Freedom to Marry’s Evan Wolfson Looks at Those Polls Showing His Side Winning
You probably saw the headlines: Two recent polls indicate support for marriage for same-sex couples continues to rise in every state; reflecting a growing trend towards acceptance of gay and lesbian relationships.
As reported here, a nationwide CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll in August showed that 52 percent of respondents agreed when asked, "Do you think gays and lesbians should have a constitutional right to get married and have their marriage recognized by law as valid?"
That was the first national poll in which a majority of Americans voiced support for equal marriage rights. But it wasn’t the last.
In mid-September, an Associated Press-National Constitution Center poll showed that Americans have grown distrustful of government and both parties. But more and more of them love their gay neighbors, relatives and friends.
The poll found growing sentiment for legal protections for same-sex couples, with a whopping 58 percent saying they should have the same government benefits as married heterosexuals. Nearly as many backed federal recognition of gay marriage.
After the heartbreaking defeat of the passage of Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in California in 2008, and then the defeat of gay marriage in a Maine plebiscite, this would seem like very good news.
Evan Wolfson voices a note of caution, however--even though he himself is quite pleased with the polls. And he should know: Wolfson has been on the front lines of this issue at least as long, if not longer than anyone.
Wolfson founded and directs the Freedom to Marry, a New York-based nonprofit dedicated to legalization of same-sex marriage. He wrote the highly influential book Why Marriage Matters; America, Equality, and Gay People’s Right to Marry. And Time Magazine named him among the 100 Most Influential People in the World.
Wolfson worked on the early, seminal cases that brought gay unions to the fore, in Hawaii and Vermont. He argued the famous case against the Boy Scouts of America for their anti-gay stance in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.
EDGE spoke to Wolfson about the survey results, what they mean, what they portend, and what we (and our politicians) should all be doing about it.
EDGE: So what just happened? How’d we seemingly so suddenly get majority support from fellow Americans?
Evan Wolfson: Maine happened last year and this is this year. More important than any one poll--which is a ’snapshot’ which is how people respond at any one time--is the ’movie’: building the momentum.
The movie shows that, as we engage more and more people in conversation about why marriage matters, opposition declines. These two polls demonstrate that we’ve crossed another important threshold, but have to solidify our position in one-on-one conversations.
EDGE: I see. You advise caution. But still, those numbers are pretty cool.
E.W.: No one should overstate the comfort that being in the majority gives us. We have to turn this into action. But nevertheless, yes, it is an important milestone. It shows Americans have moved, can move, and we can get them to move.
EDGE: Break down the numbers a little.
E.W.: The polls show support in every demographic and community but progress everywhere. That shows how much more we can do.
There was movement even among the parts of the population disproportionately opposed: among self-identified Evangelicals, Republicans. Obviously, in other parts of the population--Democrats, women--there’s more support.
It’s not evenly spread--but it never is. The real issue is not an even spread but that are we are moving people.
EDGE: Recently, some national Republicans have come out on our side: Laura Bush; Cindy and, of course, Meghan McCain (wife and daughter of ’08 presidential candidate John); Dick Cheney. Could they be helping push the needle in the Red States?
E.W.: Some people may have ’come out,’ but I suspect they secretly supported us before. Others have genuinely moved. Laura Bush might have been supportive before; we don’t know. Many have gone on this journey. You hear stories from real people--real stories. I think a lot have changed their views, like Bill Clinton. Even among Republicans and Evangelicals, the fair-minded are moving.
EDGE: Some observers have remarked that some people with prejudices don’t like to admit them to a pollster, and that skews such surveys to the minority in question.
E.W.: Experts who have analyzed these two polls didn’t see much evidence of that. What’s more true is that people who don’t know in the crunch don’t go with us. Those who support us do stick with us. It’s not any one poll that tells all you need to know, but polling over time. Two polls separately asking different wording definitely shows us crossing a threshold.
That does tell you something. We can now say a majority favors the freedom to marry.
EDGE; Why else are these polls important?
E.W.: When public opinion swings in our direction, it influences decision makers--judges and lawmakers. It makes more states reachable for victory.
The more people remember they have more pressing issues than trying to undermine the family across the street, the more people move toward accepting this.