Alex Blaze

Evan Wolfson: Disagreeing with me hurts gay people

Filed By Alex Blaze | August 23, 2007 6:18 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: Evan Wolfson, Hawaii, marriage

I can't believe I've been sitting on this one for a week. This is from Evan Wolfson in an interview he did with David Mixner on the Democratic frontrunners' position on same-sex marriage:

Marriage is the tug, and when gay people undercut that tug, it doesn't help our cause, or the candidates either. Those who are giving early support to particular candidates may have good reasons for doing so, but when we too quickly say "it's okay" for them not to support full equality (and even fudge what full equality is), it's not helpful. You can't get people to care if you begin by saying "I don't care," as in "I don't care what we call it," etc. And if we drop down, if we fail to do the heavy lifting (particularly at this very early stage of an unusually long presidential cycle), we do the candidates, our cause, couples, kids, and the country the disservice of not creating the space in which America (and its politicians) can rise to fairness.

There ya go folks! Don't support a candidate right now who you might like on other issues (what other issues?), because you're doing a disservice to the gays.

What is actually doing our movement harm, though, is the idea that there's only one issue and it's front and center and everything else that could benefit our community is on the back-burner until that one gets decided. Some queer people don't think that same-sex marriage is the number one priority, that there are LGBTQ issues like universal health care, elder care, queer homelessness, employment discrimination, and others that need to be worked on now. Maybe Edwards doesn't support marriage, but a queer might like his health care plan and the fact that he spoke passionately about LGBT homeless youth, and how is that hurting the community to think that? If Hillary suddenly supported same-sex marriage, would a random queer be hurting us all if he or she still supported Edwards?

I wouldn't mind this sort of top-down queer identity politics if it weren't for the fact that I know that when it comes to other policies that could improve the lives of queers, these sorts of activists would never support such a lock-step mentality. Please, prove me wrong on that one.

Of course, some would argue that the marriage movement, started in large part by Wolfson himself in Hawaii, already has drained funding and resources away from other activist issues, not to mention thrown anti-marriage or non-marriage-centric queers in the same heap with the Religious Right and helped support a narrative that divides gays into two categories: the "good" ones in long-term, monogamous conjugal relationships and the "bad" ones who hook-up, who enjoy semi-public sex venues (ie bathhouses), or who don't see the birth-school-work-marriage-children-death life arc as something they want to participate in. Groups that take on the mantle of LGBTQ advocacy, that speak from a position of power because they claim to represent our interests, bypass debate on these issues because they don't need community-wide support anymore, just money (which may come from broad support, but that support is definitely not absolute or intrinsic and it doesn't render the process democratic).

In that context, it reeks of entitlement to say that anyone who disagrees with that system of power is somehow "doing a disservice" to queers in general.


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Wolfson is, once again, right on target. Perhaps you miss the big picture. The primary objective of marriage is to give the gay community some type of direction in life that is in tune with the rest of society. It will thrust us into society which will eventually grant us greater acceptance. It is time for the gay community to evolve and this is the next step. "Good" gays can no longer wait around for the "bad" gays to grow up. We talk about injustice and how horribly discriminated we are, but we fail to look at the atrocities within our own community. We don't like to look in the mirror and take responsibility. There is no doubt that we have faced discrimination in our lives, but that does not mean we cannot become active participants in society and overcome the hand that has been dealt. For instance, AIDS has destroyed our community for the past 25 years, yet no gay leader is willing condemn the community for its actions. Instead we become complacent and accept AIDS. How immature is that? Therefore my position is that we push forward with marriage while we clean up the internal issues within the gay community. Hopefully then everything will fall into place.

Leland Frances | August 23, 2007 9:06 PM

Not that you have any reason to care, but I agree with almost everything you say—and this interview with Wolfson depressed the hell out of me.

He has admirably worked extremely hard most of his adult life for causes he believed in, though, at first glance, it would seem that he missed the mark more often than he hit it, e.g., "Boy Scouts of America v. Dale."

Viktor Frankl once said something like, "What is to give light must endure the burning.” This interview, particularly the quote above, is evidence that Wolfson has gone from crusader to the consumed. From a brilliant man with ideas and ideals to a blind ideologue swinging his sword wildly in the direction of disagreeing sounds.

His continued recklessness with language is irresponsible. He might think of his declaration that federal DOMA created two classes of marriage as rhetorically justified, but, in fact, it didn't create ANY marriages at all. And reinforcing that popular misconception among hoi polloi only adds to the "all or nothing," mind set that could doom us in November 2008. We repeat for the umpteenth time and will repeat again, "Only 537 certified votes in Florida changed History."

Further, that he respun such nonsense to Mixner in one breath, panting about all the 1000+ benefits unavailable to us, and then, in the next breath, admits that all the Dem candidates support, nay, are eager for us to have them through the repeal of federal DOMA, Section 3, is to suggest that he was on some kind of autopilot unable to separate the political climate of four years ago with today.

I agree that we must not stop until we have equal civil access, for those who want it, to the word "marriage." But I also believe there is nothing morally wrong with taking a politically practical temporary break during that journey.

However, for Wolfson to insist that it has any more than symbolic meaning [however important and ultimately nonnegotiable] when rights and benefits under other names are so much closer to our grasp is disingenuous at best.

As for 2004 and his fevered insistence that hostility to "gay marriage" had nothing to do with George Bush fils getting reelected as he throws yet again the mountains of "evidence" to the contrary at us, we remain unpersuaded. I have started to read such analyses repeatedly only to quickly tire of their overcooked stew of variables, conjecture, and fantasy. I always return to the same place:

1. most of the chefs in this kitchen could be said to be motivated by the desire to prove that they did not fail at their jobs, for which we have been sending their organizations millions of dollars for decades. To mix my metaphors further, if they can convince people the bridge did not fall down then they, the would-be bridge builders, can't be held accountable.

2. alas, despite all their statistics and parsing and, "here, stand on your head so you can see it the way we want you to," the simplest truth about 2004 specifically, what has happened since, and the state of American voters'/legislators' position on marriage equality regardless of what rosy opinion polls allegedly show is found in the simplest facts:

2a. George Bush was reelected and that was a disaster for America and the world at large and gays particulary. Five words: Iraq, John Roberts, Samuel Alito.

2b. 12 states passed constitutional amendments banning gay marriage and/or civil unions, etc. [counting Louisiana which passed theirs before the November Presidential election]. I'm uncertain what planet[s] Wolfson et al., believe these voters descended from to polling places in Ohio, Michigan, Oregon, etc., but I'm sure he has graphs and pie charts and maybe a special Magic 8 Ball to prove that earthling Americans still luv the gays.

2c. Since Wolfson first wrote about gay marriage 24 years ago, 46 of 50 states have banned legal recognition of same gender relationships in some way. In some places, such as Michigan, we did not just not gain ground but lost ground previously achieved. All the failures by our national and local organizations to educate the American public, or at least neutralize the propaganda of the antigay industry have brought us to this place.

With leaders like this, to paraphrase the classic statement associated with the Pyhrric War:

"Another such victory over the Right Wing and we are undone."

Don Sherfick | August 23, 2007 10:08 PM

Maybe I'm overlooking something, but I've read and re-read the Wolfson quote and don't see anything that sets marriage above other issues. (Given his focus on that area he likely would give marriage equality that nod, but not in that quote, I don't think.)

What I saw was his dealing wholly WITHIN the marriage versus civil unions issue, and he said folks who say they will settle for something less than marriage hurt the overall movement. I have my own thoughts on that which I will likely touch upon in a later post of my own.

I can see pros and cons to your commentary oncerning GLBTQ issue priorities, and whether or not any one person should be saying that disagreeing with his or her partiular view hurts the movement in general. I just don't see the matter of issue priorities as having a basis in the quote presented.

Ellen Andersen | August 23, 2007 10:12 PM

Wow. I'm a "good" gay (married, monogamous, child-raising, home-owning, and all that jazz) and I'm a strong advocate of marriage equality, but I think Alex is quite right to call out Wolfson and dstavro has got a very blinkered view of our community and its virtues. AIDS has had an outsized impact on the gay male community in the United States, but gay activists have played a heroic role in fighting the epidemic. Gay activists started health clinics to treat HIV-positive individuals -- and at the start these clinics were generally the only places many HIV positive folks could find doctors willing to treat them. Gay activists started condom distribution programs. Gay activists pressured the FDA to change its testing procedures and begin releasing drugs on a more expedited basis. Gay activists successfully pressured Congress to include HIV/AIDS under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The gays, to use Alex's phrasing, have exerted a hell of lot of leadership in fighting HIV/AIDS.

In fact, what Wolfson's comments most remind me of is the rhetoric around AIDS activism 15-20 years ago: if AIDS wasn't your top political priority, you were harming the community. It reeked of entitlement then; it does now.

Eric Georgantes | August 24, 2007 12:44 AM

Can someone explain the problem to me? I'm reading it the same way Don appears to be; that is specifically about marriage and those willing to settle for civil unions. And I can't say I'll begrudge Wolfson the argument that lack of unamity hurts the "Nothing less than marriage" people.

Of course, for some people, there are more pressing issues. They could give up marriage in the short term for, say, ending discrimination in housing, and that is more pressing for them. I suppose that might be an example of something that Prof. Andersen was talking about when mentioning how Wolfson's stance "reeked of entitlement."

Anyway... on personal note, I purchased Why Marriage Matters earlier this week. I'm currently reading Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, and then going to read something else out of the backlog (either The Tragedy of Julius Caesar - I feel like I have to after watching HBO's Rome before school started (and I'm disappointed I didn't see Professor Andersen in her office when I went upstairs in Cava-however-you-spell-it today) - or maybe Norwegian Wood). Anyway, rambling now, so, has anyone else read it? What did you think?

Don Sherfick | August 24, 2007 7:31 AM

Certainly a lot of heat and somewhat less light has been generated by Alex's initial post, and since it seems to have provoked a somewhat longer and wordier string of comments as is typical, I think it shows a nerve has been touched. Still, since at least Eric seems to be scratching his head, too, I continue to be puzzled over how the content's of Wolfson's matchhead sparked this particular fire.

I've said it before (tho' perhaps not here): Assimilation is not acceptance. It's like that joke in Joseph Heller's book "Good as Gold": "If you ever forget you're a Jew, a Gentile will remind you." The same goes for queers-- even if you pair up in monogamous sets of two, adopt the required 3.2 children, live in a subdivision in Carmel (or the like), you will still be queer and no one will ever forget it or let you forget it (as if you could).


One of the scary things about heterosexuals is that so many of them march off to get married, have kids, etc and never question it-- until it's too late. They're 30-something, have the house, have the kids and still have that nagging feeling that there's something missing. I know this is a stereotype but it's too often true. And look at their divorce rates: 50% of their marriages fail. Any other institution with that kind of failure rate would be seriously re-examined if not dismantled. The solution-- for all of us, including str8's-- is to do away with heterosexual privalege. In the meantime, as Alex said, we need to be focused on other issues which benefit us all.

Eric Georgantes | August 25, 2007 12:53 AM

I'm not sure I agree. The 50% failure rate is problematic, yes, but marriage does have tangible benefits for the 50% of marriages where it does work, and the legal and social benefits are worth keeping.

I've never understood the "anti-assimilationist" argument. I understand gay culture to simply be a subset of the larger culture, not something completely outside and separate from it. I don't see it as being assimilationist to want to celebrate a relationship with someone. I don't see it as being assimilationist to want to have equal access to marital rights. It's just not something that makes sense to me.

Can you explain what the problem is?

Michael Crawford Michael Crawford | August 25, 2007 9:16 AM

I don't see anything in Evan's quote that suggests that he thinks marriage is the most pressing issue for LGBT people and that anyone who does not believe this is hurting the movement. I have seen Evan speak and have met him a few times and I find it hard to believe that anything like that would come out of his mouth.

He is one of the warmest, smartest and most compassionate people working for LGBT civil rights. He was clearly speaking within the context of marriage versus civil unions and he is right. We should continue to press for marriage equality and not just settle for civil unions.

Its also important to note that the fight for marriage equality preceded Evan's amazing work. It wasn't something cooked up by lawyers at the national groups. It was something that same-sex couples decided that they wanted and that they were willing to fight for.

Its important to realize and accept that different issues are going to be considered the most important issues for different groups within the LGBT community and that the issues considered most important may shift over time and as the political context changes. The movement is going to be fought on multiple fronts at the same time by multiple groups/activists using different tactics and no one has a patent on what is going to be most effective.

OK, I took the whole day off yesterday from this site, so like wow. There are a lot of good comments here. Cool, I'll respond to some:

Eric, Michael, Don on me not explaining myself well~

A couple red flags went up when I was reading this, and I can see from the other comments that I wasn't alone in this. The first was when he specifically labeled the legitimate political opinions of other gay people as a disservice to queers. From him:

we do the candidates, our cause, couples, kids, and the country the disservice[...]

What is that disservice? Everyone not being on the same page on marriage. That's pretty directly what he's saying there.

Taken in the context of current politics, he's not just talking marriage vs. civil unions, since there's no such dichotomy in politics. He's talking about the tug, so imagine that next week Hillary decides that she's totally going to be like Gravel and Kucinich on marriage. Someone still supports Edwards b/c he has a better health care plan than Hillary's. In that context, that person will have to overlook/accept Edwards's civil unions position, so, as Wolfson says:

Those who are giving early support to particular candidates may have good reasons for doing so, but when we too quickly say "it's okay" for them not to support full equality (and even fudge what full equality is), it's not helpful.

Person X mentioned above is saying "it's okay" for a candidate not to support "full equality" (by Wolfson's definition), and is therefore, not being "helpful".

Last, and the biggest one, is this quotation:

when gay people undercut that tug, it doesn't help our cause

He specifically picks out gay people, not straight people, not marriage advocates, not anyone else. That's a total identity politics move, which as I say above isn't, IMO, a totally bad thing all the time. But where's the reciprocity on other issues here? Would he accept that there are other positions that a queer who doesn't support is doing a disservice to the queers? As Leland notes above, what about those who think that civil unions are a good intermediary step? Why not, instead of saying that their politics is hurting the community, just disagree and refute them?

I mean, this is pretty much the same power/silencing rhetorical move (on a smaller scale) that the Bush admin pulls all the time saying that if anyone disagrees with their war policy it's hurting the troops and encouraging al Qaeda. Instead, it's anyone who disagrees with him and supports civil unions as a good intermediary, or anything other than marriage, marriage, marriage, is hurting "our cause, couples, kids, and the country."

And can I say that any person who doesn't support Edwards's health care plan but Hillary's instead is simply "undercutting the tug" and doing a "disservice" to the queers who need health care, nay, all the queers as a community, without even engaging their argument? Well, I suppose I could, but I wouldn't think that was cool. But without any sort of reciprocity, no matter what the issue, it is political entitlement.

Eric on anti-assimilationism~

I'd be happy to explain it.

First, there are lots of different philosophies that could be classified as "anti-assimilationist", and my brand of that term is going to be different from Mattilda's, which is different from someone else's, etc.

I see anti-assimilationsism as simply being that I don't base my politics on queer issues or any issue for that matter on the idea that we should be trying to do what straights are doing, no matter how fucked up it is. Instead, we should be focusing on what's best for us. For example, someone like the person who wrote comment #1 on this thread would think that the best way for gay men to overcome AIDS is not with safer sex education, not with discussions of negotiated sexual risk, and not by fighting homophobia and sexophobia that leads to practices like barebacking with strangers, but instead to impose on gay men the same sort of heteropatriarchal sexual and gender norms that straight couples and people live by. In this example, we "grow up" and start pressuring each other to live as monogamous couples with the same partner all our lives, meanwhile about 95% of queer people would (just like straight people currently do) violate those "rules" with premarital and extramarital sex, all the while they get swept under the rug and HIV infections increase. I don't think that anyone in their right minds would advocate a system for fighting STI's like the dominant culture uses, but then again, someone wrote comment #1, and it's not an uncommon idea.

It's like Gabriel Rotello wrote in Sexual Ecology about how marriage would be good for gays because it would create the same sort of dynamic that it has for the straights: that those who are married are somehow better than everyone else, and everyone will want to be like them, and then they'd be monogamous and HIV would end. Forget the fact, of course, that HIV is rising quickly among straight women and internationally affects mostly straight people, Rotello does say:

Marriage would provide status to those who married and implicitly penalize those who did not.

And he thinks that's a good thing. Andrew Sullivan and others have made similar statements, and it's a pretty widespread belief.

Anti-assimilationism, for me, is not about not celebrating a relationship with someone. There's nothing assimilationist about that. What is assimilationist is saying that someone in a long-term relationship is deserving of the same elevated social status that straight married people receive without questioning it at all. Like why are those benefits for married couples good? Why are those rights necessary? And the big question, for me, why are unmarried people undeserving of those rights and benefits? Straight people married to people with good health care have, as Michael Crawford pointed out in an earlier post, more access to health care. Why should we replicate that system with our people?

And then you hear it in the responses to the religious right. Like when they say that we're all slutty, the response is, "Oh, just a few of us are, and they're just the bad ones who can't control themselves." Which turns around into "Stop embarrassing us! Come on people, get your penises under control so we look good to the Religious Right!" Wouldn't it be better to question insulting people who have sex out of wedlock? But that's why it's assimilationism - it just does what straights do without questioning it.

Michael~

1. I'm sure Evan is a lovely person.

2. I don't see how your "multiple issues" argument works with your point. That's pretty much what I'm saying - there are multiple issues and we can pay attention to some other ones. Marriage was asked about at the HRC/Logo debate 22 times. The #2 issue was DADT with 2 questions. Marriage is getting plenty of play as it is, while other issues languish. Wouldn't the multiplicity argument imply here that someone who supports another candidate have a right to without being labeled as hurting gay couples, individuals, kids, and the country as a whole? Wouldn't saying that "no one has a patent on what is going to be most effective [tactic]" undermine what Wolfon is saying?

3. But even if the push for marriage was started by couples and not lawyers and activists (what's wrong with activists and lawyers starting something? I was only criticizing the current centricity-at-the-expense-of-everything-else of marriage and how its undemocratic, currently, while trying to provide some quals to Wolfson with that statement), it's still the couples. That's about 6-16% of the queers.... why do they seem to control the whole movement? And why are these people not expected to reach out on other issues the same way that the other ~90% is expected to reach out on theirs?

4. Leland takes the position that civil unions right now is the best strategy. I don't necessarily agree, but he obviously has his reasons. Is he hurting our people, our couples, our kids, and the country as a whole by making that comment?

Ellen~
I agree - no issue should be labeled as so important that no one can disagree with someone on its priority.

R. always jokes around with me that I'm probably going to end up a "good" gay in the 'burbs, lol, and that might just be true. But I do hope that if that turns out to be true, that my politics don't suddenly turn into dstavro's.

Don Sherfick Don Sherfick | August 25, 2007 8:19 PM

Wow! Tell us what you REALLY think, Alex! I'm almost afraid to continue blogging on anything having to do with marriage/civil unions, and the fight in Indiana against SJR7, at least until all of the competing issues have been more thoroughly presented and discussed. Just teasing. But I hope I'm not perceived as insentive them.

Seriously, I would very interested in this site devising and then taking a reader poll of some kind asking folks to list in priority order for them their three or four top GLBT issues. By no means, in my view should the marriage issue so pre-empt the field that folks in our community feel they're essentially second class citizens within second class citizenship. Where my partner and I are in our lives right now, both being retired and luckily not having experienced employment discrimination in our federal government careers, our own highest focus is indeed with respect to issues related to marriage: unfair inheritance taxation being the principal one. But we certainly know of folks who are experiencing employment discrimination, have been assaulted or harrassed because of their sexuality, or are impacted by HIV/AIDS. And, in response to one earlier comment, in no way do either of us feel that were if we married, we would be somewhat "better" than those who are not partnered and don't wish to be.

Congratulations Alex and all the commentors... I think this is one of the most interesting threads I've ever read on the site. I just got to this post after a busy week so I got the chance to read all of this in one sitting...

Marriage is NOT my top priority as far as gay rights go. I rank full civil rights - by which I mean employment, housing and public accommodations - is my top choice for activism. I fight against my state's constitutional amendment not because I want marriage but because they are trying to add insult to injury. I'm not going to go out marching for marriage as soon as the amendment fails completely. But I'll be agitating for civil rights the entire time.