The Freedom to Marry

Two women wishing to marry each other face a daunting obstacle.

Two women wishing to marry each other face a daunting obstacle.

(2016) Documentary (Argot) Evan Wolfson, Mary Bonauto, Marc Solomon, Thalia Zepatos, Jayne Rowse, April DeBoer, Brian Brown, Janice Shaw Crouse, Barbara Rosenstein, Joan Wolfson, Sondie Rieff, Dr. Jerry Wolfson, Carole Stamyar, Matt Foreman, Garry Buseck, Ward Curtin, Tim Gill, Kate Kendell. Directed by Eddie Rosenstein

 

There is no doubt that one of the most important court cases of our time resulted in the overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act in 2015. By a 5-4 margin, the Supreme Court invalidated the laws of 13 states that made same-sex marriage illegal. Gay men and lesbians from that day forward had the same freedom to marry whomever they wished as their straight counterparts.

Getting to that point however was no easy task. Evan Wolfson, a Harvard-educated lawyer, started crusading for this freedom starting back in 1983. He had co-founded Freedom to Marry along with Marc Solomon who was a seasoned campaign director. Together, the men started a grassroots organization charged with changing America’s mind. Back then, Americans were overwhelmingly in favor of traditional marriages as being the only recognized ones. Nonetheless, Wolfson and Solomon, along with a handful of volunteers, felt that they needed to fight so that same sex couples got the same rights and privileges as straight couples got, including the right to inherit, the right to make medical decisions for an incapacitated partner and the right to adopt and raise children.

Mary Bonauto felt very much the same way Wolfson and Solomon do. A lawyer working for GLAD, a gay and lesbian organization along the same lines as the NAACP, Bonauto had been waging a battle to represent same sex couples get their unions legally recognized for decades. It was often frustrating heart-wrenching work as again and again gay rights lawyers like Bonauto and Wolfson were denied justice.

The passing of California’s heinous Proposition 8 was particularly galling. Wolfson in particular was devastated but as he began the postmortem of why the initiative had passed he came to a realization that most straight people saw gays as hedonistic deviants who didn’t marry for love but because they wanted the health care benefits of their “spouse.” He realized that the task was not necessarily to ramrod an unpopular law through but to turn the tide of public opinion and make them see LGBTQs as just like everyone else. In short, he needed their stories to be told.

What they accomplished was nothing short of miraculous. Starting with polls and focus groups, they began recruiting operatives – LGBTQ couples and their parents – to begin talking openly about their hopes and dreams, about the love they share for their partner and about their concerns for their children. In almost no time at all, public opinion began to shift. State laws began to change.

Wolfson felt the time was right to go for broke – a ruling from the Supreme Court itself that would once and for all make same-sex marriage legal throughout the land. Freedom to Marry and other advocacy groups chose four lawsuits that had made their way through the courts to challenge the Defense of Marriage Act as well as Proposition 8. One of those cases was committed couple Jayne Rowse and April DeBoer from Michigan.

Rowse and DeBoer are both medical care professionals who had a longstanding relationship. They had adopted four special needs children but they realized that due to Michigan’s laws, they could not adopt as a couple because they were lesbians; they had to adopt two of the children individually. Therefore if something happened to one of them, their adopted children would not stay automatically with the other partner but would be taken away and placed in a foster care home. To both these ladies this simply could not stand and they brought suit against the State of Michigan which went all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court where once again they were unsuccessful. This paved the way for history.

Rosenstein follows the triumvirate of Wolfson, Solomon and Bonauto in the months leading up to the landmark decision. Bonauto had been legal counsel on the Rowse-DeBoer lawsuit and was a welcome addition to the team that would be presenting arguments in front of the United States Supreme Court. Bonauto, who had never done so before, was understandably nervous. Rosenstein gives us background on all three of these major players (and to a lesser degree to the plaintiffs De Boer and Rowse, the only plaintiffs profiled at any length in the film) going back to childhood.

Some of the material, particularly when they’re discussing things like Amicus Briefs and legal strategies, is a bit dry. Bone-dry, as a matter of fact but don’t let that put you off; this is a film that even though you know how the decision is going to turn out still manages to build a certain amount of suspense and tension. The relief is absolutely cathartic and I was taken back to when I heard about the decision just a couple of years ago and the euphoria I felt. Finally, my gay friends had the same freedoms and privileges that my wife and I had and I couldn’t have been happier for them.

Rosenstein does present some opposing viewpoints – that of Bryan Brown and Janice Shaw Crouse – as well as protesters from the right including people who appear to be part of the Westboro Baptist Church. Brown sounds relatively reasoned at times but both he and Crouse come off as intolerant bigots whose Christian justification has more to do with fear than love. Evangelical Christianity does not come off well in this documentary and some might find that hurtful.

However, perhaps if more Christians stood up for love (and many do) rather than exclusion, perhaps they might not be judged so harshly. Certainly the anti-gay protesters will be on the wrong side of history when all is said and done. Regardless, this is a documentary that shows an amazing journey of how a relatively small activist group won the hearts and minds of the American people against all odds and helped make history in a positive way. To my mind this is an important and potentially Oscar-worthy documentary although having a relatively unknown distributor might work against it in that sense but were this being distributed by an outfit with more clout there would be no question that it would be getting consideration further down the line.

REASONS TO GO: A behind-the-scenes chronicle of one of the most important court cases of our time. Even though the outcome is well-known still manages to make an uplifting ending. Fast-paced editing keeps the audience’s interest. Evan Wolfson is a genuine hero.
REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes the subject matter can be a little dry.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult thematic content as well as some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Following their success making same sex marriage legal all over the land, Freedom to Marry shut its doors in December 2015 and Wolfson continues to consult for LGBTQ activist organizations.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Case Against 8
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Take My Nose…Please

CORRECTIONS: Marc Solomon was originally described as “an expert fundraiser” which should have read “seasoned campaign director.” Also, Mary Bonauto was a lawyer for GLAD, not GLAAD. The former was an error on the part of the reviewer, the latter a typo. Cinema365 regrets any confusion that may have been caused by our errors.

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