The battle for marriage equality for LGBT people in the United States was won in 2015 with the Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, but the fight for gay rights is far from over, according to Squirrel Hill native Evan Wolfson, the founder of the Freedom to Marry Campaign that helped win marriage rights nationwide.
Wolfson, who lives in New York City, returned to his hometown last week to speak at Temple Emanuel of South Hills on “Making More Progress for Gay & Transgender People in our Community, Pennsylvania, the U.S. and the World: What Can We Do?” The event was presented on Feb. 7 by Temple Emanuel’s LGBTQ+ Task Force.
Wolfson, an internationally recognized civil rights lawyer and the author of “Why Marriage Matters: America, Equality, and Gay People’s Right to Marry” (Simon & Schuster, July 2004), spoke to the Chronicle prior to the event, explaining that although LGBT people have won the freedom to marry as a matter of law, “and more than a million gay people have gotten married in the United States, the marriage conversation is not over.”
“It’s not something you win and then you put it on a shelf and move to the next thing,” said Wolfson, who now teaches courses related to social change at both Georgetown Law School and Yale. “The marriage conversation remains an important engine of transformation, an important way of building more visibility, more empathy, more connection, more acceptance, and so we need to continue that conversation, and then harness it to the other important work still in front of us.”
That work, he said, includes not only safeguarding marriage equality, but continuing to fight against the discrimination and exclusion of gay and transgender people.
Those fights must not be limited to marriage and family rights, Wolfson said, but should extend to standing up against discrimination in “employment, in housing, in places of public accommodation — which are basically opportunities to participate in businesses or services or even bathrooms.”
Ultimately, he said, LGBT people “don’t just want good laws, we want good lives,” which moves the work beyond the legal and the political, and into the social.
“It’s about making sure that young people, no matter where they are growing up, don’t feel isolated, don’t feel fearful, but are actually able to dream big of participating fully in society,” he said. “And we want older people to be safe and secure, not to have to be forced into the closet again in order to find a facility where they can live or get needed medical care. It’s really about continuing to grow the acceptance and happiness of all people throughout the country, and indeed, of course, throughout the world.”
Wolfson’s Freedom to Marry campaign shut down in 2016 following its landmark victory. Since then, Wolfson has been assisting other progressive organizations and causes in the U.S. and abroad, “taking the lessons and elements of success from our campaign and adapting them to the other important battles,” he said.
Those battles include working on behalf of the LGBT community for non-discrimination laws “and working to prevent the impact from the Trump/Pence administration aiming at rolling some of them back.”
Wolfson has also provided guidance to groups advocating for gun control, immigration, women’s rights, health care and the environment in the U.S., he said, as well as organizations in other parts of the world seeking the freedom to marry.
Although those causes are important to him, he said, it is even more important for him and others to “work to get our country back on track.”
“It’s not just that there are so many communities and values under assault that we have to stand up for, but we also need to work to restore our democracy and reinvigorate our politics and our commitment to government for the good, and get rid of this atrocious treacherous Trump/Pence regime and the politicians who have enabled it,” he said. “So there is a huge amount of work to do, and I have to do that as a gay person, but I also have to do it just as an American.”
He cited the current administration’s issuance of “executive orders to undermine non-discrimination protections that have existed in the federal government” as one attempt to rollback rights.
“They have moved to discriminate and even exclude the transgender people who are bravely serving our country in the armed forces,” Wolfson said. “They have sought to engineer so-called religious exemptions to legal protections wherever they can to allow, for example, adoption agencies to discriminate not only against gay people, but against Jews. They have appointed judges who have atrocious records on civil rights, on standing up for the little guy and standing up for gay and transgender people. They are committed to trying to tear down the wall between church and state.”
Although our democracy is “under attack,” he said, the saving grace is that “we still have a democracy.”
“Each of us has a vote, each of us has a voice, each of us can join organizations, each of us can do the quiet work of volunteering and persuasion, or the louder work of protesting and door-knocking and writing to our elected officials and lawmakers,” he urged. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at