Last evening, Evan Wolfson returned to his hometown of Pittsburgh and spoke at the ACLU’s yearly membership meeting about Marriage Equality, and it was one of those events that wasn’t to be missed. Not often enough, do we have an opportunity to listen to someone so articulate and enthusiastic; he was entertaining, motivating, and full of great information. Wolfson is the executive director of Freedom to Marry.

I’ve been writing about Marriage Equality from the very beginning of this blog, however I’ve also been clear that from my perspective, nondiscrimination for all lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans persons is the single most important issue we should be fighting for. And I’m not the only one who feels this way. A division among the serious LGBT activist community exists when it comes to Marriage. In my thinking, the way to put all of it together is to recognize how nondiscrimination sets the stage for marriage. This is a valid perspective given Canada’s experience. There, gay marriage has been legal for 10 years, yet trans women and men still lack the most basic protections in housing, employment and public accommodations. Although I haven’t been comfortable thinking that my partner and I should be denied rights that straight couples enjoy either. For me, Wolfson articulated another way to think about this division of rights. Or more importantly, not to think of it as a division at all.

The evening started with a reception which was well attended, although very few there, were members of the LGBT community. I was able to talk to Vic Walczak, the ACLU’s legal director, whom I’m been in awe of for many years. I suppose, I’m in awe of the whole ACLU. Their commitment to the Constitution and basic constitutional rights for all is never wavering. So often in the struggle for LGBT Rights, we hear folks call for silencing our opposition, yet the ACLU seeks out ways that the tights of all are upheld. Never are the rights of one group reliant on removing the rights of others. There is a valuable lesson in there for everyone.

I had a chance to talk to my friend Paula Harris, who I originally met through my closest friends, Brenda and Harriet. Paula is on the ACLU board, and it was really fitting being there with her, since just about a year ago, we both participated in Brenda and Harriet’s wedding in P-town. This notion of Freedom to Marry is not only about the right for my partner and I to marry, but also, for people like Brenda and Harriet, who were legally married in one state, but do not have that marriage recognized by the state that live in.

A huge part of what the ACLU does is legal work, but it isn’t all that they do, and as a board member for a much younger organization, I thought about how much there is to learn about staying true to your mission and creating a sound foundation that allows your organization to thrive and succeed in the efforts towards that mission. Handed out at the meeting, was a docket of all the court cases from the last year, and the range of topics covered was truly impressive. And in the midst of everything else, LGBT Rights remain a central focus for this group. I am not sure if there is any group outside of the LGBT movement that fights as hard for our rights (because we are a part of the whole of America) as this group does. Here too, is a valuable point to notice. We deserve the full protections of the Constitution because everyone does.

Before Evan spoke, Doug Shields, on behalf of Pittsburgh City Council, presented Evan with a proclamation. I believe that is the right term for it, but correct me if I have it wrong. City Council had named yesterday, as “Evan Wolfson Day.” How cool is that? Shields talked about the Council’s desire to recognize freedom fighters, an accolade Wolfson clearly deserves for all of his work.

I don’t believe I have ever heard anyone speak as articulately as Even Wolfson on the issue of Marriage Equality, and there are a few points that were highlights for me that I want to share here:

  • Some of the first cases seeking recognition of same sex partners came only a few years after the Stonewall Riots (1q69) which many consider as a marker in the LGBT Rights movement. These first cases in the ’70’s, were generally dismissed by the courts, which maintained the status quo and kept our relationships invisible. However in the ’90’s as a new wave of legal disputes again placed this issue before the courts, a very different outcome began to emerge, so that today we are moving towards the full legal recognition of same-sex marriage. While in a day-to-day sense, this seems to be taking forever, in a legal sense, progress is happening quite rapidly. We, as a community, need to make sure that we do not allow our frustration over the speed to take focus away from the actual fight for full equal rights.
  • The change in the President’s administration towards the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is a true game changer. This coupled with the change in the level of scrutiny demanded within the courts sets the stage for future progress.
  • Wolfson talked about how the (pejorative) term, “Activist Judge” was first used during the battles over civil rights for African Americans. This got me thinking of those within the African American Community who believe that Gays and Lesbians have hijacked the Civil Rights Movement. In no way! The Straight White Male Hegemony seeks to maintain the status quo and all of these efforts for full equality  challenge that. All are part of a larger struggle for Civil Rights that no one marginalized group can call their own. Nor should we. We must continue to work for Social Justice for all, not because one group or another deserves equality, but because everyone deserves equality.
  • However, Wolfson didn’t suggest that the path to Marriage Equality should be left to the courts. He offered, the most important piece in the struggle for full equality, is to talk about why marriage matters. These are conversations need to happen everywhere and all the time. They are conversations we need to be having at work around the water cooler, with our family, neighbors and anywhere else you can think of. These conversations not only affirm for us what should be our rights, but they educate others. Everyone, both within and outside of the LGBT community ought to be talking about why marriage matters. I think the fallacious division over rights (nondiscrimination vs marriage) only appears when we talk about legislative actions for Marriage Equality. If we follow  Evan Wolfson’s suggestions, we won’t get hung up there. We will all be busy having dialogues about why marriage matters.
  • Marriage is above all, a legal issue, and has been for a very long time. The State issues a marriage license, not a church. Under the law all citizens deserve to be treated fairly and equally unless good reason can be shown otherwise. Despite the way that the anti-gay groups complain, no cogent, realistic, meaningful, or rational case can be made for stopping loving committed same-sex couples from marrying.
  • On Religious Liberty, Wolfson saw no way that granting Civil Marriage status to same-sex couples would affect Religious Liberty. Churches and denominations already discriminate on who they will or will not marry based upon the tenets of their Faith. Imagine if a Jewish couple were to go to a Roman Catholic priest and demand that he marry the couple- he wouldn’t. Churches and denominations will still have a right to choose what marriages they do or do not wish to celebrate. They simply can’t stop same-sex couples from seeking civil marriage recognition.


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