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Along Came Marry

A conversation with Evan Wolfson

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Evan Wolfson, a Taylor Allderdice High School graduate, is now executive director of Freedom to Marry, one of the national groups promoting marriage equality for gays and lesbians. He has been arguing in the courts against anti-gay discrimination for many years, including a dozen spent at Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund. Now 47 and living in New York City, Wolfson travels to Pittsburgh July 26 to discuss and sign his first book, Why Marriage Matters: America, Equality, and Gay People's Right to Marry.

 

You were co-counsel in the 1996 case of three Hawaii lesbian couples applying for marriage licenses, the first recent court victory for same-sex couples. Have a lot of gay people wanted to marry all along, and we just didn't hear about it until 2003?

We were at a similar kind of national intensity and discussion eight years ago when the Hawaii case came forward. Gay people have been seeking the right to marry since the dawn of the gay rights movement, ever since [the] Stonewall [protest against police raids], in 1969. But in those years the country wasn't really ready for this discussion and the courts rubber-stamped the exclusion [of gays from marriage]. What changed last year was Canada began to allow gay couples to marry and Massachusetts followed. It's no longer hypothetical, it's a reality, and actually a pretty reassuring reality. Our opponents don't want us to see that the sky doesn't fall. They're losing the discussion when they see that real families are helped and no one is hurt.

 

The "defense of marriage" movement seems to masquerade for a fear that allowing gays to marry will not destroy marriage but rather will somehow encourage more people to be gay -- people who aren't gay already.

It's a nonsensical argument, which is why they don't really make it. They're never really able to explain how excluding gay couples does anything to help anyone else. When we look at the actual arguments in the courtrooms, the arguments don't stand up.

 

You're hoping for civil marriage licenses. Will state governments be harder to budge than, say, the Methodists or the Presbyterians, who have fought over recognition of gay rights in recent years?

This is not about trying to force any church or religion to change its views on religious marriage rites. In the book I talk about the legal right to marry, which is mandated by the government, versus marriage rites, which will always be up to each religion to decide for itself.

 

Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum led the fight in the Senate for the Federal Marriage Amendment. Now that he's lost, he's being given credit -- even by his critics -- for at least being true to his own religious feelings. Is that laudable?

No. Trying to impose your religious views on all Americans, rather than respecting religious freedom and equality for all, is a disastrous approach for a political officeholder to take. Senators take an oath to the Constitution to defend diverse religious views and equality under the law for all, and all means all, including gay Pennsylvanians.

 

With the defeat of the Federal Marriage Amendment, does the fight now move on to other arenas?

Our opponents are on the march against us. They will not stop with this one vote. They are pushing anti-gay votes in 10 states this year. They are pushing radical attack measures on the floor of Congress this year, to deny gay people access to the courts, to deny the voters of the District of Columbia their ability to make their own choices in family law, and to send a poisonous message of derision for political purposes. We have to vigilantly repel these attacks, not just to protect the American constitutional system of checks and balances. Meanwhile we must also continue the affirmative discussion of marriage equality to open the hearts and minds of the reachable but not-yet-reached middle of the public. And that's precisely why I wrote the book. It is written as a conversation with non-gay as well as gay people who want to be fair but have discomfort and questions that deserve a respectful response -- and good answers.

 

Why such resistance among some black church leaders to the notion that gays are engaged in the sort of civil rights struggle blacks fought, and still fight?

There is resistance not just to marriage but to any acknowledgment of gay families. They oppose not just gay marriage but anything gay. Civil rights leaders like Coretta Scott King, John Lewis, Carole Mosley Braun, Al Sharpton and others have spoken out strongly about marriage equality as a civil right. In [the book], I take a lot of time to address why marriage equality is a civil rights issue that matters to America, not just to gay people.

 

Do you think the same percentage of gay marriages will end up in divorce as do straight marriages?

Of course, it's too early to say, but over time I wouldn't be surprised if the answer is yes. We've all been to friends' and family's non-gay weddings where we've said, "How could she marry him?" But we all believe that decision should not be up to the government.

 

Some of us who have been married for a long time, even happily, joke about whether gay people really want all this trouble?

Yeah, well, fair enough. But the vast majority of non-gay couples do marry, some more than once. So obviously there are a strong mix of reasons why people make this choice. Marriage is not a zero-sum game. There's enough marriage to share, and gay people are not going to use up all the marriage licenses.

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