During his visit to Israel with A Wider Bridge, Freedom to Marry’s Evan Wolfson met with Israeli journalist Ayelet Shani to discuss gay marriage in Israel and in the United States. Their conversation was transcribed and published in Shani’s acclaimed Haaretz column, “Me in Conversation.”
Evan Wolfson, 60, a lawyer and an activist, founder and president of the Freedom to Marry movement, which has promoted same-sex marriage in the United States, lives in New York.
This interview took place in a cafe in Tel Aviv.
In 2015, you were able to reach a life’s goal with the Supreme Court ruling that same-sex marriage is a constitutionally protected right. What have you been doing since?
“Since our journey’s been over, I am now mainly engaged in helping people who want to promote other goals and want to share the lessons we learned in this campaign and what they can adopt. Not necessarily in LGBT movements – I also try to help women’s rights, environmental education, resistance to the death penalty, etc.”
What do they want to learn from you?
“They see how a public that was rejected and hated, denounced and illegal, managed to claim the language of love and full civil freedom, and they want to know how to make this transformation. They tell me, ‘You have succeeded in achieving this, and you have succeeded in achieving it so quickly.'”
I assume you didn’t feel it was so quickly. In 1983, as a young law student, you wrote your thesis on the right to same-sex marriage. I saw a scanned copy of it on the Internet. It was written on a typewriter.
“Yes, it looks just like some historical document, like a manuscript from an ancient and lost culture. This was my beginning, but of course I wasn’t the first to think that same-sex couples had the right to marry. This protest actually began after Stonewall (in 1969, a group of LGBT people rose up against the NYPD), which sparked the international movement of gay rights. In the early 1970s homosexual couples began to apply to the court demanding to marry, and one of those cases even got to the Supreme Court. All those cases ended up in a loss. In 1983, when I had to write my thesis, I decided that it would deal with these cases. My argument was that we should receive this right, and that we would not get ‘no’ for an answer. I wrote why it is important, what values it represents and how it can be achieved, under the auspices of the Constitution. I thought that the war itself was no less important than the target because with this fight we actually affirm our recognition of the right, our commitment, our social affiliation.”
That the struggle will frame or stabilize the community and place it in the realm of what is perceived as acceptable or normative.
“That it will be the engine of change that will change the way people who are not gay perceive the gay. That it will advance us on all other fronts. That is the rationale behind everything I did in the 32 years after.”
Alongside and as part of your legal career, how do you analyze the change in attitude to gay men ever since?
“In the 1970s gay men could not marry, of course. There was no law prohibiting discrimination in the workplace or in public places. They could lose their jobs or be thrown out of a restaurant only because of their sexual orientation. They couldn’t serve in the army. They were considered mentally ill until they were healed overnight, when they were removed from the DSM in 1986. There were very few places where gay men could meet, there were almost no supporting organizations, their economic and political situation was bad. But people fought slowly, through organizing, through political and social activities, by raising these issues into social discourse, and the gays were able to change the situation and gain more and more achievements.”
In 1993 there was a historic achievement on the front of the right to marry with the Hawaii precedent, where you were personally involved.
“I participated in this trial, which was indeed a very important precedent, as a partner attorney. It was the first time we were able to show in court that in fact the state had no real reason for this discrimination in marriage. After two weeks of testimonies and cross-examination, we won the first ruling in the world in favor of the freedom to marry. This triggered a global movement that began from zero countries in which it was possible to marry, to the current number – 22 countries. In the United States, after years of ups and downs, we managed to reach the Supreme Court, with the support of the President and with a backwind from the public, and we won there too. A few weeks ago we won in court in Taiwan. I hope to win in Malta later this year, and we are also working on Australia. About one billion people now live in countries where same-sex marriage is permitted.”
What motivated you to embark on this struggle?
“After completing college, I served for two years in the peace army, as a volunteer in a small village in Togo. This was where I began to have sex with men, especially friends I met in the village. In retrospect I realized that some of the men I slept with were actually straight. They did it out of curiosity or because they liked me, but they were not gay and later got married to women. Some of the men were really gay, and if they lived in a society that would allow them this way of life, they would be happy to live like that, but of course it wasn’t an option. My realization, which of course is not really original, but for a 21-year-old man was perceived as a revelation, was that a person is shaped by his choices, opportunities and even the language society allows. Even something that is not as central, like his sexual orientation.”
I would like to understand why marriage was so important to you.
“Let’s start by recognizing that the Israeli system is, of course, very different from the American one.”
Of course, because marriage authority is religious rather than civil.
“Certainly, and because the systems are so different, some of the arguments are different. So I’ll explain why marriage is so important in the United States. In a modern, pluralistic, democratic and egalitarian society, our vision of marriage is the understanding that people want their love of their partner to be recognized, and they desire to build their lives together. They would like to be seen as responsible for this commitment, and that their friends, family, society and law will be part of it. Of course, the law adds economic and legal protections to this connection, but as far as I’m concerned it’s in second place. In the first place, no doubt, I place the desire to declare the will and commitment to build life together.”
As a heterosexual woman who has chosen not to marry – and I’m aware that I’m talking from a perspective of a privileged person – I find it hard to understand why a minority that has been so badly trampled by society demands recognition from it specifically through this institution.
“Marriage is, of course, a matter of choice. You are entitled not to marry and it is my right, as a gay man, to want to marry. When the government denies me this right, a right given to others, it’s wrong.”
You’re right. But if we put aside the economic, social and political considerations, why adopt an institution that is so oppressive, anachronistic and, admittedly, not entirely working in the heterosexual society?
“You reflect the culture in which you grew up. In the United States, this concept reflects something entirely different. It’s a very sacred value, so most people in the United States dream of marrying, they get married and even if they get divorced, they marry again.”
The question is whether your position does not represent the internalization of a myth or heterosexual convention.
“I don’t think so. First of all, marriage is something big. Its importance cannot be denied, and when the government says, ‘You cannot do it,’ it sends out a very strong message of discrimination and delegitimization. I’ll give you another perspective – two months ago, one of the world’s most advanced medical bulletins published research results showing that in the first countries where we achieved freedom and the right to marry, the suicide rate among teenagers dropped significantly, and they did some sort of a calculation that the freedom to marry saves about 130,000 lives a year. Now of course it’s not because these teenagers want or intend to marry; they are teenagers. It’s because of the message they receive from society.”
Which is normal. That’s the legitimacy you’re talking about.
“Yes. They understand that they can dream. That they can want. That they are not isolated or excluded. So you see that marriage is not just marriage.”
Let’s talk a little about the situation in Israel.
“What I think Israel is doing well, perhaps even better than the United States, is to recognize a variety of options, including the option that you have chosen. There is no one formula for everyone. But what is less good in Israel is that it denies people the option of civil marriage.”
And the religious establishment discriminates by its very existence. It determines who is worthy of marrying and to whom.
“Yes. In the United States, the demands of those who want to marry are minimal. In general, you just have to be single and at a certain agreeable age. In Israel it’s not like that.”
Many opponents of same-sex marriage defend their opposition by saying that it’s an invasion of the sacred framework. That as soon as you go beyond the pattern of a man and a woman, a connection that is sacred to God – you can actually put everything into this frame.
“This is exactly why we need the civil marriage framework. Everyone is entitled to his religious views, and the state shouldn’t take sides. It can’t serve as a weapon, to impose one religious view and exclude another.”
But in Israel there’s no separation between religion and state.
“The correct way to solve this is not to impose on the religious something they don’t want, but to allow a civil framework, and the state will be able to treat people in an egalitarian and respectful manner. Regarding the breach of the framework – the gays don’t say ‘well, we don’t want laws and everything should be allowed.’ We say – we want what you have. The right to declare our love.”
Sorry for populism, but even zoophiles can say that.
“Any group can say that, and what is supposed to happen in a properly run society is for the government to clarify what the laws are and what the limitations are and why it imposes the limitations. The reason can not be ‘we don’t want this,’ but ‘it violates such and such a right, so we will limit this freedom.'”
During your visit here you meet and lecture on LGBT rights. Only this week it was reported that Israel had promised Russia that it would not allow LGBT couples to adopt children who came from there.
“So I’ve heard. The picture is complex. On the one hand, Israel is not free from mistakes, but you can’t take away the fact that it’s an example in this area of granting LGBT rights. From people on the street and from organizations such as the Aguda and Israel Hofsheet, I hear a lot of frustration, that progress on LGBT rights did not come from the government but from the courts. There’s a sense that the courts generally refrain from fulfilling their role in defending these rights and that the government is not acting to advance the matter.”
And what do you advise them to do?
“To build a civic framework, through associations and organizations, and to promote cooperation and alliances between all these organizations. The civil is always harnessed to politics. There is no reason to give up, but rather to increase the preoccupation with politics. That’s what happened to us, in the United States. After these achievements, the current and terrible regime came up. But we can’t turn our backs on politics – even if it is frightening and disgusting and overwelming. The second point I make is that it’s important, in activism, not to sink into negativity but to try to make people understand that change is possible.”
Bill Clinton signed the law against marriage and retracted it. Barack Obama has promoted quite a few LGBT rights, but explicitly said that as far as he’s concerned, marriage should be between a man and a woman.
“He said it, and yet, in his own words, he has developed. Even during the 2012 campaign he said he thinks that same-sex couples deserve to marry. He knew the right answer but didn’t do the right thing.”
How do you understand this gap?
“Fear. Political expediency. Sometimes even voices from the community that say – don’t take risks. Politicians are wrong and our responsibility is to get them to do the right thing, and also to create a space where they can work, move society and civilization forward.”
Well, good luck with Donald Trump.
“Yes, he’s in a completely different category. As an American, I believe that these were catastrophic elections for the United States. We’re stuck with Trump now, we have to accept it and try to understand how we can move him to the right place.”
You yourself got married in 2011. What was the situation then?
“In 2011, the decision was made to permit marriage in New York, where my fiancé and I resided. The truth is that we didn’t plan to marry because I was very busy with the campaign, but we realized that our parents were not getting younger, and that if we wanted to share our joy with them, we should do so soon.”
Why was it important for you to marry?
“Because I found someone I loved and who was willing to tolerate me, and I wanted to reaffirm this commitment and this relationship and to celebrate it with my friends and family. During all the years I had led this struggle for marriage, I was single, and not because I chose it, I just didn’t have a partner. The struggle would not have been motivated by my personal interest, but by the larger reasons. In 2011 I had a life partner, and we were able to plan together a ceremony in which we took elements of the Jewish tradition from which I come and from his Chinese tradition. For example, our sisters lit candles on my parents’ home menorah, and it turns out that lighting candles at a wedding is part of his Chinese culture, that a wedding is the night of a thousand candles. We also broke a glass at the end of the wedding. We stepped on it together and said that in the Jewish tradition the breaking of the glass symbolizes that the joy is not complete, and for us it means that our joy was not complete because many people in other places can not enjoy the right to marry. Wow, I like talking about my wedding so much.”
I see. You suddenly turned into a blushing bride.
“Completely. I really feel the glow of those moments. It was a very significant day in my life.”