December 15, 2011 at 2:35 pm EST | by Kevin Naff
Freedom to Marry’s change of heart in Maryland
Evan Wolfson

Evan Wolfson of Freedom to Marry told the Blade that his group declined to join a coalition of marriage equality supporters fighting to pass a bill in Maryland because of concerns about a bill being sent to a voter referendum in 2012. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

As Maryland prepares for another shot at marriage equality when the legislature reconvenes next month, one national marriage advocacy group has bowed out of the fight.

Evan Wolfson of Freedom to Marry told the Blade last week that because of concerns about a marriage bill being sent to a voter referendum in 2012, that his organization declined to join a high-profile and diverse coalition of groups supporting the marriage bill.

“In Maryland, because of the likelihood that marriage legislation can be forced onto the ballot, the key question is not just passing a bill in the legislature, but defending it against an attack campaign via ballot measure,” Wolfson said. “Freedom to Marry has made it clear to members of the coalition and to lawmakers that our goal is to win, not simply to pass a bill, if there is not sufficient groundwork and investment in a campaign to win at the ballot.”

He added, “We have continued to press for clarity and progress on benchmarks for success, and have urged elected officials, national organizations, and advocates on the ground to show the plan, investment, and activities needed now to build public support and succeed at the ballot, not just the legislature,” he told the Blade

Wolfson’s remarks understandably rattled supporters of the bill and members of the Marylanders for Marriage Equality coalition, who were no doubt stunned that a fellow marriage advocate would speak publicly about his doubts. It didn’t take long for the ironically named National Organization for Marriage to pounce on Wolfson’s comments.

NOM has sent at least two emails to supporters touting Wolfson’s concerns. “Evan Wolfson, one of the chief architects of the gay marriage movement, recently shocked the gay community by announcing to a gay newspaper that his group Freedom to Marry was refusing to join a coalition to push gay marriage in Maryland,” NOM wrote. “His reason? Wolfson knows that unlike in New York, any gay marriage bill in Maryland will have to be defended at the ballot box. The people will have a chance to vote, and right now he sees no reasonable chance of victory.”

That Wolfson finds himself a tool of NOM’s anti-gay propaganda is an unexpected twist, but he should have known that any skepticism from arguably the country’s leading expert on marriage equality would be exploited like this.

What’s more troubling than the public nature of the remarks is that if you don’t think you can win marriage equality in Maryland, then you should probably close up shop. Maryland is the nation’s wealthiest state with the most millionaires per capita, so a fundraiser worth his or her salt should be able to scare up the money needed to fund a referendum fight. In addition, Maryland is a solidly blue state with a supportive governor who will introduce the bill. The Senate has already passed the bill. And recent polls show momentum in favor of marriage equality for the state’s gay and lesbian couples. The most recent poll shows 51 percent of state voters support same-sex marriage. Granted, that’s before NOM’s inevitable homophobic ad campaign gets going, but it’s still a good place to start — and better than in other states where Freedom to Marry has been engaged. What is Wolfson’s benchmark for joining the fight? Sixty percent support? You won’t find that number anywhere in the country, so, again, if not Maryland, then where?

And if Freedom to Marry is so skeptical about Maryland’s ability to win this fight, then why does it continue to raise money from state residents? I’ve heard from several Marylanders in the past week outraged after receiving email solicitations for donations to Freedom to Marry just hours after announcing that it won’t join the coalition advocating for the state bill. If you won’t fight with us, then kindly raise money for your group elsewhere.

All of the key players in the Maryland fight have made public assurances that they are working behind the scenes to prepare for a referendum, including the ACLU, which employs a full-time staff member dedicated to this effort. It’s perfectly reasonable for Wolfson and, more importantly, financial donors to a referendum fight, to demand benchmarks and metrics before committing resources. But the only changes from earlier this year, when Freedom to Marry was engaged in the Maryland effort, have been favorable to the cause: Gov. O’Malley’s visibility and support; poll numbers moving in the right direction. So why the sudden change? And is Freedom to Marry applying its benchmarks consistently?

All this attention to the referendum ignores the fact that the legislature still needs to pass a bill. The composition of the legislature hasn’t changed since it failed to pass the measure earlier this year, so passage is not assured. Winning this fight will require all hands on deck. It’s disappointing that Freedom to Marry won’t be on board, but momentum is on the side of justice and equality, so the coalition must carry on and prove Wolfson wrong.

Kevin Naff is the editor and a co-owner of the Washington Blade, the nation’s oldest and most acclaimed LGBT news publication, founded in 1969.

  • I continue to believe these referenda are not being handled correctly by the pro-gay. I’ve been tireless in saying this, and now 100% fully expect to be ignored or argued against when I say this; and it’s not going to stop me from saying it, ever.

    Every time a state referendum is threatened, the pro-gay should be taking several steps which they never take in any state to assure a greater chance of a fair fight:

    1. Demanding control of the language on the ballot question, and taking the ballot language to court if it has been crafted deliberately to sabotage their cause.

    2. Demanding a system which monitors the anti-gay in their signature-gathering, and where instances of foul play are suspected, taking the individuals and the organizations to court.

    3. Not demanding but appointing themselves to review of any and all advertisements meant to defeat marriage equality, and where those advertisements tell any lies or make any misrepresentations, taking the advertisements and the organizations to court.

    There is so much unfairness inherent in this “ballot process” in every state where it has ever occurred that, in fact, every vote should be nullified — but that’s not going to happen. I’ve used a plethora, a myriad of examples in all sorts of contexts to make these arguments which I will not repeat here. But in fact, those voting against marriage equality are voting *based in misinformation and misstatements of fact on par with the most virulent prejudices which litter this country’s history*, and I have no doubt that ten or fifteen years down the road, my point would be seen much more clearly. For now, unfortunately, the pro-gay are constantly placing themselves at the mercy of the anti-gay, who are gleefully exploiting it at every turn.

  • This is a rather silly opinion piece. Wolfson’s analysis is correct and Naff really has no argument to refute it. Wolfson’s point is that, because MD is a referendum state, any effort to pass marriage equality must include a comprehensive and well-planned campaign to defend against a referendum. The referendum is the real battle, not the initial action in the legislature. To prevail, a good deal of that campaign infrastructure needs to be in place well in advance of passage.

    There is no such infrastructure in place and no effort under way to create it. Accordingly, it makes no sense to proceed to win in the legislature using the NY playbook, only to scramble to cobble together a statewide referendum campaign in a few months in 2012. Under those circumstances, it will fail.

    The alternative, which is the best way forward, is to pass civil unions this year and use it as a transitional tool. CUs would pass overwhelmingly and would not likely trigger a referendum attack. CUs invariably help spur momentum for full equality. In a few short years, we could pass full equality and be in a good position to defeat any referendum. Instead, it seems that the MD activists are going to blindly push forward, even without taking the necessary steps to deal with the real battle, which is the referendum. Wolfson is correctly pointing out that this is folly.

    • We in Maryland have heard enough from NOM itself time and time again to be sufficiently well-versed in NOM’s threats to throttle Maryland’s eventual marriage equality with a despicable referendum. Likely Equality Maryland also know well and other Maryland here know well that under Maryland law any piece of legislation
      that is not a budget item can be subjected to a referendum. That’s a given reality of legal and political life here in Maryland. A number of us Marylanders are saddened and outraged by NOM inserting itself things here in Maryland that could make our lives better and/or more equal as gay citizens and we are ready to fight back should a very highly expected referendum follow an MD marriage equality victory here in MD.
      Do you live in Maryland? Make no mistake of our intention and our resolve to fight back when we have to here in Maryland. Again we do not depend on Freedom to Marry to help us and they need not visit our state.
      They have better things to do with their time and we in Maryland can very well take care of our own equality without wasting a minute of Evan’s precious time.

  • Obviously Freedom to Marry saw the writing on the wall.

  • What a collection of empty rhetorical digs! This editorial does not respond to anything in Wolfson’s compelling critique. Sitting in the Blade office and hoping for a victory in a referendum won’t make it happen. You can take his concerns seriously now, or you can take them seriously when the bill is on the verge of being repealed by voters.

  • Evan Wolfson’s short-sighted dissing of the marriage effort in Maryland has emboldened and encouraged an implacable enemy of equality called NOM regarding Maryland. We can damned well fight a referedum here in Maryland if we have to.
    Evan Wolfson and Freedom to Marry don’t even have the decency to mention Maryland and its struggle for marriage equality in 2012 in the list of US states : NJ, WA, MN, ME that may be trying for marriage equlality this year. Maryland will eventually win its fight for marriage equality with or without help from Freedom to Marry and Evan Wolfson.

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