On a crumpled sliver of paper carried in his wallet, firebrand activist Evan Wolfson keeps a photocopied reminder of why he is so tenacious in pursuing the brand of uncompromising activism that has become his signature. It's a quote from abolitionist Frederick Douglass:
"Those who profess freedom and yet deprecate agitation are people who want crops without plowing the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and never will. People might not get all they work for in this world, but they certainly must work for all they get."
For Wolfson, this quote is not just an inspirational mantra. It has become his credo as well as the guiding principle he believes will most quickly lead gay men and lesbians to gain full marriage rights--not some second-class simulation, like civil unions or domestic partnership, but fun marriage.
Armed with this battle cry and personal zeal, Wolfson in January launched Freedom to Marry, an organization with the mission of securing full marriage rights for gay people in at least one state within five years. This, Wolfson believes, is the best perch from which to attack and eventually end marriage discrimination nationwide. But, perhaps more importantly, he argues that "marriage is about more than tying the knot. It is about our full inclusion in society and is the platform for discussion by nongay people of who we are."
Wolfson is careful to say that families without legal recognition still deserve respect. And he knows that even if gay people do win the right to marry, not every committed same-sex couple will want to go down the aisle. But he insists that "because marriage is so central--legally, socially, and economically--in our society, everything we care about [in the gay and lesbian civil rights movement] is being tugged forward by the marriage debate."
If Wolfson is dogmatic about marriage, he is also surprisingly optimistic. "We are on the verge of winning," he declares. And he is not just talking about the promising case now before the Massachusetts supreme court, which is expected to rule on marital rights for same-sex couples sometime this summer. "Courts are considering it, legislatures are debating it, presidential candidates are talking about it, and the public is getting used to it," he says. "We are in a historic moment."
Of course, critics might say Wolfson paints an overly generous portrait. After all, in the states where courts have ruled in favor of equal marriage rights, legislatures have successfully blocked them. The national Defense of Marriage Act expressly prohibits federal government recognition of marriages between same-sex couples, and more than 30 states have passed similar laws. And while several leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination have voiced support for civil unions or domestic partnerships, not one of them has come out in favor of equal marriage rights.
"One of the things I'm trying to think through is exactly what [Freedom to Marry's] role will be," says Gary Buseck, executive director of Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, a Boston-based legal organization that has taken the lead in the court battle for marriage in Massachusetts. "The proof is yet in the pudding on whether or not Freedom to Marry can be a unifying thread."
Wolfson acknowledges that the marriage battle is first and foremost at the state level and with groups such as GLAD. Nevertheless, he says, it is important to have a national organization to offer a "coordinated, sustained overview." The role of Freedom to Marry, he adds, will be to offer technical, educational, and financial assistance to local groups that are doing that work, without duplicating existing efforts or creating turf wars. So far, Wolfson has raised more than $1 million toward that goal, and he hopes to double the figure by the end of the year.
Wolfson's mix of dogged determination and wired optimism regarding marriage is not universal, even among gay people. …