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Scouting for marriage rights

After leading the legal battles on gay marriage and the Boy Scouts, Evan Wolfson leaves Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund

by Jeremy Quittner
Originally published in The Advocate, May 22, 2001

After 12 years and multiple landmark battles in the quest for equal rights for gay men and lesbians, Evan Wolfson resigned at the end of April as senior staff attorney and director of the Marriage Project at Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Wolfson, who has been key in shaping the national debate on same-sex marriage, has accepted a grant from the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund, which will allow him to continue his work to secure the freedom to marry.

In the 1990s Wolfson was a lead attorney in Baehr v. Anderson, the Hawaii marriage case. He was among those who helped convince the Vermont supreme court that gay and straight partnerships should be given equal legal treatment. And last year Wolfson argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, urging the court to reject the Boy Scouts of America's ban on gay members. Additionally, Wolfson has been an advocate for gays in the military, gays and lesbians wishing to adopt or maintain visitation rights with their children, and people with AIDS.

Tell me a bit about the grant.

It is a planning grant to explore the next steps to win the freedom to marry. It will give me the opportunity to talk to key activists and organizations, identify key states and key potential areas for breakthrough, and to develop new strategies and new resources and enlist new voices in the sustained movement forward that we need to win the freedom to marry. What will your work consist of specifically?

There are really three elements to the work. The first is that we want to shape the terms of the debate. We need to get people to think about our lives, our diversity, and our entitlement, on our terms. The next level of the work has to be to engage the nongay middle. It is not good enough to just talk with ourselves. The third element is that, while we are doing those two important pieces of work, we have to deploy vehicles such as litigation, legislation, and specific political or legal actions in fulfillment of that engagement.

What about gay people who don't see marriage as the central battle?

I think the vast majority of gay people do want the freedom to marry and understand that as long as society has an institution that limits who can enter it based on their sexual orientation, it is discriminatory and wrong. The fact that there are some who don't agree or just don't care that much that is their right.

How do you answer those who say we tried to get marriage and it didn't work?

I would say it is the exact opposite: We have only just begun doing this work, and no civil rights movement happens overnight. If you look at the extraordinary gains that the freedom-of-marriage work has brought our movement, it is just phenomenal. When we began this discussion in the public in 1993, the majority did not support even health benefits or immigration rights or parenting. Now we have the majority supporting [everything but the] marriage position.

What do you make of the recent developments nationwide regarding the Boy Scouts' ban on gays?

Excitingly, nongay Americans are speaking up, and they are refusing to be accomplices to a discriminatory policy. This is further proof that the fair-minded middle is reachable even when we seem to be touching hot-button questions.

What might have you done differently?

Inconceivable as it may seem to some people, I wish I had been even more of a nag in getting people to focus on some of the threats we were facing at various points in the marriage work. I am specifically thinking of some of the right-wing assaults on Hawaii. Had I been better at getting some of the key groups to come in earlier to do the work, we perhaps could have warded off that attack earlier.

Anything else?

Winning marriage itself would make a tremendous difference in [gay and lesbian] people's lives. If we do it right, the battle for marriage will move everything else along. It is not just the attainment but the engagement that will move our civil rights forward.

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