'I Do'? I Don't! Gay Marriage's Worst Opponent

Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage. Khue Bui for Newsweek

Brian Brown's hate mail is divided into two categories: messages that go straight to the police and those he dumps into a growing computer file labeled "Opposition." One riled caller threatened to hang him from a tree "and burn you while your children watch"; someone else sent an e-mail offering to "donate" a pipe bomb to his office. The majority, however, simply vent frustration at Brown, who has emerged as the nation's fiercest crusader against gay marriage.

A big reason for their frustration is that Brown is succeeding. His National Organization for Marriage played a key role in financing the Nov. 2 ouster of three Iowa Supreme Court justices who ruled to legalize same-sex marriage there in 2009. NOM was also a major force in voter initiatives that rolled back gay marriage in Maine and California, contributing $1.4 million and $1.8 million, respectively, to those campaigns. "We're sending a strong message to judges, as did our wins in Maine and California, not to be immune to what is happening politically or too far ahead of public opinion," Brown says. The Iowa victory comes at a critical moment in his fight: on Dec. 6 a federal appeals court in California is set to hear arguments in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, which contests the constitutionality of the state's anti-gay-marriage amendment, Proposition 8.

As gays and lesbians battle in the courts and legislatures for marriage rights, Brown is on a mission to match their determination and dollars. Using direct-mail campaigns, donor outreach, and bus tours around the country, he spreads NOM's message that preserving "traditional marriage" is necessary to protect families and ensure religious freedom. "We believe the marriage issue is the last frontier in the fight," he says. "We have to hold the line there." Although NOM operates with a skeleton staff, its budget has ballooned from $500,000 in 2007, when Brown cofounded the group, to more than $13 million today. With that war chest, it was able to pour some $5 million into 100 races in the recent elections.

Critics like to paint Brown as a cynical lobbyist who's just trying to ride antigay sentiment before it peters out. Evan Wolfson, founder of the New York–based Freedom to Marry, says that while recent electoral setbacks are worrisome for groups like his that are fighting for same-sex marriage, he sees NOM as a last-ditch effort to stop the inevitable. "But they are a very dangerous last hurrah," Wolfson says. For his part, Brown, 36, says he doesn't have political aspirations—even though he just moved his offices to Washington's lobbyist row, K Street, and is in the process of launching ActRight.com, a hub for conservative activism and fundraising.

Brown would make a good politician. An Oxford graduate, he's extremely polished, the kind of campaign leader who sticks faithfully to such benign-sounding talking points as "good-hearted people can have ideas that are profoundly wrong." He mostly tries to avoid demonizing gays and lesbians: NOM ads invoke Martin Luther King Jr., the right to free speech, and the right to vote, not quotes from Leviticus. "Emotions run high on this issue, and people can be vitriolic. I never have to worry about that with Brian," says Kevin Smith of Cornerstone Action, a nonprofit group working with Brown to overturn gay marriage in New Hampshire. Even Brown's opponents begrudgingly give him props. "He is the perfect president because he's the Oxford-trained Catholic who can spin, spin, spin," says Arisha Hatch of the Courage Campaign, an online organization for progressives, who tapes Brown's events and posts them online as fuel for gay activists. "When he doesn't have an answer, he will debate how the question was posed."

In spite of NOM's efforts to appear mainstream, gay-rights advocates say the group is a carefully orchestrated front for religious organizations and virulently antigay individuals—like the NOM supporter at an Indianapolis event who held up a sign with two nooses that read THE SOLUTION TO GAY MARRIAGE. In fact, it's almost impossible to characterize Brown's supporters, because NOM keeps its donors' identities top secret. Brown says that's because his donors could be targeted and harassed by gays and their supporters, but gay advocates say he's simply flouting campaign-finance laws. (NOM has filed lawsuits in some half-dozen states to fight those laws.) "You have to look at why they are fighting tooth and nail to not disclose their donors," says Kevin Nix, director of the NOM Project, a joint effort by the gay-rights groups the Human Rights Campaign and the Courage Campaign to bring Brown's donors to light. Brown says he isn't fazed by their effort. "They are trying to make NOM into this underhanded bogeyman. But if their focus is to make NOM the center of their attention, that's great."

For his detractors, the mystery behind Brown and those who oppose gay marriage in general is why they care. How would their lives really change if gays and lesbians could wed? Brown is happy to answer the question. "Marriage is a public good. If you change the definition of marriage, you don't just change it for the gay married couple down the street, you change it for everyone," he says. If gay marriage is allowed, "then the state is essentially saying that my views on marriage, and the majority of Americans' views on marriage, are equivalent to discrimination…It profoundly affects me if my children are taught in the schools that my views on marriage are bigoted. It profoundly affects me if the church that I'm part of is treated in the law as bigoted. And, ultimately, same-sex marriage is not true."

Perhaps one reason Brown is so focused on marriage is that he's a product of divorce: his parents separated when he was a 13-year-old surfer kid in Whittier, Calif. As a teenager and college student he became fascinated with conservative writers, natural law, and issues of religious liberty, converting from his Quaker upbringing to Catholicism at the age of 25. In 2001 he joined a family-action group in Connecticut, where gay marriage soon became part of the political dialogue. "Suddenly it became everything we talked about—almost overnight, it seemed," recalls his wife, Susan, who married him in 1999 and is home-schooling their six children, with a seventh on the way. Susan also opposes gay marriage, but—perhaps like many who share her views—doesn't like to be public about it, often wishing she could tell people her husband is a lawyer or doctor and leave it at that. At an event in Providence, R.I., she says, "they walked up to my kids and asked them, 'Is Mommy raising you to be a good little bigot?'?" Yet she says she understands the frustration behind those remarks. "They believe in this as deeply as we do," she says. "I see why we'd get under their skin."

Though both sides like to claim they're winning this fight, the jury is out. This year New Hampshire and Washington, D.C., joined Iowa, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont in legalizing gay marriage. And polling shows support for it is on the rise, up from 27 percent of Americans in 1996 to 44 percent today, according to Gallup. But in the 31 states where gay marriage has been put to a vote, it's lost every time. Ultimately the Supreme Court may make the call, if it takes up Perry v. Schwarzenegger—a case gay advocates liken to Brown v. Board of Education; Brian Brown calls it "the Roe v. Wade of marriage." Until that day—and perhaps long after—Brown is prepared to keep getting hate mail.

With Katie Maloney