Bil Browning

Exclusive Interview: Evan Wolfson of Freedom To Marry

Filed By Bil Browning | February 10, 2010 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: ENDA, Evan Wolfson, Freedom to Marry, gay marriage, gay rights movement, lgbt rights, movement, same-sex marriage

I had a chance to sit down with Evan Wolfson, Executive Director of Freedom to Marry, and talk to him about why marriage recognition is such a personally important issue for him. Of course, I also had to ask him about the backlash caused for states like Indiana when other states achieve marriage equality. You might be surprised by my reaction.

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Don Sherfick Don Sherfick | February 10, 2010 3:16 PM

While both of you were talking about the question of relative priority to be given marriage equality and other issues such as employment discrimmination, I think it's important to make a distinction as it relates to Indiana and some similarly situation states:

The current efforts in Indiana don't directly pit marriage equality against other matters in the sense that the legislation proposing same-sex unions (by whatever name)is being debated, possibly oversadowing other worthy LGBT efforts. Instead, the battle is against a proposed constitutional amendment which, if enacted, would deny both Indiana courts as well as its elected lawmakers from coming anywhere close to enacting civil unions, let alone same-sex marriage.

So in one sense, not putting proper resources into that immediate preventative battle could jeopardize the ability to ultimately advocate for marriage equality sometime in the future.

I certainly think Evan is right in saying that the fight for marriage equality (either in the direct or preventative sense) has benefits to advocacy in other areas by raising awareness. For example, when it's pointed out that amendment proponents aren't really aiming at "protecting marriage", but in denying significant legal recognition for folks because of who they are, it tends to highlight the fact that the same folks would deny rights in other areas for the same reason.

I'm not convinced that Evan is correct here. Would having a "marriage conversation" in a state like Indiana make an ENDA-like law any more likely to pass there? Maybe, but I would like to see some evidence that it works. It could actually provoke a negative reaction. By the time we add, "We can at least agree that a person shouldn't be fired for being gay," the person might be having second thoughts because now they think your real goal is to "change the definition of marriage."

Some straight people don't even know that a person can be fired for being LGBT. In a state where most people support employment rights but oppose marriage equality, it makes more sense to me to emphasize employment rights. Then, if an ENDA-like law passes in Indiana, it will lift all boats by allowing LGBT people in Indiana to openly support our issues - at the federal level, for instance.

As Bil said, the initial reaction to marriage equality in Massachusetts was a flurry of anti-marriage amendments elsewhere. Maybe there would be a reverse reaction today, but I'd like to see some indication of this before I change my approach. On the other hand, I do think we should talk about such issues as health benefits in Indiana.

We don't know if focusing on marriage helps or hurts other efforts, such as passing non-discrimination laws. What we DO know is that passing non-discrimination laws helps to pass relationship recognition later, whether marriage, civil union or domestic partnership. In fact, no state has gotten relationship recognition without passing statewide non-discrimination first.

I think that means that those folks interested in marriage in states without a non-discrimination law should be working on getting a non-discrimination law passed first, as a way to lay the groundwork for marriage/DP/civil unions.

Actually, Sam, Maine got relationship recognition before we got statewide non-discrimination. Our domestic partnership law was passed in 2004, and our non-discrimination law followed in 2005. Further, EqualityMaine spent 2004 canvassing on marriage AND non-discrimination, using exactly the approach that Evan outlines in this video. It worked well for us both in terms of finally achieving popular support for statewide non-discrimination protections and in laying the groundwork for the marriage battle we knew was coming.