Activist and lawyer Evan Wolfson will be in Atlanta for two of the Jewish Film Festival’s screenings of “The Freedom to Marry,” the documentary covering Wolfson’s victorious campaign for the national right to same-sex marriage.
Wolfson isn’t the first person most associate with marriage equality in America. We’re more likely to think of Ellen and Portia than a Jewish lawyer from Pittsburgh.
Bald and bespectacled, he has been described as a brilliant but unassuming figure who fathered a movement. He has spent decades behind the scenes so that each American could marry the person of his or her choosing.
“The Freedom to Marry,” the documentary by director Eddie Rosenstein, allows us to get to know the man who fought his way up to the U.S. Supreme Court and won.
The marriage victory turned Wolfson from a pillar of gay rights in America to one of the pre-eminent consultants for winning progressive causes worldwide. When we spoke, Wolfson had just arrived back from working in Taiwan. The following week, he was leaving for Italy. And 2017 had only just begun.
Wolfson described his strategy as “how to take something that people think is impossible or difficult and make it a reality.” He added, “I think the film’s message — that change can happen and that everyone can make a difference in getting America to live up to its promise — is a really important and timely message.”
President Donald Trump has spurred anxiety in the queer community after vacillating during the campaign between accepting the Supreme Court’s Obergefell vs. Hodges decision (which enshrined the right to marry) and vowing to appoint justices to overturn it and push the issue back to the states. Vice President Mike Pence has been consistently anti-LGBT throughout his political career.
But Wolfson advised against premature panic.
“There are certainly horror scenarios, by which in theory the constitutional right that has now been affirmed could be undermined. But I think that’s unlikely and certainly not imminent,” Wolfson said. “Given the many ways in which the current administration poses a threat to a lot of important things we care about in our country, I don’t think the freedom to marry is the most threatened or the most under assault.”
The political climate has shifted since the 2015 decision because of what some see as a backlash against Barack Obama and the rise of progressive movements during his eight years as president. In November’s elections, Republicans swept the House and Senate on a wave of populism spurred by anger at the establishment, “PC culture,” and rapidly changing attitudes concerning gender, sexuality, and, above all, bathrooms.
“If there’s one thing that should be correct, it’s political law,” Wolfson said in the wake of Trump’s dismissal of critics. “The law should treat us all correctly, which means fairly and equally. We’re entitled to have different feelings, but the law should not be used as a weapon against anyone.”
He is more than familiar with legal setbacks, whether from presidents or judges.
When Wolfson took his first case before the Hawaii Supreme Court in 1996, a mere 27 percent of Americans supported same-sex marriage. Congress swiftly passed the Defense of Marriage Act that same year, which President Bill Clinton signed into law.
Wolfson founded the organization Freedom to Marry not long after Hawaii amended its constitution to ban gay marriage. His intent was to create a movement with a united strategy, no longer satisfied with isolated fights.
He decided to focus on the message that gay, lesbian and bisexual people are just that — people. They’re your neighbors, your friends, your co-workers and your family. His campaign shifted public opinion until more than half of Americans supported same-sex marriage. Through honest conversations, the public saw that LGBTQ people longed for love and companionship in the same way as anyone else.
Today, gay marriage is legal in all 50 states, thanks in no small part to the work Wolfson did. He celebrates what has been accomplished and remains positive about the fate of equality.
“That doesn’t mean everything is perfect, and that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot more work to do. Of course there is,” he said. “This immense progress isn’t felt by every person in this country, so we still have a lot to do. But the overall shift has been enormous. We’ve gone from outlaws to in-laws.”
More Featured Guests
Among the other speakers you can see in the final two weeks of the 2017 Atlanta Jewish Film Festival (visit ajff.org for details, tickets and standby lists for sold-out films):
- Nicolo Donato, the writer-director of “Across the Waters,” at two screenings Feb. 4 (both sold out) and one Feb. 5.
- Shep Shell, one of the sons featured in “Aida’s Secrets,” at screenings Feb. 4, 5 and 6 (the last of which is sold out).
- Brett and Russell Berns, the sons of Bert Berns from “Bang! The Bert Berns Story,” at two showings Feb. 11 (one of which is sold out).
- Ori Sivan, the director of “Harmonia,” at screenings Feb. 9 (sold out), 10 and 11.
- Director Michael Manasseri and writer Sheldon Cohn of “The Pickle Recipe” at one screening Feb. 10 and two Feb. 11 (one of which is sold out).
- Writer-star Aaron Davidman and director Dylan Kussman of “Wrestling Jerusalem” at showings Feb. 7 and 8.