Updated September 12, 2005 Compiled & written by Mike Fitzpatrick
Quest News Update
Reality Check: The Column
A 20/20 Vision For Marriage Equality In Wisconsin
The Quest Interview With Freedom To Marry’s Evan Wolfson
For the second time in less than a year, two of the top figures in the national same-sex marriage debate will go head to head in a public debate in Wisconsin. Nationally recognized LGBT leader Evan Wolfson will debate equal marriage rights with Glenn Stanton, the vice president of Focus on the Family on Wednesday, September 21 at 7:30 PM in the Union Theater at UW-Madison. The event will be moderated by Steve Paulson of the Peabody Award-winning Wisconsin Public Radio program “To The Best Of Our Knowledge.”
Action Wisconsin will sponsor a pre-debate reception with Wolfson from 5-7 PM at the University Club at UW-Madison. A suggested donation of $25 is reqested at the door.
Wolfson also will speak at a lecture sponsored by the Marquette University Law School on Tuesday, September 20, at 1 PM in Sensenbrenner Hall, 1103 W Wells Street, in Milwaukee. The address is free and open to the public. Visitors are asked to park in Structure 2 at Wells and 12th Street. A reception supported by the Marquette University Gay Straight Alliance will follow Wolfson's presentation.
For over a decade Wolfson litigated gay rights cases at Lambda Legal, including the 1993 case in Hawaii that has sparked the ongoing debate on marriage equality. Wolfson since has launched Freedom to Marry, the gay and non-gay partnership working to end discrimination in marriage nationwide. He now serves as executive director for that organization and is a chief national spokesperson for equal marriage rights. His book Why Marriage Matters: America, Equality, and Gay Peoples Right to Marry was recently released in paperback.
In 2000, the National Law Journal named Wolfson one of "the 100 most influential lawyers in America," Citing his national leadership on marriage equality and his appearance before the U.S. Supreme Court in Boy Scouts of America v. James Dale. In 2004, Wolfson was named one of the Time 100, Time magazine's list of the 100 most influential people in the world.
To preview the case he will debate here later this month, Quest sat down with Wolfson for an extended phone interview on September 6. Wolfson poke to us from his office in New York. The exchange revealed Wolfson’s clear, 20/20 vision for the future of civil marriage equality for gays and lesbians not only here in Wisconsin but for the nation as a whole.
Quest: For anyone who has been following the marriage equality fight for the last two decades, I’m speaking today with the person to whom you can legitimately say “It’s all your fault!”
Wolfson: (laughs) Actually it’s much more than that. As I describe in my book, Why Marriage Matters, gay couples have been challenging the exclusion from marriage since the dawn of the modern gay rights movement - which most of us think of as beginning with Stonewall in 1969. Within two years of Stonewall there were at least three cases making their way up through the courts in three different states. This is discrimination and exclusion from an important institution that has harmed gay people and has been challenged by gay people all along.
Quest: But you’d have to agree that the current marriage fight really took on its current momentum with the 1993 Hawaiian case.
Wolfson: I absolutely agree with that. I think that the Hawaii case launched the ongoing national - indeed even international - discussion about ending this discrimination. Hawaii did open a whole new chapter.
Quest: If 1993 was marriage equality’s Stonewall, where are we today?
Wolfson: Certainly the most important fact is that we have won the freedom to marry - not only in other countries like Roman Catholic Spain or our neighbor to the North, Canada - but right here in the United States. Thousands and thousands of same sex couples have gotten legally married, like right here in Massachusetts. And every day that they have been married means that their families have been strengthened. The kids and the parents are better off, and their non-gay neighbors - both at home and around the country - are getting to see the reality of families helped and no one hurt. Changing that fact - not just making it a hypothetical, scary right wing rhetoric but an actual, living experience that changes hearts and minds - have been very important and a crucial first step in bringing an end to this discrimination nationwide.
Quest: The two stories in the past week - the poll showing no meaningful support for a constitutional marriage ban in Massachusetts and the California Senate passing the gay marriage equality bill now pending in the House - certainly have to hearten marriage equality advocates.
Wolfson: To take those two points and given them their due: If there’s anywhere in the country that non-gay Americans ought to rushing to take action because of the supposedly terrible consequences of allowing gay people to marry, it should be Massachusetts. But in fact, as you pointed out, now that people have had a chance to live with it - even for just a few months - its not harming anybody. In fact, its helping by building a stronger community for everyone and building stronger families for a small number of people. Gay people are a minority who are never going to use up all the marriage licenses, no matter how much marriage they give us.
In Massachusetts last year, every single pro-marriage candidate who sought re-election won re-election. And a few of the anti-gay candidates were defeated. There have been three more special elections since last November, all of which have been won by pro marriage candidates. The polls have shown now a solid majority of the people in Massachusetts support (marriage equality) and do not want the politicians demagoguing any further on this subject.
This underscores the ultimate dynamic of this civil rights movement: once we succeed in making it real for people - having conversations, telling real stories about real people, engaging people’s thoughts, pushing past their discomfort and getting them to really wrestle with this question - they will move in our direction. That’s been the long term trend - and the current trend.
Look the poll done by the Pew Research Center on August 3rd. They reported that the support for freedom to marry - in their words - has rebounded to where it was in July of 2003. After a year and a half of ferocious right wing onslaughts against gay people around the country - a deliberate campaign demonizing gay people, trying to persuade the American people that the freedom to marry question had been considered, been rejected and that people need not think about it any further... After throwing the President and the Pope and everything they have at us - the American people have now taken a deep breath, have begun to think it through more, are digesting this lived experience of Massachusetts and Canada, and are again moving in the direction of marriage equality. Opposition today is only 53%, while a majority - though we need to grow it - of also 53% supports marriage by another name - civil union, partnership or other steps toward marriage by another name.
The California vote in the Senate - and I think they’re voting in the Assembly today - puts the lie to another right wing claim: that somehow the public doesn’t support this, politicians need not think about it and that its being inappropriately or illegitimately forced by the courts (as if the courts have not always played a crucial civil rights role protecting vulnerable minorities). The California Senate has become, as you pointed out, the very first legislature in the country to vote for an end to this discrimination.
What that shows is that the right wing forces are running around trying to shut down this discussion and shut the door on even democratic social change, by preventing this generation and the next and the next from being to make a decision on their own.
Quest: Despite the fact that Massachusetts is a Roman Catholic state and California is a very diversely populated state, some will still say that we’re still dealing with “blue state mentalities.” Here in a lavender state like Wisconsin - barely blue with a lot of red state mentality in it - we’re soon to be dealing with the same issue. You wrote in your book Why Marriage Matters that every one of the fifty states has a role in gaining marriage equality. What is Wisconsin’s role as you see it?
Wolfson: First of all, I believe that all of us as advocates for change and for social justice, have an end game in mind. We have to think strategically about what is our goal and how are we going to get there, no matter where we live. Take Wisconsin for example. Everyone one in Wisconsin - and everywhere for that matter - should be thinking about how are we going to end this discrimination, how are we going to secure full equality including the freedom to marry with what I call “20/20 vision,” the vision of how we achieve full equality in Wisconsin and everywhere else by the year 2020.
Obviously the date is going to be a little arbitrary. It might happen sooner, it might happen a little later. But let’s all try to act with 20/20 vision and think through what is the work we need to do in Wisconsin year by year by year to build toward securing full equality in this state by the year 2020.
Now the answer to that question may be that its not going to happen only in Wisconsin, and that would be consistent with the historical pattern. In other words, the way our country operates - the way our country makes civil rights advances - is not that every state achieves equality simultaneously. We see civil rights advances through what I call in my book “patchwork.” Some states move toward equality faster while others resist, or even regress.
However, after enough states and enough public opinion have built to a critical mass in support of equality, there comes a national resolution. Some states many not get all the way to full equality, full civil rights solely on their own. But in every state the work that is done can advance the movement toward equality in the state and also the national dialogue that helps make it possible for other states to get there first and create a wave that comes back to every other state where people can catch the wave and bring their state forward.
What people in Wisconsin need to be thinking, first of all, is how are we going to get there by 2020? What do we need to have in place? Better elected officials. A broader climate of receptivity that enables the courts to do the right thing and play their constitutional role. Growing public support. Increasing safety and support that enables political leaders and community leaders - even in more lavender less blue parts of the state - to speak out. A roster of stories of local people who are offended by discrimination.
Quest: But in order to get to 2020, we have to get past the pending marriage amendment in 2006.
Wolfson: But 2006 is not the end game. 2006 is a year along the path toward full equality by 2020 or whenever the ultimate resolution may be. The amendment attack is the enemy’s time frame, or the enemy’s framing of the question. Even when you succeed in defeating the attack being thrown against at Wisconsin’s families in 2006, you still will not have achieved equality.
Quest: Correct, from a statutory standpoint.
Wolfson: That’s right. Discrimination remains and families continue to remain vulnerable. So what you need to do is envision the fully victory: what does it mean to get there. Working backward from that, lay out the benchmarks you want to achieve, and the things you need to do to achieve them: listing allies, putting stories forward, educating the public, helping unpack the word “marriage” so that people don’t just have a hot button reaction to it but actually understand how the exclusion from marriage harms people - particularly the most vulnerable, including kids, people who are ill, people who are in a life emergency, immigrants and so on.
The 2006 battle is an opportunity to have that discussion. You don’t want to wait until ten minutes before the vote. You want to use every precious moment from now on.
Quest: That’s one of the reasons you’re going to be here (to debate) on September 21...
Wolfson: Exactly right, and I think its a very good idea - not because of me, but because it gives you all a chance to bring more attention to (the marriage equality issue) and focus the story on local people in Wisconsin and how they are affected as neighbors, children in the community and Wisconsin taxpayers, by this discrimination.
People in Wisconsin should not be allowed to think that what they’re getting is a freebie vote on how they feel about gays in Massachusetts. Instead what they’re voting on is how to end - or how to block further discrimination - against families right here at home in Wisconsin.
Quest: One of the big issues, however, is that the marriage issue remains a stalking horse issue for the bigger issue of the morality of homosexuality.
Wolfson: That’s correct.
Quest: And we are dealing with two completely different world views which can be summarized fairly simply as “we choose these values” as opposed to “thou shalt follow these values.”
Wolfson: Well I think that’s even giving too much credit to the opposition because if they really followed the values laid out by the Bible they profess to respect, why were the most vulnerable and poor people in much of the South left unhelped and unprotected at this time of national tragedy just this past week? What kind of moral values does that respect?
Why were the right wing forces pouring millions of dollars into states like Louisiana and Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, to push anti-gay measures but not to build levees or to provide a safety net with a real evacuation plan?
Quest: Well many historians say that history is really a series of reactions to major events beyond our control. Do you think the Hurricane Katrina disaster is going to move the country in reaction away from some of these “values”?
Wolfson: Which values?
Quest: How we deal with the “have nots” - For example, your Freedom To Marry website posted a story that FEMA is not going to be helping same-sex households.
Wolfson: Well what kind of “family values” are those? That’s discrimination and division, exactly what these forces have been peddling, claiming to represent a religious view. I actually do think we have a chance now - in the wake of this terrible and continuing disaster - to remind people that the government is the embodiment and the agency of all of us for doing good and creating a community that we all want to have. The failure to devote that government and charge it, monitor it as it takes on necessary tasks about building a community that protects the most vulnerable, that treats people equally and with respect, has real consequences. We all must be more vigilant and not allow the forces of division to polarize people and distract them away from making sure that their government does what it supposed to do - and not be used a weapon to do things the government shouldn’t be doing like discriminating and undercutting people even as it transfers resources from the most needy to the least needy.
Wisconsin is part of that same thing. Why is (the amendment question) on the 2006 ballot? It’s very much on the ballot in 2006 not to achieve any real goal of moral or “family values” that would protect Wisconsin’s families including its gay families, but rather to serve the political ends of the right wing machine. I hope that people will see that they should not keep falling for this ballot bait.
Quest: You’re about to debate Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family. How do you think this encounter is going to come out?
Wolfson: I very much welcome any opportunity to let fair minded people who may still have real questions about their position, and even discomfort, to hear what Focus On The Family and the opponents of equality have to say, then measure that against what the gay families seeking freedom to marry and advocates for equality like me have to say. Even if people don’t 100% agree with everything I have to say right away - when they hear what’s on the other side - they can’t help but be troubled by this discriminatory attack.
Quest: We have on one side, real flesh and blood folks with real stories, and on the other side, they have what I call “stained glass thinking” - there’s never a human being or a beating heart attached to any of their rhetoric.
Wolfson: Not only that but Focus On The Family spends literally millions of dollars literally attacking gay families. If this organization really cared about families, the time when the country is under just a cascade of challenges, they ought to be spending their time supporting and building families, not dividing Americans for their political ends.
The other thing the American people should know is that Glenn Stanton is willing to run around the country having debates, suggesting that conversation and debate is a good thing, but at the same time their political mechanism i pushing attack measures and constitutional amendments aimed a shutting down debate, not only in this state at this one moment but in all states for all time.
Quest: Let’s look at the worst case scenario - the Wisconsin anti-gay amendment gets on the ballot and it passes. How far will that delay us from the goal of equality by 2020?
Wolfson: No, it does not mean that at all. If we do our work right. Obviously it would be better to block the attack than succumb to it. Even in defeating the attack there is a way to engage the discussion and engage the battle week by week by week from now until the vote in November, 2006. If we’re not able to get to 51% on the enemy’s time frame, we have moved the public’s support from 30% to 40%, from 40% to 45%. We’ve strengthened our organizations. We’ve educated the people of Wisconsin further and we continue the conversation after the vote.
Quest: Has there been much movement in Hawaii to reconsider that’s state’s amendment since it was passed in 1998?
Wolfson: What we’ve all learned from the experience of Hawaii and some of the other places is that it is not okay to run these thing as if they were a one-shot, election cycle campaign. What we need is a serious, sustained engagement over time with a long enough time frame that we can give people the information that they need, knowing that we start as a minority with a real need to break through the discomfort and silence to get the fair-mined people to understand this. I think in Wisconsin you have really learned that lesson and are mounting a very different kind of campaign where you are using every day, reaching out as broadly as possible to as many non-gay people as possible. I believe you are committed to saying the words “gay” and “marriage” in the discussion so that there’s an authentic, honest and moving discussion that will actually move the middle, giving them enough information and enough time to absorb it.
If, however, you wait, not use every precious moment or run away from the word “gay” and the faces of real people in Wisconsin, and don’t talk about marriage, then you’re not likely to win - by 2006 or 2020.
If we don’t discuss (the marriage issue), all they’re hearing is the other side. There’s nothing to help through the conflicting feelings that fair-minded, decent, reachable but not yet reached people have. This is something that we have to help them understand: who gay people are, how we’re affected by the denial of marriage, how marriage and its denial actually bear on our lives. Then we have to fold in other things that they do care about when they’re reminded that they care about them, such as the obligation to treat everyone equally under the law, everyone’s desire for fairness, the desire for love and support and commitment that most people have. We need to connect all those dots for people and it may take a little time.
This is a winnable battle in Wisconsin, both in 2006 and by 2020, if we make an authentic case for ending the discrimination using real voices, personal stories, local faces and talking with our neighbors about why marriage and why equality matter.
I wrote the book, Why Marriage Matters, for two audiences. First, people on our side want to have all in one place the best arguments, how to respond to the opposition, some great stories, a little bit of history, a little bit of law so that can make their own personal case about why this matters so they can ask people in their lives for support.
People need to have that conversation with the people around us. People cannot assume that, just because a person loves us and is generally a good guy, that they understand how the denial of marriage harms us. We have to make that case, even with people who we think are on our side, like our families and our friends.
The second audience for the book is the people I’ve been describing in our conversation: the people who are reachable but not yet reached. I really believe that these people have serious questions that are worthy of answers. They’re legitimate questions and deserve legitimate answers.
Quest: How do you respond to people in our community who say “Why are we even worrying about marriage?” or “Why are we supporting a heterosexist institution?” You’ve heard all the variations I’m sure.
Wolfson: I would say, first of all, that this is about the freedom to marry, not mandatory marriage. Anyone who’s looked around the country in the last few years can see the tremendous resonance and power of this discussion - both in the terms of the gay people who have lined up by the thousands to marry literally from coast to coast. Clearly, they want this experience as something meaningful and important in their lives.
But also in terms of the non-gay people, who are thinking anew, as never before, about who gay people are and how this experience, this discrimination, this injustice has to change. It’s no coincidence that the states where we have fought the hardest for marriage are the states where we have won the most protections for same-sex couples and their kids.
Even if you don’t personally care about having the freedom to marry, you ought to care about its power to move the country in the direction of equality across the board. The battle over the freedom to marry today is not just about marriage. It’s a marker, its a place holder, it’s a vehicle for a larger struggle over the place of gay people in American life and whether gay people are entitled to full equality and full participation in responsibilities, and protections, and joys, and opportunities of our society.
And its not just gay people who have a stake in this battle, often non-gay people do to. We all have a stake in ending this discrimination. What’s at stake here, as in so many of the other battles that have been fought on the battlefield of marriage - race discrimination, women’s equality, separation of church and state - is whether we’re going to be a country that has the kind of vision that most us, most of the people who read Quest, believe in. A place where everyone has the right to be both equal and different, and no one has to give up his or her difference in order to be treated equally. That’s our vision.
On the other side of this battle are organizations that have a very different vision of this country: a country where there are sex roles mandated by law, where there is little or no separation of church and state, where there is little or no protection for the minority, where there’s no respect -or very little - for personal freedom in choice in matters as deeply intimate as the selection of a life partner or control over you body.
Quest: Do you have any final comments for our readers?
Wolfson: The two ingredients for moving the reachable middle to our side in Wisconsin and nationally are information and time. We must give them the personal “ask” why (marriage) matters to us and why we want them to support this. We need them to stand up now against discrimination.
We must use the time wisely and quickly to get them the time they need to absorb that information, get past their discomfort and rise to fairness. We need to use every precious day between now and November 2006 - and beyond - to achieve the equality we deserve in Wisconsin.