US civil rights lawyer Evan Wolfson spoke to a packed room at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, on Tuesday night about the progression of the struggle for LGBT marriage rights in the United States, and the lessons that struggle has for other countries around the world.
Wolfson is the Executive Director of Freedom to Marry, the group leading the national campaign for same-sex marriage rights in the US, and was co-counsel on the historic 1993 Baehr v. Miike case in which the US Government was first forced to present evidence why same-sex couples should be barred from marriage before the Supreme Court of Hawaii.
The court found that it was wrong for Hawaii to not allow same-sex couples a marriage license, but legislators moved to pass a state ban on same-sex marriage before the ruling could be enacted.
Wolfson told the audience that the case had been preceded by others, but it had been the first where there had been a legal success although followed by a political defeat, and as a result galvanized serious interest in the issue worldwide.
‘Gay people have been struggling for the right to marry for a very long time,’ Wolfson said.
‘In the US where I at Freedom to Marry am part of this effort to end the denial of marriage [rights], we have been challenging that denial really since the dawn of what we all talk about around the world as marking the dawn of the modern gay rights movement. We erroneously date that to 1969 and the Stonewall riots in my home of New York which launched this global conversation about gay people and about human rights.
‘Within just two years of Stonewall there were three sets of couples challenging their exclusion from marriage in three different court systems in three different states in the US. So right from the beginning, challenging this exclusion from the important protections and meanings of marriage has been at the heart and vision of gay inclusion and equality.’
Wolfson said that these first cases saw courts essentially rubber stamp the denials of Governments with very little inquiry into what justified them, but the next waves, coming almost 20 years later had been different because of the effect that the HIV/AIDS crisis had wrought on how compassionate people saw the LGBT community and how LGBTs saw themselves in society.
‘In Hawaii, three couples stepped forward and said they want marriage licenses … but that case, unlike the first case, spurred a global conversation that has not stopped and has resulted in these 14 countries where same-sex marriage exists,’ Wolfson said.
‘One reason the second wave saw a different result from the first wave was HIV. HIV/AIDS shattered the silence about gay people’s lives. It prompted a conversation about who gay people really are. It forced non-gay people of conscience to come to a much different understanding of what the consequences of denial, what it meant to be shoved out. It forced non-gay people to see gay people as whole people with rounded lives, which now included grief and vulnerability and struggle to secure protections for the loved ones they were caring for who were dying.
‘It also forced gay people to understand much more acutely the injustice and the real deprivation that came from being apart and being excluded. AIDS forced gay people to understand the costs of being shoved out of the safety net, of the protections and responsibilities that marriage means to couples, families, and people who are vulnerable.
‘It forced gay people to understand the consequences of being treated and viewed as somehow lesser or other. HIV/AIDS really changed the conversation of the gay rights movement from being primarily a battle to be left alone – “don’t harass us, don’t attack us, don’t criminalize us, don’t arrest us,” – to being let in and from that point on gay people sought not just the freedom to do what we want [within a separate community], but the freedom all of us deserve in a free society to live the lives we dream of as part of the larger whole.’
Wolfson said that the next major battle in the US had been in Vermont where civil unions had been introduced in 2000 as the result of another court case.
‘That court ruling that said the government must treat all families equally. That’s what it means to live in a free society. But it stopped short of ordering the remedy – how equality should be provided,’ Wolfson said.
‘The legislature responded to a term we created, a “civil union.” We envisioned that civil unions short of marriage would show the parallel entitlements and needs of the couples and ultimately show the absurdity of creating two legal systems when one would do.
‘Following the Vermont and Hawaii cases it’s taken us years and years more to build on these victories and stumbles to get to where we are today, where six US states plus the district of Columbia, our nation’s capital, now have same-sex marriage.
Wolfson said ten other states now had civil partnerships or unions or what he called ‘other placemarkers on the road to marriage,’ while legal challenges to state bans on recognizing same-sex couples were bubbling across the country.
The demographics of who were supporters were changing greatly, with support doubling from 27 percent in 1996 to 54 percent in 2012.
‘Support is growing amongst young people of every stripe but also among self-identified evangelicals and conservatives. Even seniors, even the most religious,’ Wolfson said, ‘We know we have the generational momentum to keep fueling those victories.’
Wolfson said the influential role that US President Barack Obama’s children had played in his decision to openly support same-sex marriage was an example of this.
Obama had said his daughters had found it inconceivable that their friends’ same-sex parents weren’t allowed to marry.
And Wolfson said Republican support was increasingly there to assist in winning and keeping same-sex marriage gains.
Republicans support had gotten marriage equality laws through state parliament in New York, while New Hampshire Republicans had decided to keep that state’s marriage equality laws despite being swept into office with an unprecedented majority.
‘It is the diversity of the people who are coming to realize that values of freedom and fairness and family are not values that belong to any one group and indeed include what conservatives quote as their values – limited government, personal responsibility, liberty,’ Wolfson said.
‘These values argue in favor of getting the government out of the business of discriminating in the most fundamental choice of who to build your life with and take the responsibility for one another.’
He said this had been shown just in the last few weeks where the leader of the conservative National Party of New Zealand, Prime Minister John Key, had gone from provisional support for marriage equality to full support, with a vote to come within weeks.
Watson said that Freedom to Marry were aiming to win their biggest challenge yet in US elections in December by winning the first state wide referendum in support of marriage equality in US history.