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Marriage advocate brings message to Seattle, to speak at ERW fundraiser
Marriage advocate brings message to Seattle, to speak at ERW fundraiser
"If you start by asking for half a loaf, you will be down to crumbs pretty quickly," said Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry.

by Robert Raketty - SGN Staff Writer

Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry, a partnership of individuals and organizations seeking to secure marriage equality nationwide, will be in Seattle on Thursday, August 24th. His visit comes on the heels of our state's narrow 5-4 decision to uphold Washington's law barring same-sex couples from marriage and is likely to fuel the debate over the future direction of the marriage equality movement in our state.

He will make his case before the guests of a summer fundraiser at the home of Ben Waldman, a former Microsoft executive. The event will take place between 6:30 -8:30 and all the proceeds will go to Equal Rights Washington. To attend, guests must RSVP by 5:00 PM on August 22nd by calling (206) 324-2570.

Wolfson's biography lists an impressive list of accomplishments. After going to Yale College, he spent two years with the Peace Corps, before continues his education at Harvard Law School.

In addition to his public service as Associate Counsel to Lawrence Walsh in the Iran/Contra investigation, he also worked as an Assistant District Attorney in Brooklyn, New York.

At Lambda Legal Defense & Education Fund, he served as marriage project director where he was co-counsel in the historic Hawaii marriage case. He also participated in numerous Gay rights and HIV/AIDS cases while working for the organization, including his appearance before the U.S. Supreme Court in Boy Scouts of America v. James Dale.

The National Law Journal (2000) named him one of "the 100 most influential lawyers in America." Time magazine went further, naming Wolfson one "the 100 most influential people in the world" in 2004.

In his first book, Why Marriage Matters: America, Equality, and Gay People's Right to Marry, was published by Simon & Schuster in July 2004 and was re-released in paperback with a new foreword in June 2005. In it, he outlines the his argument for full marriage equality for same-sex couples.

This week the Seattle Gay News spoke with Wolfson about his visit, his views and the future of the marriage equality movement.



Seattle Gay News: You were one of the first people to get involved in this debate on whether or not we should push for marriage equality in our country. Can you talk about why you made that decision?

Evan Wolfson: Well, for two reasons. First of all, I don't believe you can say you are for equality if you acquiesce in your exclusion in the central institution of this society, which is marriage.

More than any other single achievement, winning the freedom to marry would transform the landscape for Gay people and bring a range of protections and responsibilities that make a difference in peoples lives in every area of life.

The number one reason is that the stakes in winning the freedom to marry are very important.

The second reason. I have always felt it essential that we work on this and claim our birthright here. Marriage is the vocabulary in which our country talks about larger questions; questions of equality, of inclusion, of love, of commitment, of respect, of companionship, and of dedication. To claim that vocabulary would be a mighty engine of social change that would help people think about who Gay people are; come to understand the reality and diversity of our lives better; and to bring us into the full inclusion and participation of society. ... So - whether or not anybody wants to get married - the work to win the freedom to marry actually is of enormous importance and power for our movement. And that is the second reason I think that it is essential we work on it.

SGN: Considering all the setbacks to marriage equality nationwide, are we asking for too much too soon?

EW: Well no, because...we are not asking for too much. We are asking for what we deserve and the more we make the case the more people are coming to understand that. The set backs are a predictable and inescapable feature of struggle. ... It's just unrealistic to think that we can ask America to change the way it has imposed second class citizenship on Gay people and their loved ones without having defeat as well as victories. Unfortunately, we have to live through both but - if we battle through both - we will bring ourselves to a full triumph. And that is what's happening here.

The other fact is - though you may not get everything you ask for, as soon as you ask for it - the one sure way not to get what you deserve, and to not even get half of what you want is by asking for less. You don't get half a loaf by asking for half a loaf, you sometimes only get half a loaf when you ask for the whole loaf, and, even then, you keep fighting for the rest of it. If you start by asking for half a loaf, you will be down to crumbs pretty quickly. So, while the only way to gain full equality is to ask for it and fight for it,...we will get more bit by bit if we aim high and keep our eye on the prize and make the full and authentic case for who we are and why marriage matters and why equality is the right answer.

SGN: Courts in both New York and Washington state have said that it is reasonable for the Legislature to believe that children are better brought up in households that are run by a couple of the opposite sex. Being an attorney yourself, do you agree with that legal reasoning?

EW: Well absolutely not. There were three major things wrong with the court rulings. First, they applied the wrong standard, instead of saying this is an important basic right and a fundamental element of freedom and human experience and marriage matters and therefore we need to have a high level of scrutiny. They instead both, very pointedly, applied the absolute lowest, most minimal, most toothless level of scrutiny, and that is wrong. If marriage is fundamental right and if marriage matters for non-Gay people, why wouldn't that be true for Gay people too? How could it be that something as important as marriage doesn't matter when it's applied to Gay people, and therefore only requires the lowest level of scrutiny?

The second thing that was wrong with the courts ruling was that - in fact - all the evidence that was on the table clearly shows that Gay parents are just as fit, just as loving, just as caring, as non-Gay parents, and [that] the children being raised by Gay parents do just as well and need the same protections and responsibilities as the children being raised by non-Gay parents. So, the evidence is clear that in fact it is not rational to say that sexual orientation makes a difference. And the NY courts gave that game away when they said that the so called rational for the Legislature could be found in the "intuition" that maybe a different sex couple is better for kids. Well courts are not supposed to go on intuition, they are supposed to go on evidence and the evidence is clear - abundant and unrefuted. The American Academy of Pediatrics - just to mention one source of expertise - as well amicus briefs that were filed in both cases by all kinds of child experts from the National Association of Social Workers, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association. All of them show an abundance of evidence that the conjecture on the courts part, that "intuition" - as they put it - was untrue and that courts should rely on evidence, not on intuition; let alone stereotype.

And the third reason is that was not good enough as a matter of legal reasoning. Even if it were true that kids had a better shot if they grow up with different sex parents, so what? The fact of the matter is that this is not about who gets a license to be a parent, this is about who can marry. Those kids have the parents they have, kids being raised by Gay parents have Gay parents, whether the court thinks that's the preferable outcome or not. It does nothing to help those kids if we punish them for having the 'wrong' kind of parents and deny their families the protections that come with marriage. Or - to put it another way - even if it were true that marriage serves the ends of stabilizing heterosexual families and helps support kids being raised by heterosexual parents, how does keeping Gay couples out of marriage do anything to further those goals? There is no logical connection between the discrimination here and the so-called rationales that the court put forward.

SGN: Considering that Gay and Lesbian couples in our state who are suffering every day from the lack of rights that they have under the law, is it time to start the discussion on working to secure civil unions?

EW: No, it's time to further the discussion about ending the discrimination in marriage, not repackaging it. Why would we begin the next chapter of the conversation asking for anything less than what we deserve when we haven't yet taken the battle to the Legislature, to the public, to the courts, and have really made the case? Why would we begin that discussion by bargaining against ourselves?

What we should do though, is absolutely talk about how Gay couples are harmed - both tangibly and intangibly by this discrimination. What we should do is talk about how this discrimination serves no purpose. Let people read the court case, let's talk about what the courts said and ask people if it really makes any sense at all, because obviously it doesn't. The court was only able to get there only with the most minimal standard of review which was - essentially - a rubber stamp. We're not asking for people to rubber stamp, we are asking people to think and ask politicians to work to end discrimination. And why would we begin that conversation by retreating from the high ground of love and commitment and equality that is marriage. It's one thing if they turn around and offer you civil unions, but why would you go in asking for civil unions?

SGN: I noticed that in Vermont, for example, even though they passed civil unions, that seems to be where the discussion ended. However, in California, they passed a very comprehensive domestic partnership program, and, then, passed a bill seeking to grant full marriage equality, but it was vetoed by the governor. What do you think was the difference in the strategies?

EW: Well let's be clear, both of those states did their work before we won marriage in Mass. So, once we won marriage in Mass,...we have evidence now. We can actually point to one place and show with indisputable clarity, that allowing Gay couples to participate equally in marriage helps families and hurts no one. By the way, it didn't even hurt the politicians who voted for it, because not a single pro-marriage, pro-Gay candidate got defeated when the question went to the voters. So, we now have evidence on the table that wasn't available earlier on in VT and CA. Secondly, there is another lesson out of VT, which is that when people thought that, "Oh, it'll be easier if we just ask for civil unions", and Legislature thought "Oh, maybe we'll avoid some of the antipathy if we just change the name and call it something else. The fact of the matter is that the attacks and the ferocity of the right-wing was just as fierce as it would have been if the VT legislatures had the courage to do the right thing and end discrimination in marriage outright. So, they actually gained nothing by creating some other lesser status, but they fell short of doing what they needed to do. And now in fact a plurality of the people in VT support marriage, 40 percent support marriage and 38 percent support civil union and only 22 percent support nothing. So, again, the work in Washington has now just begun anew. And in the conversation, we should not begin by giving the Legislature permission to avoid doing what is the right thing to do. Instead, we should get in there to fight hard with them and - as necessary - against them in an effort to help end this discrimination, not simply repackage it.

SGN: You'll be bringing your message to Seattle, is that the message you're trying to bring, that civil unions are not the answer?

EW: Civil unions are not the answer! In fact, the only people even saying the word civil union are the pro-Gay people and Gay people. The people we need to move haven't even put that on the table, so why is our side starting by bargaining down? It's really nothing more than a knee jerk impulse to bargain against ourselves and we ought to avoid that. The conversation is about marriage; the conversation is about ending discrimination that serves no purpose. And the key to winning that conversation is by talking about who these families are in Washington; about what their needs are and about what marriage really is. And if we have that conversation, patiently and persistently - at a higher level than we've ever had it in Washington - then let's see where we can go. But before people have even begun that work of serious engagement - public education, lobbying, electoral work, before we've done that work - is not the right time to bargain ourselves down or give a pass to legislators.

SGN: What is the purpose of your visit to Seattle?

EW: I was invited to meet with people in Washington who want to end discrimination and I am more than happy to do that. Washington is a very important state. It is a great community with lots of allies and lots of potential and we just need to get over our disappointment and anger at being let down by the court and turn our attention to the Legislature with confidence that fair minded people can be moved. And sometimes we will have to nudge them a little to move them. As a general rule - those of us who are fighting for civil rights - our job is not to make it easier for politicians to do what they want, our job is to make it easier for politicians...to do what we want; to do the right thing.

SGN: I notice that you are speaking at a house party for Equal Rights Washington. Has there been a formal effort to work with this organization?

EW: Freedom to Marry works with any organization - Gay or non-Gay, national or state or local - that is working to end discrimination in marriage. We have worked closely with ERW as well as other groups in Washington. We have worked closely with the Northwest Women's Law Center, with the ACLU, with Lambda Legal, and a variety of others - religious groups as well as secular - and we will continue to do so. Anyone who is committed to ending this discrimination in marriage; Freedom to Marry wants to be a partner and resource to.

SGN: Ed Murray is likely to win a seat in the State Senate and he says that he plans on introducing marriage equality legislation. There are also three openly Gay legislators in the House who say that they plan to do similar work. He said that we need to begin the discussion. He doesn't think that it will pass the next session or, even, the next but that we have to begin the discussion.

EW: I have great respect for Ed Murray. He's done a lot of great work for us for a long time. I'm really glad that he's going to be introducing a marriage bill and I encourage him to fight very hard for that. My one point of difference would be that I would not begin the fight by saying it's not going to pass now or then or whenever. I would get in there and fight as hard as I can to make it happen and rightly expect others to join him in that fight and not give permission to the other legislators to not do the job. Ed may be right that it won't pass in the next year, but it certainly won't pass if we begin by saying it's not going to pass.

SGN: I wanted to ask you about your book, which has enjoyed great success from both critics and the book sales themselves. Why do you think that people have really latched onto the book that you've written?

EW: My book takes very seriously the idea that the people who are not yet with us are reachable. So, rather than just writing them off or speaking to the converted, what I have done in my book is to say, I know that fair minded people in this country have questions that deserve answers and I know they have some kind of discomfort that they have to get over. It's our job to engage with them, answer their questions and take them seriously and to really wrestle with them in conversation; to really help them through that and to really embrace fairness". So the book - as you saw - is written in chapters, each one of which is a question people are wrestling with and I hope to answer in a conversational...tone...and through a variety of voices and messengers and stories. I make the case for why their concerns and fears are groundless and why the right thing to do is rise to the better angels of their nature and treat other families as they would want to be treated. I think people do respond to that when you give them the information they need and the time to absorb it.

And so the book is both - in some sense - a tool and also an example of what the work is in Washington. People can take this book and have the answers to the questions so they too can engage in conversations or they can give the book to the people they are trying to persuade. But it's also an example of the kind of engagement we need to have, which is to not assume that just because people are not with us yet that they can't get there, because they can. The polls show us that people are moving; the conversation is moving. The last time there was a marriage case in Washington we got zero votes. This time, we only lost by one. People are moving, we have to move them by engaging. The other thing I think people need to understand is that just because somebody is pro-Gay or nice or likes us or loves us, such as our mom, our dad, our college roommate or whoever, doesn't necessarily mean that they fully understand why ending marriage discrimination is necessary. So, we owe it to them too to have a conversation. To ask the question, to ask for support, to flush out these questions and give them the answers.

SGN: What else do you want readers to know?

EW: I think it is very important for people to understand that you can't move people to come to our side if we begin by telling them it doesn't matter. The way to move people is talking about why this does matter to you and why you do expect them to think about it and rise to the better angels and wrestle it through and hear the stories. So, when we as Gay people or as non-Gay allies throw away the vocabulary of marriage or throw away the vocabulary of equality and say all we want is this small piece, or this crumb, or this increment, and abandon the high ground of engagement, we are actually undercutting not only the fight for everything we deserve, but the fight for even the small pieces along the way. You don't begin a conversation by telling someone it doesn't matter. You've got to begin by telling them why it does matter.



Additional assistance provided by Devin Glaser, SGN Contributing Writer.

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