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A push to codify same-sex marriage advances in Congress amid record public support

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Here are two contrasting images of what being queer in America can look like right now. In Colorado, five people were killed during a shooting at an LGBTQ nightclub. And in Washington, a strong bipartisan majority of senators voted to protect same-sex marriage. The latter is especially remarkable considering that just over a decade ago, even high-profile Democrats were hesitant.

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BARACK OBAMA: I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman. Now, for me as a Christian...

SHAPIRO: By his second run for office in 2012, former President Barack Obama evolved on that issue. And today, most Republicans, many religious groups and more than 70% of Americans support same-sex marriage. Evan Wolfson has been at the forefront of this battle for decades. He founded the group Freedom to Marry, and he's one of the architects of the Respect for Marriage Act, which the Senate is set to advance when it reconvenes next week. Evan, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

EVAN WOLFSON: Good to be with you.

SHAPIRO: You've spent about 40 years pushing for same-sex marriage. So take us back to the early '80s, when you first started to argue that gay people should be allowed to marry. How did people respond to you in those days?

WOLFSON: Well, most people, even people within the movement, thought it was at best going to be a long, long slog and very, very difficult. And many of them thought it was not worth the fight and possibly impossible. So - and they weren't crazy to think that either. When I wrote my Harvard Law School thesis arguing that we should fight for the freedom to marry, despite having lost it a decade earlier, we were at only 11% support. We were dealing with the Reagan administration's assault on gay people. And we were dealing with the cataclysm of AIDS. So we've come a very, very long way over this period.

SHAPIRO: So today, there's bipartisan support for the Respect of Marriage Act (ph), which would officially repeal the discriminatory law known as DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act, which the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional, thanks in part to your work. How does it feel to see same-sex marriage support from Congress, religious groups, a huge swath of the American people within the span of time that you've been fighting for it?

WOLFSON: Well, it really does show that when you persuade, when you work, when you organize, when you stick with it, and when you remain hopeful, you can change things. And people can do better - even people who were dead-set opposed, like Republicans, like people over 65. We've been able to move the American people because we made this case, and we didn't give up. It feels very, very gratifying, though, to see Congress admit that it made a mistake, to take this dreadful law off the books - the so-called Defense of Marriage Act - and to replace it with the Respect for Marriage Act, a name I came up with, by the way, 10 years or so ago when we wrote the bill. And when we wrote this bill, we didn't really think we were going to pass it. We were writing it as an organizing tool in furtherance of our strategy to win in the Supreme Court. But, of course, we did win in the Supreme Court, and that helped set the stage for where we are today.

SHAPIRO: You say the shift in opinion was because we made this case and didn't give up. There are a lot of issues where people make the case and don't give up and don't see the kinds of dramatic public opinion shifts that we've seen on this issue. I mean, just to put specific numbers on it, 10 years ago, about 30% of Republicans supported same-sex marriage. Today, a majority of Republicans support it, more than 70% of the American public does. Beyond just making the case and not giving up, what do you think is behind that drastic shift?

WOLFSON: Well, part of it is that there really was never a good reason to exclude same-sex couples from the freedom to marry. And this is part of what we had to help people realize they believed. People hadn't given it a lot of thought. We engaged the - you know, the chief engine of change is conversation. And we prompted millions of conversations with people to help them start talking about something they hadn't thought about or that they had just sort of shut down on and to connect with their real values of love and commitment and fairness and family and freedom and to apply those to people they hadn't really understood before - gay people, trans people, people in same-sex relationships. And as we engaged those conversations and, of course, did the lobbying, the litigation, the battling, the organizing that accompanies conversation, we were able to move a vast majority of the American people, as you pointed out.

SHAPIRO: How do you reconcile the incredible progress that we've seen on marriage with the fact that the last year brought a record number of anti-trans bills in state legislatures, the Colorado Springs shooting, so many ways in which queer people are under assault in many parts of this country, even as support for marriage grows and grows?

WOLFSON: Yeah. Well, the ugliness and the assaults and the work that's still to be done that you're pointing to aren't so much, in my view, a product of the idea that the American people haven't moved on gay and even trans people. It's more that our politics does not fully reflect where the majority of the American people are...

SHAPIRO: Except our federal politics in Congress is - I mean, as we've said, more than 10 Republican senators voted to support same-sex marriage.

WOLFSON: Well, that's true. But that isn't reflected in some of the state legislatures. It's not reflected in many of the places where we've seen gerrymandering and skewing, deepening red isolated pockets of people who don't take part in mainstream discourse, et cetera. And that's why persuasion is not enough, even though it's an essential element. It's why you also need political engagement. And we were able to ramp up and do both, and that's how we were able to make the progress. But that's why we need to keep doing the work. We need political engagement not just at the federal level, but in the states.

SHAPIRO: You've fought for same-sex marriage rights your entire adult life. And so you know there's been this long-running argument within the queer community about priorities. In many states, people can still be fired for being gay. Trans women of color are being killed at alarming rates. So what do you say to people who argue marriage is nice for those who want it, but we should be prioritizing more urgent matters of life and death?

WOLFSON: What I would say is that the work to win marriage and successful transformation of hearts and minds that we achieved now have to be harnessed to the ongoing work that absolutely remains ahead of us. It's not an either/or. We want and deserve it all, and we can get there.

SHAPIRO: If and when Congress passes this law that you first introduced not even imagining that it would pass, something like a decade ago, does that end your fight?

WOLFSON: Oh, absolutely not. The work is never done. We have so much more to do, not only for gay and trans people, but for strengthening and reinvigorating our democracy. And we have a lot to do in this country to get it where it needs to be.

SHAPIRO: That's attorney and activist Evan Wolfson, who founded and led the advocacy group Freedom to Marry. Thank you very much.

WOLFSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.