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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, April 20, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 16
The obligation to make history
SGN interview - Evan Wolfson, Freedom to Marry
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The obligation to make history
SGN interview - Evan Wolfson, Freedom to Marry

by James Whitely - SGN Staff Writer

Longtime Gay marriage activist and executive director of Freedom to Marry (FTM) Evan Wolfson came to Seattle Thursday, April 19, as the keynote speaker at the annual banquet of the Washington-based LGBT bar association QLaw. From arguing in front of the Supreme Court on Gay rights to being named one of the '100 most influential people in the world' by Time magazine in 2004, the New York-based attorney has been an 'intellectual anchor' of the same-sex marriage movement, as well as one of its earliest key thinkers, along with other activists like Andrew Sullivan.

'We're thrilled to have him,' said Andrew Sachs, president of QLaw. 'It's the perfect time to have someone of his stature come to town and address the issue of the day.'

A LONG TIME COMING
Arguably, Wolfson was thinking critically about Gay marriage well before anyone else was. As a graduate student at Harvard in 1983, he wrote his thesis on the subject. According to Wolfson, two things contributed to his choice to devote his thesis to the same-sex marriage: the book by historian John Boswell Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (1980), and his own experiences in the Peace Corps just prior to his time at Harvard.

Boswell's book took an in-depth look at Western religious tradition in regards to its treatment of homosexuality, noting that the Roman Catholic Church had not condemned homosexuality entirely, and prior to the 12th century, celebrated love between men.

'It showed that attitudes towards Gay people were much more favorable,' Wolfson told Seattle Gay News. 'If it was better before, then it could be better again.'

In the Peace Corps, he made the discovery that 'who you are is not just shaped by your own personal upbringing & but your society.' For Wolfson, different language, different vocabulary, and different culture made identifying as Gay almost impossible for some of the people he worked with.

'They may have had homosexual feelings,' said Wolfson. 'But didn't know what to do with them.'

These experiences, combined with his own personal coming-out journey, led Wolfson to believe that the single most transformative piece of vocabulary that was changeable was marriage.

'The vocabulary of love, commitment, family, connectedness, and inclusion. It's not enough to fight to be left alone; we need to work to be let in,' Wolfson said. 'I saw it as a constitutional, moral, and familial matter, and I've pretty much spent the rest of my life trying to put that paper in to practice,' Wolfson told SGN of his thesis.

After graduating Harvard's Law program, Wolfson worked as a New York prosecutor for many years before making the move to Lambda Legal, an LGBT civil rights litigation organization. However, during his time as a prosecutor, he worked pro-bono during his evenings for a still-young Lambda, drafting various briefs on Gay rights.

Although Wolfson pursued a range of cases with Lambda, his cases with the Boy Scouts of America - where it was essentially ruled that a private organization is permitted to refuse membership to someone because of their First Amendment right to freedom of association regardless of state antidiscrimination laws - and Hawaii's Baehr v. Miike positioned him to be one of the people at the forefront of marriage equality. In Baehr v. Miike, where he was co-council, Hawaii's Supreme Court ruled that prohibiting same-sex marriage in the state constituted discrimination. To many, Baehr v. Miike arguably launched the ongoing global movement for the freedom to marry.

'We had gotten Americans to put 'Gay' and 'marriage' into the same sentence. The battle had begun,' Wolfson told SGN.

In 2003, Wolfson was given time off from his duties at Lambda to put his energy in to the marriage battle full-time. Thus Freedom to Marry, his national campaign to win same-sex marriage, was born.

To Wolfson, FTM was a chance to build the next model for the movement. By analyzing the strengths and weaknesses from the '90s and not grounding himself and his new organization in one single methodology, they could pursue a strategy that would lead to victory.

A KNOCKDOWN, DRAG-OUT FIGHT
'My horizon has always been shorter than others',' Wolfson told SGN in regards to how long it's taken to get this far. Upon launching FTM, Wolfson laid out the blueprints to win same-sex marriage nationally in five years - obviously, that didn't happen.

'At the time, most people believed me, but also thought it was wildly ambitious,' said Wolfson.

He quickly recognized that grassroots organizing must accompany legal and political battles.

'It's not enough to just have legislative strength, you need to create the climate,' Wolfson told SGN. 'The work of earning the freedom to marry is too important to just be left to lawyers.'

'It's easier to lend to the defense when there's an attack,' said Wolfson. 'But we've paid a price for our failure to invest upfront and early.'

Wolfson sees this as a lesson we've had to keep learning battle after battle - our key downfall.

'There's no marriage without engagement,' Wolfson told SGN. 'Every day we don't make the case to our neighbors and the voters is the day we miss the chance.'

Wolfson will never deny the importance of conversations with neighbors, visibility, or volunteering for phone banks, but sees the fight for marriage, like many things, as coming down to money.

'Donating the money that will enable the campaign to put forth the media, the television ads, the tools - that will help shape the campaign that our personal conversations and door knocking are a part of,' said Wolfson.

Wolfson does think that there were some points where we might have been able to make same-sex marriage happen sooner. In the '90s, he didn't think the battle would last until 2012, 2015, or even 2020, but despite all of it, he's not giving up.

'You have to act with the urgency of the opportunity to win today, but at the same time, stay persistent for as long as it takes,' said Wolfson. 'The only way to make it happen is to envision it.'

This has been, to Wolfson, a credo of sorts, along with a quote by famed 19th/20th century French feminist Hubertine Auclert - 'If you would attain a right, first you must proclaim it' - which Wolfson mentioned in his 2004 book, Why Marriage Matters: America, Equality, and Gay People's Right to Marry.

WHERE ARE WE NOW?
Is the opposing side is more united? More organized? According to Wolfson, no.

'They started with a much bigger and stronger infrastructure - they abused the churches, they had much bigger pots of money,' Wolfson told SGN. 'We've had to put all that together.'

According to Wolfson, the opposing side has many advantages that we're 'now only catching up with and beginning to overtake.'

'The reality is that Gay people are a very small minority, and unlike other minorities, we don't grow up in our own community, we have to find our way to it,' Wolfson told SGN. 'In the beginning, it was easy for the right wing to mount this preemptive destructive attack & but over time, as we've made the case & we've seen public opinion shift in our favor. Many more non-Gay people now care deeply about this and are with us. & We've literally doubled the number of Americans who support the freedom to marry.

When Wolfosn was co-council in Baehr v. Miike, 26% of Americans supported same-sex marriage. Now it's estimated 53% support it nationwide.

Although many fights have been lost state to state, there have been a number of sustained victories. Same-sex marriage is law in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, and the District of Columbia; and according to Wolfson, winning more states and defending them is what is necessary right now.

'Donate the money. Turn out the voters to win,' Wolfson told SGN. 'Prop 8 showed us that we can't be complacent. We can lose if we don't get to work.'

Although FTM is active in all 50 states, there are currently four other key battlegrounds: Minnesota, Maine, New Jersey, and New Hampshire. Wolfson says that these states (along with Washington) create an opportunity to transform the landscape yet again.

The single most important thing Washingtonians can do according to Wolfson is 'to make sure we hold the freedom to marry come November.'

THE WASHINGTON BATTLEGROUND
To win in Washington, Wolfson said, 'Do not just assume that because someone is pro-Gay, that they understand how urgent it is to vote. It's our job to connect the dots.'

'[Winning will take] personal action and collective action through the campaign that we all have an obligation to support,' said Wolfson. 'We can't assume that others will write a check or contribute to the phone bank. All must do their part.'

'You have the opportunity and the obligation to make history,' said Wolfson, addressing the QLaw banquet.

'Freedom to Marry would not be committing so much to the Washington campaign if we did not 100% believe that Washington can do this,' Wolfson said. 'Washington should be in the lead, not have to try again a few years later. Let's make this one stick.'

'Having lived through this victory in New York & it's so sweet to have worked hard and won something important for our families, our communities,' Wolfson told SGN. 'That sweetness is something I wish for everyone in Washington, but it takes action.'

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The obligation to make history
SGN interview - Evan Wolfson, Freedom to Marry

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