, which amended the state’s constitution to ban same-sex marriage and sparked one of the greatest legal battles in United States history. And he offered those words at a time when no leading Republican – and even many Democrats – in his state and across the country had embraced equal rights for LGBT individuals – and while public support for same-sex marriage stood at only 36 percent nationwide according to a Quinnipiac University poll.
His journey from political wunderkind – a meteoric rise from a congressional intern to, in less than two years, the youngest attorney in the history of Maryland to assume the role of a counsel to the governor – to civil rights champion would include many difficult stops. So-called reparative or conversion therapy would challenge his personal worth. Fear of what his family would think and feel would test his will to live. Frayed relationships with some conservative mentors and friends and separation from certain people he loved the most would nearly exhaust his reservoir of energy, perseverance, and strength. After he came out, his father would pen a letter to him expressing concern to his son that “[being gay comes with] stigmas we cannot eradicate!”
But Kefalas pressed on – pushing the conservative case for marriage equality. In December 2010, he surprised many when again he took to the pages of The Baltimore Sun to write, “[L]et’s have a Republican follow conservative power lawyer Theodore Olson’s lead and champion an effort to bring full marriage equality to Maryland.” Months later, he pushed publicly for full marriage equality before two committees of the Maryland legislature.
“Mr. Kefalas spoke bravely about his struggle with his identity, a struggle that almost ended with him taking his own life,” said Delegate Shane Robinson (D-Montgomery County) at the time. “He … eloquently urged the committee to consider the following: ‘…favorable action on this bill (SB-116) will begin to peel away centuries of unjust treatment on the basis of something as essential to our existence as our gender, as our ethnicity, and as our race.’”
“Denying people a civil right because of the gender of the person they love is inconsistent with the core principles of our Republic and the animating principles — individual liberty, personal freedom, and limited government — that gave rise to a movement and party that I call home,” Kefalas told Maryland’s Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
Ultimately, Kefalas and others failed to persuade the Maryland legislature to pass marriage equality in 2011. But they came back just a year later with renewed focus and determination to see that justice would not continue to be denied.
In 2012, the legislature passed marriage equality with three Republicans, two in the House of Delegates and one in the Senate, siding with the Democratic majority to secure its passage. After Governor Martin J. O’Malley (D-MD) signed the bill, opponents successfully petitioned the issue to referendum. Once again, marriage equality was up for a vote. This time, few thought winning was possible – marriage equality had never been protected by popular vote.
Kefalas, however, thought it could be done. Having found his voice, Kefalas amplified it. He raised money for Marylanders for Marriage Equality, the nonpartisan organization leading efforts to defend the law, corralling support from conservatives. And he told his story and offered his arguments to as many people who would listen or read his work, including through The Huffington Post and the Washington Post.
His piece, “Marriage Equality and the Golden Rule,” was one of the final op-eds on the issue to run in the Sunday Washington Post, circulated to almost 700,000 excluding on-line viewership, just days before the pivotal vote. “Voting for [marriage equality] offers a chance for people of faith to change what can be changed — injustice and state law — so all people are treated fairly, equally and with respect, as each of us would like to be treated,” Kefalas wrote. “It is a historic opportunity to say that, in Maryland, what you do matters more than who you are.”
On November 6, 2012, voters in Maryland, along with those in Maine and Washington state, approved same-sex marriage, marking the first time marriage rights have been extended to same-sex couples by popular vote.
“We made history and sent a powerful message that we have truly reached a tipping point on gay and lesbian civil rights in this country,” Brian Ellner, head of the pro-gay marriage group The Four, told Reuters. “By winning for the first time on marriage at the ballot box, we made clear what national polls already show — that Americans support fairness and equality for all families.”
The win was a turning in the tide – and it continued to build the momentum for full marriage equality across the United States, culminating in the United States Supreme Court’s historic June 2013 decisions. The Prop 8 case upheld the lower court ruling returning marriage equality to California. In Windsor v. United States, the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act – to require the federal government to treat lawful same-sex marriages the same as opposite sex marriages.
Today, 17 states and Washington, D.C. allow same-sex couples to share in the freedom to marry. A Washington Post/ABC News poll from February–March 2014 found a record high of 59% of Americans approve of same-sex marriage, with only 34% opposed and 7% with no opinion. According to recent surveys by Pew, Washington Post/ABC News, and New York Times show, for the first time, more than 60% of Republican and Republican leaning voters under 30 support the freedom to marry. And, since the Supreme Court’s decision in Windsor, every federal district court – from Texas to Utah, from Virginia to Michigan, that has considered a state’s ban on same-sex marriage has found the law unconstitutional, rapidly putting the issue before federal appellate courts across the country and likely soon – perhaps as early as October 2014 – before the U.S. Supreme Court.
As the New York Times reported, legal experts say the country is entering what one called a “marriage spring” and predict that several of the circuit courts, which hold sway over a group of states, will rule that state laws limiting marriage to a man and a woman are unconstitutional.
As America enters the “marriage spring,” we talked to Kefalas, now 34, about his path to becoming a civil rights pioneer and his reflections.
Why did you decide to get involved in the marriage equality debate?
It was personal. It mattered to me and so many other people who yearn for acceptance, dignity, and fair treatment. I guess I could have stayed silent and allowed others to speak up and fight against the status quo, but that’s not how change happens. You have to invest and take ownership of your own life and circumstances. You have to act. You have to do. And, I mean, the Greek-American story is one of transcending our history and bringing about a society that we know can be – to, as Archbishop Iakovos, said “fight against prejudice, bias, and persecution” and for “human dignity and equality.” The American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association began as a civil rights organization, a young Greek police officer saved civil rights pioneer Andrew Young’s life when Klansmen were beating him in St. Augustine, and Archbishop Iakovos stood by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s side in Selma. Doing this work is in – is in our – DNA.
When you started, did you think the United States could change – or change as quickly as it did?
Yes. No one could convince me then, or convince me now, that when people understand this as an issue of common humanity, freedom, and dignity that there’s another legitimate conclusion than embracing marriage equality.
But how about those who oppose marriage equality on religious grounds, they can’t make that same ‘legitimate’ conclusion?
That’s incorrect. First, there’s the issue about this matter being about civil law, civil legal recognition and not about a sacrament. Beyond that, I have Evangelical friends, I have Greek Orthodox friends who do this “hate the sin, love the sinner” dance. I can understand what they’re attempting to do with that construction. But you cannot “love” me if you think I’m inferior to you – that your sins are sweeter than my alleged one – and the law should keep it that way.
And, of course, slavery and segregation were justified similarly. You have to engage in a level of sophistry almost unthinkable to distinguish the interpretative method for distilling religious grounds for slavery and segregation from those used to support LGBT inferiority.
When you argued in favor of equal marriage rights before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee in Maryland last year, your testimony was very personal. Can you tell us about your decision to make it personal?
In the debate about whether we should recognize the freedom to marry for every citizen, I think we need to pull back the curtain on who the people seeking these rights are. I think people have stereotypes in their mind. They’ve grown up in a culture that did not embrace gays and lesbians and so people need to know what it was like growing up less than equal, inferior to your friends and family. I think it makes all the difference when people recognize and see the pain, the suffering on the families and on individuals. I have told people before that when I revealed who I was, it was like witnessing your own death, with the viewing, funeral, and burial that follows.
What can you tell us about your personal experience, especially as a Greek American growing up in a Greek Orthodox family?
Growing up Greek, you did not dream about my Big Fat Greek Domestic Partnership. You dreamed of celebrating that Big Fat Greek Wedding with your family – mother, father, extended family and grandparents. That was the setting I grew up in. I grew up with that being the dream and when you grow up feeling different, there’s a great deal of despair and hopelessness.
I sought a lot of counseling, including in our Greek Orthodox church, to find out what was the message that I needed to hear. The message was one of love and that God embraces all. God does not, at least in my view, create humanity just to torment us. So, going through that process, which was a very deeply personal process for me, I needed to be true to myself, true to my family and friends. I came to the decision and the realization of who I was and I am blessed to have parents who gave me the strength and inspiration to be strong and confident in tomorrow.
This is a major reason I decided to come out and advocate for equal rights and equal justice. It’s because I can’t imagine another child going through what I went through.
In 2011, during your testimony, you described yourself as a permanent member of an underclass of Americans. With marriage equality now in Maryland and DOMA effectively toothless, is that still the case? What are the other steps needed so that gays and lesbians are no longer members of this underclass you spoke about?
The path to equal rights has been a path that has included a number of recent accomplishments, but far from where we must be. The fact that gay and lesbian Americans can serve openly in the military is an important step. I think marriage equality across this nation is the next pivotal step to embrace everyone as equal in our nation. When justice is denied to one of us, justice is denied to all of us.
Marriage equality is vital because marriage, as the Supreme Court told us, is one of the most fundamental rights we have as citizens under the United States Constitution. Without marriage you are not a full part of the community. Without marriage – the most important personal decision you make in life – you are not legitimate by law. Beyond marriage equality, employment discrimination reforms and the end of reparative therapy, which no reputable medical association recognizes as helpful, must be goals. You cannot switch off who you are.
Finally, education is critical. Ignorance, fear, and misunderstanding feeds much of the opposition to marriage equality and other behaviors that isolate LGBT individuals.
If you had the ear of each and every opponent of marriage equality, what would you say to them?
I think I would ask them why people like me are inferior. I think it’s a very difficult question for opponents to answer. I think at the end of the day they need to realize that gay and lesbian Americans are just like them – they share the same aspirations and the same dreams. Marriage recognizes the worth of all families, whether they are gay or straight. It provides the security to build a life together. I think it also has the same meaning – no matter who you are. It is the public acknowledgment of a commitment to each other and to make a lifelong promise to care and to protect one another. The institution of marriage itself is strengthened by adding more people to the institution. This is what we have seen historically and this is what we will continue to see.
Why do you think that marriage equality remains a lightning rod issue?
There’s obviously a great religious debate concerning who should enter into marriage and I think for many opponents they don’t separate civil marriage from religious marriage. But there is another element to this. There is a misunderstanding among some people who are opposed to marriage freedom and treating LGBT equally, and perhaps a lack of diversity in their lives. They have these stereotypes in their mind. And that fear drives opposition. If people open their eyes, get to know people like me, and if they listen to the arguments in favor of marriage equality, it will become very difficult for them to oppose equal justice and equal rights to all.
Tell us about your Greek background?
My father was born in Greece. My mother was born in the United States. Both grandparents are from Greece. As a second-generation Greek American, I was raised in the church. I spoke a number of times on the pulpit on Youth Sundays. I was a member of GOYA [Greek Orthodox Youth of America]. I went to Greek school. I have been involved in every church festival at least since my 12th birthday.
Being Greek is what defines me to many. I am very proud of my Greek heritage. I am proud of the history and what it has given society and civilization. It provides an eternal spring of inspiration and hope for me as regards to what came before me and what can still be.
It’s incredibly important in my life.
What’s been the level of support from the Greek American community and from your church?
Well, I came out very late in life. So based on really a quarter-century of life experience in my church – volunteering in the festivals and helping the church in other ways, I had earned the community’s respect and continue to maintain it. My church and broader Greek community by and large continues to see me for who I am based on the content of my character and not by some arbitrary characteristic I cannot control or change.
Is there a contradiction in your advocacy and your faith?
Although some dispute it’s biologic origin, reputable science suggests a biological component to sexual orientation. Despite what some may perceive in our Church as a physical disability, God made me this way for a reason, and I can try to reflect His image by doing good works, by making a difference in the lives of others, by caring for my neighbor, and by treating all people with respect and love.
Being gay does not prevent me from amplifying God’s love, so, in my view, my life does not conflict with the teachings of Jesus and Orthodoxy. I will never believe that God created man just to condemn him. Life is about dealing with the moment, and carrying the crosses and accepting its blessings. Love, truth and justice are the values at the core of our faith. At the end of the day, this is what the debate is all about.
How can anyone love their neighbor as “yourself” if one supports perpetuating discrimination against people for something they do not choose to be; supports a law that renders an entire class of people inferior because of an arbitrary characteristic; and supports state-sanctioning a denial of rights that do not just confer benefits but make someone a full part of the community.
How long will your advocacy continue?
The work of liberty and justice is never done. So long as a child can still be raised in a home, in a community that doesn’t recognize her worth, her normalcy, and her value because of unjust laws and institutions that promote ignorance and fear, the mission is not yet over.
Is there any moment or accomplishment that stands out since you started your advocacy?
Election night, 2012. After working the polls all day, before the returns came in, I went to my godfather’s restaurant for a quick bite. When he saw me, one of the things my godfather said was “everyone [in our family] voted for Question 6.”