Without question, one of the most important civil rights victories in recent decades was the hard-fought right for marriage equality. Yet the major forces behind this remarkable victory are not quite the household names that key players in similar civil rights struggles are. The documentary The Freedom to Marry may change that, as it depicts with admirable meticulousness the tireless efforts of Freedom to Marry organization founder Evan Wolfson, civil rights attorney Mary Bonauto, and others to win marriage as a universal right.
Wolfson wrote a thesis on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage way back in 1983. In that work he laid out the case and sketched some practical steps for how to achieve marriage equality. To a remarkable degree, his life for the past 30-plus years has followed the ideas and guidelines in that paper, as he steadily created an irresistible movement toward change. As the film reveals, Wolfson is the kind of person who, when denied something, decides that it is not he who has the problem but the world itself is at fault. His mother, briefly interviewed, says that all through his childhood and adolescence she (and family friends who knew him) expected him to become the first Jewish president of the United States. After he came out in his early twenties, his mother notes that she no longer thought he’d be president, but knew he’d be, and do, something important.
To its credit, the film presents viewpoints in staunch opposition to marriage equality, like Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage. He offers the usual arguments—that marriage is a privilege, not a right—with questionable logic and effectiveness. The Freedom to Marry is the stronger and more convincing for allowing such critics the chance to state their views, since sunlight is often the best disinfectant after all, as Bill Maher has recently opined. More visceral anti-gay sentiments are captured as well, as one anti-gay marriage protester compares homosexuality to alcoholism, in terms of being a chosen vice, a moral failing, to the horror of a pro-gay marriage activist.
Bonauto, the longtime GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) attorney, makes quite an impression as something of a latter-day Atticus Finch, channeling the conscience of a nation to appeal to the enlightened reason of the courts to end an arbitrary denial of rights. As the day approaches when she will argue in front of the Supreme Court, we see the enormous pressure she put on herself to deliver the best possible argument, something that she had been building her whole life. After delivering the argument, she makes the insightful point that attorneys always have three arguments—the one you wanted to make, the one you did make, and the one you wish you had made.
Despite this pragmatic view, Bonauto had reason to be supremely confident, as her argument ultimately convinced moderate Justice Anthony Kennedy, widely seen as the deciding swing vote. In one of the best moments, Bonauto listens to a recording of her arguments for the first time. The conservative justices throw everything they have at her (“The opposite view has been the law everywhere for thousands of years!”) in a final, all-out assault on marriage equality. But she had been preparing for this her whole life, and was able to deliver a final argument so clearheaded and broadminded that, after listening to it, she can’t help but beam with pride.
While showing how normal people, not necessarily larger-than-life personalities, are the true engines of change, The Freedom to Marry chronicles an important milestone in human rights, and is a welcome resource for viewers looking for the inside story.