Secret's out: Q&A with Richard Carlbom of Freedom to Marry

Richard Carlbom, who was promoted to the national Freedom to Marry campaign after leading a successful push for same sex marriage in Minnesota, said he was “shocked” at the scale local advocates were able to build their volunteer base.
Photo By: Staff
Normally in campaigns, when you discover a great secret, you don’t talk about it because your opponents might find out. Here’s the great thing: We want to talk about it more and more. We want our opponents to know about it, because there’s nothing our opponents can do to prevent people from talking about love.

Richard Carlbom originally wanted to become a journalist.

But after graduating from Saint John’s University in 2004, he got the political bug. Soon after, he was elected mayor of his hometown, St. Joseph.

He’s been “in politics ever since,” most notably by leading the grassroots charge as campaign manager for Minnesotans United for All Families, which helped defeat a proposed amendment to the Minnesota constitution that would have banned same sex marriage. Six months later, the Minnesota legislature passed a bill allowing gay couples to marry in Minnesota.

The last two years have been a whirlwind, to say the least. Carlbom has since been promoted to director of state campaigns for Freedom to Marry—a national group that aims to get similar marriage bills passed in other states. On the personal front, Carlbom is also marrying his long-time partner this month.

Carlbom, who works out of St. Paul, recently spoke with ThreeSixty reporter Elena Renken about the path to success he and gay rights supporters helped carve in Minnesota.

What made those two campaigns so successful?

We did an incredible amount of planning and research to understand exactly how we would gain the number of votes we needed to beat the amendment in November of 2012. One was to make sure that the campaign was deeply relational. We wanted people to understand that in order to win we needed to connect with people at the deepest level possible. Second, we knew we needed to bring it to massive scale. We knew that 100 volunteers or 1,000 volunteers or even 10,000 volunteers wasn’t going to get the job done. In order to move the needle from 43 percent to 51 percent, we had to figure out how to make it as massive as possible. So we grew it to over 40,000 individual volunteers and 85,000 individual donors.

How do you think the legalization of gay marriage affects teens in particular?

For teens who are gay themselves, who have brothers or sisters or parents who are gay, I think it’s a deep change. It’s a deep, meaningful change that makes them feel like they’re a full part of the state, and that their loved ones are a full part of society. Not having the freedom to marry really set a whole group of people outside of our society and separated them from everybody else. So for some teens it’ll be incredibly personal. For others who don’t feel that personal change, I think that they’re going to feel like our state reflects their worldview more. I didn’t come out to myself until I was 21. I knew that I was gay probably as young as 10 or 11 or 12, and the reason I didn’t come out until I was 21 was that I grew up in a family that wasn’t exposed to the LGBTQ community at all, so I didn’t feel real comfortable. I was very cautious and nervous, and that’s why you stay in the closet. I think changing this law changes the way young gay teenagers, LGBT teenagers, view themselves and view their society.

How do you think people with different views on gay marriage can start to talk about this issue openly?

The first thing that everybody should understand is that everybody’s on a journey when it comes to an issue like this. We have to understand that people who are opposed to the freedom to marry—they’re not bad people. They’re not. The second thing is they have the capacity to understand the situation differently. It might take them a long time to do so, but everybody is on a journey, and if you asked me ten years ago, when I was graduating from college and coming out, if I would ever get married, I would’ve said no. Absolutely not.

So I myself have journeyed to the point where I’m getting married and I’m incredibly excited about it. I’ll say to you that I’ve met person after person who, because they had a conversation with their teenage son or daughter, they came to realize that being told it’s illegal to marry the person you love for anyone is just not right, and that ultimately, the freedom to marry is a basic fundamental freedom that they wouldn’t want to deny somebody else. When it comes to people who disagree with you, you should just ask them, ‘Why did you get married?’ They’ll start talking about how they fell in love, made a commitment and wanted to start a family. Most of the time they don’t understand that’s exactly why gay people want to get married, too.

What do you say to those members of the public who are still against gay marriage?

I used to think I understood why they felt that way. I don’t know if I do understand it really. What I know is that a lot of folks have very deeply held religious beliefs, and I acknowledge and accept and respect that they have religious beliefs that ultimately may prevent them from accepting the fact that two people who fall in love and want to make a commitment to one another should be able to do so. I also know that just because they’re opposed to gay marriage doesn’t mean that it’s going to be thrust upon them. Their church will never be forced to marry two people they don’t want to marry. I would defend that right. With that said, I would reassure the person that even though their rights aren’t infringed upon, now our state law ensures that others’ access to taking care of their spouse and committing themselves isn’t infringed upon either. It’s the best of both worlds, actually.

What is it about Minnesota that allowed it to make this transformation so rapidly?

I think that people can personalize this issue very quickly. But I think more importantly than it just being unique in Minnesota, I think that the approach to how to talk about this changed so dramatically. We realized that people who get married don’t get married because of rights and benefits. We’ve created this misunderstanding about why we, ourselves, want to get married. We have to stop talking about the legal issues and start talking from our hearts. When we did that, it actually connected with people. Normally in campaigns, when you discover a great secret, you don’t talk about it because your opponents might find out. Here’s the great thing: We want to talk about it more and more. We want our opponents to know about it, because there’s nothing our opponents can do to prevent people from talking about love.


It didn’t matter that some couldn’t even vote yet. Young voices helped shape this year’s historic political battle to pass same sex marriage legislation in Minnesota. Read Elena Renken’s story here.