Constitutional Marriage Amendment -- Against
Executive Director of Freedom to Marry
Wednesday, July 14, 2004; 2:00 PM
The Republican-led Senate is expected to vote on a constitutional amendment to bar same-sex marriage, though it is widely believed the proposal will fail to pass.
Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry and author of the new book "Why Marriage Matters: America, Equality, and Gay People's Right to Marry," will be online to discuss the Senate vote, the constitutional amendment and the role the issue will play in the coming election. .
The transcript follows
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
I know gay couples who have been joined in religious ceremonies (by rabbis) and who have children together. They help each other through the tough times, celebrate the good, and make a life together. They are excellent parents who take their kids to religious school, promote education and hard work, and care for them in many ways.
Wouldn't allowing them to marry civilly in fact enhance and strengthen marriage? How can it possibly undermine hetereosexual marriages, such as my own?
Evan Wolfson: I absolutely agree. Marriage is not a zero-sum game or a limited commodity; gays are not going to use up the marriage licenses or otherwise harm other people's marriages. Instead, as you point out, taking on the legal commitment of marriage to match the personal commitment of love and care that these couples (many of whom are parents) have already made in their life can only help strengthen their families, which, in turn builds a stronger community for everyone.
You correctly asked about civil marriage, so let me just underscore that we are talking here about the legal right to marry, not religious rites of marriage. Government should never (and will never) be able to tell churches whom they must marry in their own houses of worship. And, equally important, no religion should dictate to the government who gets the legal marriage licenses. The best way to protect religion, as well as freedom, is to respect the separation of church and state.
A number of opponents of same-sex marriage have argued that marriage promotes procreation, two parent families, and communities. And yet, a number of same-sex couples have children (either through artifical means or adoption), these children live in two parent households, and are part of a strong community of both family and friends. So if marriage promotes all of these benefits, and same sex couples already pursue these benefits, they why are they not allow to be acknowledged as a "married family" under the law?
Evan Wolfson: There are as many as six to ten million children today being raised by a gay parent or parents. Like it or not, these kids have the parents they have. These kids are not pawns to be discarded in the pursuit of some abstract "better" family model. They are harmed by the right-wing's campaign to perpetuate their parents' exclusion from marriage. These kids' families are denied the structure, security, and protections?tangible and intangible?that other families have. Does it make any sense to punish the kids who are already being raised by the "less good" or the "wrong" parents, by denying their parents marriage and the safety-net and support it can bring to a family.
And, by the way, as you note, the kids being raised by gay parents are growing up just as happy, just as healthy, and just as well adjusted as other kids. Don't take my word for it; here's what the American Academy of Pediatrics (the nation's kids' doctors) had to say in 2002:
"Children deserve to know that their relationship with both of their parents is stable and legally recognized. This applies to all children, whether their parents are of the same or opposite sex. The American Academy of Pediatrics recognizes that a considerable body of professional literature provides evidence that children with parents who are homosexual can have the same advantages and the same expectations for health, adjustment, and development as can children whose parents are heterosexual. When two adults participate in parenting a child, they and the child deserve the serenity that comes with legal recognition."
New Orleans, La.:
The right continues to point out that marriage as we define it in the U.S. has been around for ages, and that it is an entrenched institution that has always served the needs of society. Can you comment on this? How has marriage developed over the ages?
Evan Wolfson: Clearly, marriage has not always remained the same for thousands of years, contrary to today's opponents of equality. In fact, even right here in America, this is not the first time that we have had to struggle over exclusion from and discrimination in marriage. Previous chapters in American history have seen race discrimination in marriage (ended only in 1967), laws making wives legally inferior to husbands (changed as late as the 1970's and 1980's), resistance to allowing people to end failed or abusive marriages through divorce (fought over in the 1940's and 1950's), and even a refusal to allow married and unmarried people make their own decisions about whether to use contraception or raise children (decided in 1965).
In each of these struggles, opponents of equality claimed that the proposed change was "against the definition of marriage" and "against God's will." Many of the same gloom-and-doom claims are made today by the same kind of opponents, now seeking to prevent loving same-sex couples from taking on the legal commitment of marriage. Fortunately, our country rejected the "sky is falling" claims of opponents and made marriage a more inclusive and fair commitment of equals. As the Massachusetts court and others have made clear, government simply has no good reason for continuing to deny same-sex couples marriage licenses.
I discuss this at length in chapter 3 of my book, Why Marriage Matters -- http://www.freedomtomarry.org/document.asp?doc_id=1634 -- as does E. J. Graff in her terrific book, What Is Marriage For?
St. Mary's City, Md.:
I'm a straight man who strongly believes that gays and lesbians should be allowed to marry under the law. All the wild claims of gay marriage supposedly threatening straight marriage come across as fearmongering.
At the same time, I can appreciate the feelings of many Christians regarding the religious aspect of marriage. So I would support a compromise that would give "civil unions" all the legal rights and responsibilities of marriage. As I understand it, no civil union law currently does that. What do you think of such a compromise?
Evan Wolfson: First off, thank you for speaking out as a non-gay man who supports equality for all. In any civil rights struggle, the people who bear the brunt of the direct discrimination - whether racial or religious minorities, women, ethnic groups, lesbians and gay men, or transgendered people - cannot secure equality by themselves. Rather, the history of our country is that in response to challenges to discrimination, fair-minded people in the majority begin, in Lincoln's words, to "think anew" about how our country is treating people unfairly. As more Americans get involved, hearts and minds open and our country moves to a better place. The former assumptions about how the world has to be - some races are inferior, segregation is the right answer, women should stay in the home, people should be locked into marriages for life, gay people should not form connections to others - change and at some point we look back and can't believe how it used to be.
But no, I do not think separate and unequal solutions such as the "compromise" you propose are the right answer. We've tried that before in our country, and not only was it bad for the people treated unequally, it was bad for the country. As the Massachusetts high court said so eloquently in the Goodridge ruling ending marriage discrimination, "The history of our nation has demonstrated that separate is seldom, if ever, equal."
Civil union exists in only one state, Vermont. It is no substitute for the system of rules, responsibilities, and rights that protects families in our country - that system is called marriage. No one is offering gay families a complete alternative system that would provide the same protections that come to others with the two words, "I do"; in fact, our opponents generally are against not just marriage for gay couples, but any measure of protection and recognition, large or small. And even if you could design a whole new federal system called "civil union," extend it into all fifty states, and make it equal with regard to the 1138 federal incidents of marriage and the thousands of legal and economic incidents of marriage at the state level, it still would not be equal, for it would lack the clarity, dignity, and equality that comes with marriage.
A simple way to think about this is: either civil union is the same as marriage, in which case why do we need two lines at the clerk's office, or it is not the same, in which case the question answers itself.
Ann Arbor, Mich.:
Although the Federal Constitutional Amendment seems certain to fail this year, many individual states are continuing to restrict marriage rights. Here in Michigan, with over 350,000 signatures, it's almost certain that a state constitutional amendment will be put on the ballot and it seems to have at least the 50 percent support it needs. Aside from being scared at how easy it is to amend the state constitution, what can be done against the fairly broad local support for restricting marriage?
Evan Wolfson: You are quite right to highlight that what we saw in Washington this week when Senators spent (wasted) three days debating an unprecedented assault on the Constitution - an effort to amend the Constitution for the first time ever so as to take away rights from a group of Americans - was just the most visible part of a fierce political campaign underway state by state to polarize the public, target gay people, roll back legal protections and cement inequality into state constitutions, and score an advantage in an election-cycle. It is truly sad to see this campaign of division at a time when our country needs unity - and especially outrageous to see the recklessness with which opponents of gay people are willing to undermine the constitutions of our country and states.
When the California Supreme Court became the first to strike down race discrimination in marriage (by a 4-3 vote, much like the 2003 Massachusetts ruling ending sex discrimination in marriage), polls showed 90% of the public opposed marriage equality for interracial couples. As late as 1967, when the U.S. Supreme Court finally made the same ruling nationwide, the polls showed 70% opposed. We need to ask Americans to imagine the injury to our nation if the opposition had prevailed with arguments like "let the people vote" or attacks on "activist judges," and had written discrimination into our Constitution. Would we ever have secured the equality and freedom that most of us consider to be our nation's commitment and defining greatness?
The key to winning over the middle here is to explain two truths: (1) this is about real people who have made a personal commitment in their lives and want a legal commitment to match (and back that up with compelling stories and your own personal voice, to make it real), and (2) it is unfair, it is wrong, it is un-American for the government to discriminate against these families and deprive them of equality under the law (and back that up with facts and stories about how the denial of marriage harms families while helping no one). With these two truths - and letting people see a reality, not a hypothetical or scary right-wing rhetoric - the middle will move to support, or at least acceptance, of marriage equality, just as our country has made changes in the past when people came to see and then understand the wrong of discrimination.
And, of course, gay and non-gay people must organize. To join with others, visit www.freedomtomarry.org and see which groups, national or local, you can get involved with near you.
Hello Mr. Wolfson,
I was supporting the same-sex marriage thing, but after I read and saw all of the corrupt spinning ie., comparing African Americans to gay marriage.
I don't like the gay community when they use an American culture, that were enslaved and still to this day treated as second call citizens.
What about that gay person, who still hides in the closet (still quite a few of them), and he or she is white as American applie pie and still gets the privileges as the colleagues as long as they don't find out he or she is gay?
Being black is the first thing you see, which creates the prejudice.
Evan Wolfson: You are right that being gay is not "the same" as being African-American, just as the experience of Latinos with discrimination is not "the same" as the experience of women, and we should be respectful of one another's experience and history. But that does not mean there are not parallels, commonalities, and lessons to be learned.
First of all, many people are both black and gay, Latino and gay, women and gay... so it's not an us against them thing. And when each of us experiences exclusion, deprivation, inequality, or denial -- as, for example, when gay people are denied what the first court to strike down race discrimination in marriage called "the essence of the freedom to marry, the right to marry the person you choose -- it hurts us. We don't need a hierarchy of oppression to recognize that all discrimination is wrong and should be combatted.
I encourage you to go to the website of the National Black Justice Coalition -- www.nbjcoalition.org -- and learn why civil rights heroes such as Cong. John Lewis, Coretta Scott King, the NAACP's Julian Bond, and others have spoken out so strongly in support of marriage equality as a civil rights cause.
New York, N.Y.:
Not sure if you caught Sen. Orrin Hatch on Hardball Tuesday evening. Here is an excerpt:
MATTHEWS: How do you discourage promiscuity, sexual promiscuity, among gay people if you don't encourage bonding of some kind?
HATCH: Well, I don?t know that you're going to discourage that anyway. I've seen gay people say that we have different rules and that we don't abide by the same rules as others.
This is so typical of Republican rhetoric. Gays shouldn't be allowed to marry and settle down, then they accuse us of being promiscuous! It just doesn't make any sense.
Care to comment?
Evan Wolfson: Well, it is a bit of a catch-22. They argue gay people are unstable, promiscuous, incapable of bonding, etc., then deny us marriage, which our society believes helps encourage people to bond, build lives together, commit, and fulfill human aspirations of permanence and stability.
Of course, I think of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, the first gay couple to marry in San Francisco earlier this year, just two days before the 51st anniversary as a couple. Having spent more than fifty years caring for one another, dealing with life's ups and downs, raising kids, contributing to the community, surely these women deserve the legal commitment of marriage and the protections it would bring them as they deal with the concerns of growing older.
Unless Senator Hatch thinks gay people are just less than fully human and incapable of love and connection, he should stop using the government to put obstacles in the path of people who seek to care for one another.
1.Would amendment that was discussed today specifically prohibit states from allowing for gay marriage by popular referendum or legislative change?
2. If the courts expand the current definition of marriage to include same sex couples, wouldn't the prohibition on polygamy be vulnerable on the same grounds?
Evan Wolfson: 1) Yes. The amendment they are seeking to impose would intrude the federal government where it has never been, and tie the hands of all states and all future generations, preventing them from making their own thoughtful decisions on marriage and protections for families.
2) We are not seeking to "expand" or even change the "definition" of marriage (that's a right-wing talking point). Rather, we are seeking to remove a restriction on who can get married, with the same rules and responsibilities as other couples. The question on the table is, what reason does the government have for this different-sex restriction on whom you can marry. And what the courts in Hawaii, Vermont, Massachusetts, Ontario, British Columbia, Quebec, and elsewhere have said is that when the government has put forth its reasons, they just don't stand up. When government doesn't have a sufficient reason to justify harsh discrimination, that discrimination should end.
It seems to me that the underpinnings of the debate about prohibiting same-sex marraige really come down to what I call the "Ick Factor". I believe it just freaks people out to think of two men or two women walking down the aisle together to get married. And more than that, I think that most people continue to equate being gay or lesbian with sexual behavior, and that freaks them out, too. Any suggestions for how to educate well-meaning folks out of their beliefs that keep them from supporting equality?
P.S. Thanks for your great work on the Freedom to Marry Web site!
Evan Wolfson: Thanks for the compliment on our website. We are constantly trying to improve it to make it a useful starting-point for non-gay people who want to figure out how they feel about "gay marriage," as well as a resource for gay and non-gay people motivated to get involved in this civil rights moment.
On our website, we have a discussion of what moves the middle -- the reachable, but not yet reached, part of the public who are wrestling with this question and, indeed, as you point out, with their discomfort with sexuality and gay people generally. Here's a link: http://www.freedomtomarry.org/document.asp?doc_id=1428.
I agree that some people have the reaction you describe, and also agree that many people unfairly hear the word "gay" and immediately think "sex" (though, of course, anyone who's ever been married knows that marriage is about a lot more than sex). But in my view, the discomfort most people have (and are struggling to get over, if they are at all fair-minded), is less about sex and more about fear -- fear that the right tries to stoke by talking about divorce, pressures on families, single-parenting, etc., and then scapegoating gays. So I think we need to encourage people to understand that sometimes change is needed, but in this case change will not take anything away from anyone, but rather will strengthen families and thus contribute to the larger community.
What confuses me is: why doesn't the 14th Amendment's "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." make STATE's prohibitions unconstitutional?
Evan Wolfson: It does.
But law does not change automatically, or even just because you have the right answer. Before we bring constitutional cases (under the federal Constitution you quote or the constitutions of the states), we must also make sure we have worked together to create a climate of receptivity in which judges, legislators, and other decision-makers feel empowered and emboldened to do the right thing. Otherwise, you risk encountering judges who have been intimidated (or who do not yet understand the real stories and pain of discrimination), or risk running up against legislators afraid to take the lead in bringing our country through a civil rights conversation. So while the lawyers prepare good cases on behalf of families such as those in Massachusetts, it is important that the rest of us make sure that political organizing, public education, and personal and group-to-group outreach accompany litigation to achieve social justice. And lawyers should be sure to work in consultation with the legal experts at the ACLU, GLAD, Lambda Legal, NCLR, and others.
Takoma Park, Md.:
Hi Evan -- I'm curious: during your research for your book, did you come across any societies or religions in history that did recognize, or even solemnize, same-sex committed relationships? I keep hearing the "marriage has always been between a man and a woman" argument, and have wondered whether it's historically true. Thanks for all your hard work on behalf of marriage rights.
Evan Wolfson: Thank you for asking about the book. : )
People can find out more about it at , and I'll be doing a book-signing at Olsson's bookstore, 1307 19th St., NW (Dupont Circle), on Thursday, July 22 at 7pm.
And yes, absolutely there have been societies and religions in history that have solemnized and even celebrated same-sex couples' committed unions. Two older good books that discuss this history are: John Boswell's Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe, and William Eskridge's The Case for Same-Sex Marriage.
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada:
The courts in three Canadian provinces have allowed gays to marry for several months now. No churches are forced to marry gays. Marriages are between two and only two adults. I don't feel that my heterosexual marriage of over 15 years has been diminished by people who are in love wanting to have the same rights that I do. Also, contrary to all fears, Canadian society is every bit as secure as it has always been. I don't understand why some Americans feel that the U.S. would fall apart if gays are allowed to marry if your close neighbor and friend has had no problems allowing gay marriages.
Evan Wolfson: One of the things our opponents have most feared is that marriage will become a reality somewhere and that the claims of gloom and doom will be exposed as false. Thanks to Canada, along with the Netherlands and Belgium, and now Massachusetts -- not to mention the thousands of couples married in San Francisco, Oregon, New York, and elsewhere earlier this year -- that is exactly what is happening. The more Americans get a chance to see marriage equality with families helped and no one hurt in places like Canada -- where though Niagara Falls is still falling, the sky is not -- and have a chance to discuss this and open their hearts and minds, the more they move toward acceptance of marriage equality. That is why our opponents are so eager to try to shut the discussion down and erect as many radical barriers as they can. That is why they are trying to cement discrimination into the state constitutions, and trying to tie the hands of the states and the next generation by amending the U.S. Constitution.
As recently as 1998 in South Carolina and 2000 in Alabama, 40% of the voters in each state voted to keep offensive and inoperative language barring interracial marriage in their respective state constitutions. The right-wing anti-gay campaign, and the politicians who are doing their bidding (whether in the White House or in state legislatures) are doing the country a terrible disservice by freezing the passions of the moment and the prejudices of some into state constitutions and American law.
Can you directly respond to the last post, Question 2, from Washington, D.C., with respect to polygamy or polyamore. Specifically, if the government has no compelling reason to restrict marriage to its traditional definition of one man and one woman, can it put forward a compelling reason to bar multiple persons, be they male or female from marriage, who may also want their committed relationships recognized and protected by law?
Evan Wolfson: Polygamy, incest, Santorum's "man on dog sex" bugaboo -- these are all diversions from the question on the table. Gay couples are not saying "anything goes," they are saying their exclusion is wrong, harmful, and serves no purpose, and government has yet to show one. Pointing to something else is not giving a reason to justify this discrimination. If non-gay people can marry one person, gay people should be allowed to, also. Same rules, same reason.
Imagine ten years from now: gay marriage has been legal in Massachusetts and Oregon for a decade. California and New York recognize the marriages. Local governments begin to realize that young DINKs (double income, no kids) are a demographic to be courted, because they pay higher taxes, require fewer services, and revitalize blighted neighborhoods. Local attitudes shift as society doesn't crumble, and as parents of gay adults realize they can finally see their kids get married.
Soon over half the states recognize gay marriages?A movement begins to force the remaining states to capitulate. Activists realize the only way to achieve this is through a constitutional amendment?Pressured by the party, President Edwards/Obama/Clinton supports an amendment pending in the Senate.
What can the Republicans say then?
"We think it should be left up to the states?"
Evan Wolfson: Clearly our opponents support "leaving it to the states" when it suits their purpose of thwarting civil rights, and then have no hesitation in overriding the states when they think they can get their way.
The right answer, of course, is that the states have largely worked these questions of marriage out among themselves without undue interference (and certainly not having Congress jump in at the beginning feet first), and then, after a period of debate, discrepancies, and patchwork, our nation moves toward resolution based on common sense, experience, and fairness. The exception to this historical pattern: the radical and unprecedented federalizing of marriage that our opponents stampeded through Congress in 1996, the so-called "Defense of Marriage Act" -- which they now concede was and is unconstitutional all along and thus want to rewrite the Constitution to make it fit the unconstitutional and ill-advised federal discrimination they forced upon the country in another election year.
Ocean View, Del.:
Care to comment about publications like the Washington Times that refuse to report on marriage between same-sex couples as marriage, and continue to refer to it as gay "marriage" (i.e., always in quotes as if to say that it is not real marriage) even (and especially) in news reporting.
Evan Wolfson: It is, of course, insulting, but the hope of our opponents lies in denying that gay people lead real human lives, have real human emotions and needs, and form real families... so they disparage us as not real and thus easier to exclude or deny. But of course, as the Vermont Supreme Court ruled, gay people share with non-gay people a "common humanity," just as we share the same mix of reasons -- emotional and economic, practical and personal, spiritual and social -- for wanting the freedom to marry the person we love, with equality under the law.
Doesn't same sex marriage actually remove a privilege that exists almost throughout corporate America today: the right to benefits outside of commitment. Today two gays can, in most jurisdictions, simply declare themselves a couple and recieve many of the benefits available exclusively to married couples. Won't this be lost to most gay couples? Are there really that many same sex couples who are willing to make the commitment for a lifetime? If not doesn't this simply further dilute the meaning of marriage to a lark and a checkbox on the equality chart for gay liberation?
Evan Wolfson: Well, no... most businesses that have created partnership registries or benefits programs require commitment (often the proof required is more stringent than anything required of two different-sex people who can walk in and claim to be married and are never asked to show a marriage certificate, or who can be married in name but live apart, etc.). And many of those programs are available to both same-sex and different-sex couples and their kids.
And, of course, none of them entail anything close to the full range of legal and economic (not to mention intangible) protections and obligations that come with marriage.
But where I do agree with you, I think, is that certainly if gay couples are not prepared to take on the commitment of marriage -- same rules, same responsibilities -- as non-gay couples getting married, then they shouldn't.
what do you think about efforts to expand the
Massachussetts victory through legal means -- so
that people from other states can marry in Massachussetts,
and perhaps even have their marriages recognized in
their own states?
I sort of struggle with this because it's obviously
morally right to expand equality to more states, but
it could stoke right-wing backlash and make
constitutional amendments more likely in more
states (or in Congress). What do you think?
Evan Wolfson: This is an important question and I'd refer you to the discussion on our website: http://www.freedomtomarry.org/document.asp?doc_id=1550
But let me make a couple points here:
1) We are not trying to "expand" the Massachusetts victory, but rather to secure an end to discrimination in each state. In other words, couples throughout our country should be able to enjoy equality under the law wherever they love.
2) What is happening now is not a "backlash." It is an organized, well-funded campaign mounted by the usual suspects, groups that have been anti-gay, yes, but also anti-choice, anti-women's equality, anti-civil rights, and anti-separation of church and state. They are pursuing their own ideological agenda and political purposes, and trying to impose their views on the people by targeting a vulnerable minority and polarizing the nation. Their "backlash" began before we "lashed." We are seeking an end to second-class citizenship and the legal inequality that gay couples endure in 49 states, and others are resisting equality and inclusion -- as they have in past chapters of American history -- for their own reasons. The worst thing we could do is run away from the discussion and leave the reachable-but-not-yet-reached middle of the public without voices of reason and fairness, and without information, to help them sort through the falsehoods and fear-mongering of the political campaign underway against us.
Evan Wolfson: Our nation is in a civil rights moment, and advances in any state help all the others and bring closer the day when fair-minded Americans learn to think anew about how second-class citizenship harms gay couples and their kids.
As I said above, gay people want the freedom to marry for the same mix of reasons as other Americans. Marriage is the gateway to a vast array of tangible and intangible, legal and economic, public and private obligations and protections that matter to families in every area of life, from Social Security to parenting, from immigration to access to health-care, from the ability to pool resources without unfair tax burdens to rules for how to cope with a break-up. Gay parents to raise their kids within the structure, and receiving the benefits, of marriage. No legal documents or attorneys can replicate the safety-net that marriage brings to families, particularly families of lesser means, or couples and kids dealing with crises such as divorce, disease, or death.
I wrote my book, Why Marriage Matters, now appearing in stores and online, to speak directly to the fair-minded Americans who are not yet with us, but who are thinking this through and want to do the right thing. I take the concerns and questions seriously and worked to give answers that include facts, stories, history, law, and even the other side. And I wrote it for people who believe in an America where all people have the right to be both different and equal, and where no one has to give up her or his difference in order to be treated equally under the law. For those who share that vision, please buy and use the book, and, most important, please come to www.freedomtomarry.org and link up with the national and state partner organizations and gay and non-gay people who are working to end discrimination in our country.
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