When it first came together, the documentary “The Freedom to Marry” probably looked like something of a victory lap. A chance to celebrate the individuals whose decades of work on the fight for marriage equality led to the 2015 Supreme Court ruling making it legal for gay people to marry in all 50 states.
All that is still true today, but something else is as well. In a political climate in which all things progressive are at risk, the film is a reminder of the long and difficult work that victory took, as well as a notification that no triumph can be taken for granted.
Directed by Eddie Rosenstein, “The Freedom to Marry” is hardly the first documentary to deal with that ongoing battle. Especially memorable was “The Case Against 8,” the detailed story of the intense legal maneuvering surrounding the Supreme Court’s earlier 2013 ruling against Proposition 8, the California ballot initiative that said only marriage between a man and a woman would be recognized in the state.
Though Rosenstein spends much of the film on the months leading up to and following the oral arguments on the landmark 2015 court decision, “The Freedom to Marry” is not as focused as “The Case Against 8” is on one specific case.
Rather, because director Rosenstein (whose previous work includes producing the Klezmer doc “A Tickle in the Heart”) was a childhood acquaintance of this film’s protagonist, “Freedom to Marry” focuses on the trajectory of his career.
That subject would be Evan Wolfson, founder and president of the advocacy group Freedom to Marry and a man who could truthfully say that “for 32 years I spent the most part of most days” driving the national narrative on that issue.
Though the documentary could do without encomiums from Wolfson’s parents about what a brilliant child he was, it is clear as an adult he was smart, dynamic and far-seeing about this matter in a way few others were.
Wolfson wrote his 1983 third-year Harvard Law thesis paper on gay marriage at a time when almost no one outside (or even inside) the gay community thought this was a viable idea.
But Wolfson, himself gay, understood that “by claiming this vocabulary of marriage,” the gay community would be “creating an engine of transformation that would help change non-gay people’s understanding” of their lives.
Before Wolfson’s vision became reality, several cultural changes took place. First came AIDS, which, he says, “shattered the silence of gay people’s lives. The movement went from being about being left alone – don’t harass me – to a movement about being let in.”
After Wolfson and his legal partner, Dan Foley, had unexpected success in 1993 with gay marriage in Hawaii, he formed a strong professional relationship with Mary Bonauto, a civil rights attorney from GLAD (Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders.)
Jumping forward to 2015, it was Bonauto who ended up handling oral arguments when the gay marriage case went to the Supreme Court. “The Freedom to Marry” also spends time with the marriage plaintiffs April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse, terrified by the notion the foster kids they were parenting could be taken away from their family if they could not legally adopt them.
Whenever we see Wolfson, he is strategizing about his issue, and his ideas are a key part of why the American political landscape went from zero states allowing gay marriage to 37 a decade later.
When the Supreme Court decided in favor of marriage, then-President Barack Obama called it “justice that arrives like a thunderbolt.” But Wolfson saw it slightly differently.
“That,” he says with a sigh, “only took 32 years.”