Inclusion, Momentum, and the Freedom to Marry Worldwide by Evan Wolfson

Evan Wolfson, Attorney and Founder of Freedom to Marry

In Chile, as you read this, advocates are working to get the freedom to marry bill recently introduced by President Bachelet passed into law. Their core strategy: get couples and their family members to visit lawmakers, while sharing stories and videos with the public through social media.

In Japan, a new network of law firms, women’s rights groups, businesses, and LGBT advocates is teeing up a public education campaign to share heartfelt videos of gay Japanese and their non-gay family members telling their stories and making the case that loving and committed same-sex couples should be able to marry.

In Australia, where the government is now conducting a national plebiscite on ending marriage discrimination against gay couples, opponents are following the familiar anti-gay playbook pioneered in the US, desperately trying to take the focus off those couples and their families in order to scare or turn off voters inclined to be fair.

In the Czech Republic, a new campaign has launched urging people to tell their stories and talk to their neighbors, to help people understand how the existing “civil union” law falls far short of the full protection, clarity, and dignity that only marriage itself brings, and how the exclusion of same-sex couples from civil marriage is both harmful and unfair.

And this month, lawyers, experts, and activists from several Latin American countries will gather for a first-ever Conference on Marriage Equality (organized by Hduarte-LEX, Fundación Igualitos, Acodi and ACCEDER) aimed at sharing ideas regionally while ratcheting up public awareness and discussion in the host country of Costa Rica. Their goal is to shine the spotlight on the mountain of evidence and experience showing that families are helped and no one hurt when the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage ends. With a whopping 70% of the people of Latin America already now living in freedom to marry countries, advocates from Panama and Peru, El Salvador and Ecuador, and others across the region are asking, why should any families, any countries, be left behind?

I Congreso de Matrimonio Civil entre Personas del Mismo Sexo: the first equal marriage conference to take place in Latin America

In fact, there is enormous momentum worldwide in favor of LGBT human rights, including the freedom to marry, even as there are many parts of the world where gay and transgender people are horribly abused and discriminated against. The appalling assault on gay people’s basic rights in Russia, much of the Muslim world, and, increasingly, sub-Saharan Africa, makes it all the more important that the rule-of-law countries who make a promise of human rights live up to that promise, live up their democratic values.

And as the worldwide conversation about who gay people are, why marriage matters to them as to others, and shared values, aspirations, and needs has grown, so has the progress in winning the affirmation and dignity of the freedom to marry.

When I first wrote my law school thesis arguing for the freedom to marry in the United States back in 1983, there were no countries on earth where same-sex couples could marry. Today – with Malta and Germany ending marriage discrimination this year – we have grown that number to 24 countries.  That means more than 1 billion people worldwide, more than 15% of the global population, now live in a freedom to marry country, up from zero less than two decades ago.

The Constitutional Court in Taiwan held earlier this year that withholding marriage from same-sex couples violates bedrock guarantees vital to a democratic government, echoing findings from the high courts of Colombia and the United States two years earlier.

What explains this human rights momentum at a time when so many other values seem under siege worldwide?

One of my mantras in our decades-long campaign to win the freedom to marry in the United States was that “conversation is the chief engine of change.” Or, as I often put it in speech after speech as I criss-crossed our country urging gay and non-gay people who believed in fairness and family to speak up in support loving and committed same-sex couples, “There is no marriage without engagement.”

The Freedom to Marry campaign, led by Evan Wolfson

The U.S. Freedom to Marry campaign centered on our strategy of creating the climate that would encourage and impel decision-makers, whether lawmakers or judges, to do the right thing – and our conviction that the way to do that was by getting people to share their stories, talk about shared values, and come to see the common humanity of gay people and our desire to partake of the responsibility, accountability, and dignity that comes with standing before friends and family and making a commitment grounded in love.

It is through these stories and conversations that people are enabled and motivated to discard or work around outdated stereotypes and unconscious bias about gay people, as well as what they are being told by opponents. The power of engaging people in conversations, with personal stories and empathy, explains, for instance, why despite the official opposition of much of the Catholic hierarchy, Catholics themselves have been highly supportive in countries worldwide, from Spain to Argentina, from Ireland to the United States. In Chile, for example, the Plaza Publica poll in January 2017 showed Catholic support for the freedom to marry at 66% super-majority.

As in many of the countries now wrestling with ending marriage discrimination, in the United States, we lost many battles, many court cases, many legislative fights, and then lost and lost again. But ultimately, we began persuading and winning. In the two years leading up to our final nationwide victory at the Supreme Court in June 2015, we won more than 70 court rulings across the country. Appellate courts as well as trial courts, judges appointed by Republican presidents and governors as well as Democratic, found again and again that there is no good reason for excluding same-sex couples from marriage, no good reason for denying dignity and protection to their children, no good reason for government to treat one group of people as less worthy, less loving, less deserving of the bundle of meanings that marriage has for all.

In all of those 70+ court rulings, based on a foundation of evidence, expertise, and experience, my favorite sentence came in the case in which we brought the freedom to marry to Utah, one of the most conservative, one of the most religious, states in the United States. After sifting all the briefs and arguments, cross-examination and evidence, the judge in Utah found in favor of the couples seeking the freedom to marry. And he noted, “It is not the Constitution that has changed, but the knowledge of what it means to be gay or lesbian.”

That sentence best encapsulated our strategy, best embodied how it was that we had been able to change hearts and minds, and then the law in such a profound and empowering transformation.

And that mountain of evidence, expertise, and experience (from decades of debate in the US and also in 24 other countries and counting) is now there for others in other countries to draw on. This is not a new question. There are answers, and a track record. What is crucial is to break the silence,  make the case, tell the stories, invoke the values, share the answers, reassure the uncertain, and help the reachable-but-not-yet-reached rise to fairness.

The importance of coupling work and organizing in legislatures and courts of law with person-to-person engagement in the court of public opinion will come as no surprise to those who have been working to promote inclusion and respect for equality despite difference in the workplace and other arenas.

As 379 businesses wrote in a friend-of-the-court brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to rule in favor of the freedom to marry in 2015:

“[I]nclusion strengthens, rather than weakens, our most important institutions.  When we integrated our schools, education improved.  When we opened our juries to women, our democracy became more vital.  When we allowed lesbian and gay soldiers to serve openly in uniform, it enhanced unit cohesion.  When same-sex couples are married, just as when opposite-sex couples are married, they serve as models of loving commitment to all.  These same observations ring true for … companies: diversity and inclusion strengthen, not weaken, our businesses.”

Law firms like Dentons, the world’s largest, where I am a senior counsel, understand that it’s not about eliminating or minimizing difference, but rather about helping people to see the values, aspirations, and needs we share despite our differences, and then the ways difference can actually strengthen our common endeavor – be it building a better society or economy, or running a more successful law firm or company, fielding a better team.

Activist/author Eric Liu puts it like this in his book, You’re More Powerful Than You Think:

“Diverse groups that figure out how to cooperate outperform and outlast groups that don’t. There is a mountain of social science behind that statement. Cooperation, in turn, is the product of inclusion. Societies that figure out how to sustain inclusion outperform and outlast those that do not. That is the lesson of human history.”

When activists and lawyers from Panama and Peru gather in Costa Rica with those who have won battles in Argentina, Mexico, and the United States, the ideas and tactics we will kick around won’t all be equally applicable to each country. There are differences in the systems and cultures, in the level of public discussion to date, in how visible gay people are, and in the political and legal challenges lining the respective pathways to victory.

Successes so far and challenges ahead: a visual representation of protections afforded to same-sex couples around the world

But transcending those differences will be the commonalities in how to win, the lessons to be found in the transformations and victories we have achieved in countries as different as Ireland, where we won a national referendum, South Africa, where we won in the courts, or, again, the US, where we drove a decades-long campaign across many states and many methodologies to change hearts and minds, and then the law.

The story of that multi-decade, multi-battle, multi-methodology campaign to win in the United States – and the lessons on how to effect change and win it offers to be adapted by others – is powerfully portrayed in a dramatic new documentary, The Freedom to Marry. Recognizing the value of the inspiration and instruction the U.S. experience provides, the film has been shown by different movements, from immigration to environment to gun control, and in many countries, from Australia to Czech Republic, from Israel to Japan.

Those lessons from Freedom to Marry include the importance of clarity about goal and strategy, in order to inspire people to action. The need to combine message and message-delivery so as to reach the people you need to reach in their hearts as well as their heads, engaging their understanding and empathy through personal stories and shared values, through the engine of conversation. The imperative of combining the air-cover of discussion with the ground-game of organizing and personal connection. The playbook of tactics for moving lawmakers, for public education, for refuting and pushing past opposition distraction efforts, for enlisting experts in child welfare, public health, and law alongside voices of faith, mayors, labor leaders, and business. The urgency of conveying over time the key things it takes to win: Hope, Clarity, and Tenacity.

Across different societies and many centuries, marriage has been and remains the preeminent language of love, the vocabulary of full inclusion and respect – and alongside that in today’s societies marriage brings a vast array of legal and economic protections and responsibilities, from birth to death (with taxes in between). Marriage touches every vital area of life: creating kin, raising children, building a life together, celebrating and reinforcing love and commitment, caring for one another, retirement, and inheritance.

Bringing the freedom to marry to so many more people, so far, has made a profound difference in people’s lives, happiness, and well-being in the precious short time we share on this planet.

And as the activists gathering this November in Costa Rica – like the advocates working to bring in victories in China, Cuba, Italy, Vietnam, and many other countries – are all asking: Why should any family, any country, be left behind?

There is, after all, enough marriage to share. Gay people are not going to use up the marriage licenses.

It’s time for the freedom to marry – for all.


Evan Wolfson was founder and president of Freedom to Marry, the campaign that won marriage for same-sex couples in the United States. He now teaches at Georgetown Law and Yale University, is senior counsel at Dentons, and advises and assists other movements, causes, and countries eager to adapt the lessons on how to win from the successful Freedom to Marry campaign.

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