Gay Marriage Freedom Fighter: How Anti-Gay Policies Created a Climate for the Orlando Shooting

Evan Wolfson, a lawyer, advocate, and key figure in the fight for marriage equality, shares his thoughts on the infuriating Orlando shooting.”>

When Evan Wolfson first saw reports that there had been yet another shooting this past weekend, he was about to board a flight back home from Australia, where he had spent the week trying to bring his ongoing campaign for marriage equality to that country. Watching the initial images out of Orlando he was disgusted and horrified that once again we were going to go through this. But it wasnt until Wolfson spoke to his husband that he learned where the shooting had occurred: a gay nightclub.

I started reading through the Twitter feed and all the different posts and got more and more heartsick at how awful this was, Wolfson, widely seen as the primary architect of the marriage equality movement, recalled during an interview with The Daily Beast just two days later. And of course once they began telling the stories and showing the pictures of the victims so many of them were so young and so hopeful, and they were gay and non-gay people together, just all these beautiful people who had been killed. It is just heartbreaking, and infuriating.

This was supposed to be a celebratory time for Wolfson. A week from Saturday, the new documentary The Freedom to Marry will have its world premiere at the Castro Theater in San Francisco as part of the Frameline LGBTQ Film Festival. The films title shares its name with the national organization Wolfson founded more than a decade ago. In the story about last years Supreme Court victory for the marriage equality movement, Wolfson emerges as both its hero and its heart.

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As Wolfson recounts, filmmaker Eddie Rosenstein called out of the blue one day and asked if he remembered him. It turns out his parents were old friends of Wolfsons family but the two men had not encountered each other since childhood. This was as we were really in the home stretch of what had obviously been a very, very long campaign, Wolfson says, adding that Rosenstein wanted to capture the ascent to the summit of marriage equality and use that last chapter to look back and tell the story of how they got to this point.

Despite the fact that viewers of the film will know how it ends, there is a still a palpable feeling of suspense that takes hold as the final Supreme Court decision approaches. But for Wolfson the real drama is not so much how we finished the job at the end, but rather how we got to the point where we had transformed the hearts and minds of the country.

The powerful story, the epic transformation, is how we won in the court of public opinion in order to then be able to win in the court of law, Wolfson continues. We felt the momentum, we believed we had gotten there, we saw that our strategy was working and it was clear that we had extraordinary momentum, but you never know for sure. So we were really committed to not taking anything for granted.

Throughout the documentary, various voices in the movement, including attorney and activist Mary Bonauto, who successfully argued the Obergefell v. Hodges case, express fear over the implications of a Supreme Court loss and how far it could set back the movement. Yet Wolfson never let himself embrace those doubts.

I always really did believe we were going to win, and I dont just mean in the last few months, I mean in the 32 years of working for this, he says. So I really believed going into this last stretch that if we had not won in June of 2015, we would have had to just pull ourselves together and keep working the same strategy to keep building that critical mass of states and get back in front of the Supreme Court.

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Still, just as he did throughout his decades-long fight for marriage equality, Wolfson sees hope on the horizon after Orlando, praising the beauty and eloquence of the survivors and allies who have spoken out against homophobia. Ive been so proud of our movement and our community, Wolfson says. And also of how so many people have come to better understand who gay people are and move to our side, in a way that wouldnt have been true five years ago, 10 years ago, 20 years ago.

To highlight this contrast, Wolfson recalls the 1973 arson attack that left 32 people dead at a gay bar in New Orleans. Obviously people condemned the violence, he says of the most comparable incident in American history to what weve seen this week, but there was great disdain and very little support for gay people who had been killed.

While he says we have seen some of that this time around, we have also seen a huge embrace of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and the massive wrong that has been done here.

Updated 11:30 a.m., Thurs., June 16: A previous version of this article identified the filmaker as Andy Rosenstein, and since corrected to Eddie Rosenstein.  We regret the error.

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