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Want to Unite America? Think Like a Gay Rights Activist
If gay people could unite America enough to win the right to marry, surely an entire society can borrow from that playbook to get the US back on track.
Evan Wolfson is an attorney and gay rights advocate. He is the founder and president of Freedom to Marry, a group favoring same-sex marriage in the United States. Wolfson, who many consider to be the father and leader of the same-sex marriage movement, authored the book Why Marriage Matters: America, Equality, and Gay People's Right to Marry, which Time Out New York magazine called, "Perhaps the most important gay-marriage primer ever written..." He was listed as one of Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People in the World. He has taught as an adjunct professor at Columbia Law School, Rutgers Law School, and Whittier Law School and argued before the Supreme Court in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale. Wolfson wrote his 1983 Harvard Law thesis on same-sex marriage, long before the question gained national prominence. On October 6, 2010, he returned to the Yale Political Union to debate same-sex marriage against opponent Maggie Gallagher, chairman of the National Organization for Marriage Wolfson appeared before the United States Supreme Court on April 26, 2000, to argue on behalf of Scoutmaster James Dale in the landmark case Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, in which the Court ruled that the Boy Scouts organization had the right to expel Dale for revealing that he was gay through their First Amendment rights.
Evan Wolfson is an attorney and gay rights advocate. He is the founder and president of Freedom to Marry, a group favoring same-sex marriage in the United States.
Wolfson, who many consider to be the father and leader of the same-sex marriage movement, authored the book Why Marriage Matters: America, Equality, and Gay People's Right to Marry, which Time Out New York magazine called, "Perhaps the most important gay-marriage primer ever written..." He was listed as one of Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People in the World. He has taught as an adjunct professor at Columbia Law School, Rutgers Law School, and Whittier Law School and argued before the Supreme Court in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale.
Wolfson wrote his 1983 Harvard Law thesis on same-sex marriage, long before the question gained national prominence. On October 6, 2010, he returned to the Yale Political Union to debate same-sex marriage against opponent Maggie Gallagher, chairman of the National Organization for Marriage
Wolfson appeared before the United States Supreme Court on April 26, 2000, to argue on behalf of Scoutmaster James Dale in the landmark case Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, in which the Court ruled that the Boy Scouts organization had the right to expel Dale for revealing that he was gay through their First Amendment rights.
Evan Wolfson: Gay people have been seeking the freedom to marry in the United States since what we talk about as the dawn of the modern gay rights movement. We usually date that movement's beginning a little erroneously to Stonewall and the pushback against police harassment that was pervasive at the time here in New York City at the Stonewall Inn in 1969.
So within three years of Stonewall there were major cases brought by couples seeking the freedom to marry all across the country, percolating through the courts all the way up, and one of them even reached the United States Supreme Court in 1972. The Supreme Court in 1972, like all the other courts, rubber-stamped the discrimination throughout those couples. The courts weren't ready, the conversation hadn’t yet happened, and the country wasn't ready.
Well, the goal of the Freedom to Marry, the goal of our strategy and the goal that many in our movement rallied around over these four-plus decades was to get the Supreme Court to say “yes” to what it had said “no” to in 1972. But the strategy said that the way we're going to do that is not just by filing more briefs or leaving it to the lawyers alone, but instead by shaping the entire climate in which the decision makers, including judges and the justices, were thinking about this.
In other words while litigation was the way in which we were going to deliver the victory, in order for litigation to succeed we needed to win in the court of public opinion in order to win in the court of law.
My favorite passage came in the case in which we won the freedom to marry and brought the freedom to marry to Utah, one of the most conservative states in the country. And the judge in the Utah Freedom to Marry case wrote: "it's not the Constitution that has changed; what has changed is our understanding of what it means to be lesbian or gay."
Well, that sentence encapsulated the entire strategy and it encapsulated how all this work by so many different organizations and millions of people contributed to delivering a litigation victory.
We had to change people's understanding of who gay people are. We had to claim the vocabulary of marriage, love, commitment, family, connection. We had to engage people, as well as decision-makers, in the shared values of treating others as you'd want to be treated, of seeing the common humanity and aspirations and dreams of gay people.
So we looked consciously for the kinds of tactics and ways in which we could make that persuasion, that set of conversations happen.
One example is we did not write people off. We very much looked at who the people who were not yet with us, but who were reachable—what I call the reachable but not yet reached—and how do we most effectively engage them? Clearly we knew that conversation would be the engine of change, both this “air-cover” of political ads and debate and news coverage and popular culture but also the quiet persuasion needed to get people, both gay and non-gay people, to talk to others around them.
The air cover was the public debate. And some of that debate came through battles, attacks from the anti-gay side, discussions in the legislatures, coverage on the news as well as popular culture, softer presentations of who we gave people are whether through TV shows like Will and Grace or people coming out like Ellen DeGeneres, but also all of this discussion up here that created a climate that encouraged people to talk about this, that helped frame the discussion, that gave people images.
But what closes the deal is not this air cover, it's the ground game, the personal conversations, the millions of conversations around coffee tables and living rooms and water coolers in offices. The personal engagement, the one on one discussions that gay people needed to have with the non-gay people in our lives and that we needed non-gay people to be having with each other in order to talk through what people may be seeing or hearing up here in the air cover.
The air cover helped move things forward. It was a necessary part of reverberating and framing and generating millions of conversations, but it was the conversation, the ground game that was the closer, that was the necessary engine of change.
And so, by looking to who you want to persuade: what are their values? What are the commonalities? What are the stories and who are the messengers and what is the drumbeat and ways of engaging people where they are? That is the way you bring over a slice. You don’t need everybody, but you need enough. That’s what we were able to achieve, and if gay people can go from 27 percent support for the freedom to marry, which is what it was in the 90s, to 63 percent support that we had grown to by the time that we won the Supreme Court in 2015, if gay people can do that, surely we can make the kind of progress we need to get our country back on track on other fronts, where we are starting from a higher baseline to begin with.
Clearly some of the elements of the Freedom to Marry playbook are very relevant for the Democrats, they are very relevant for all the different causes. There’s no one cookie cutter strategy, but the playbook and the elements of success are very applicable and adaptable to other work at hand for other causes, other organizations, other countries, other ways of moving our society forward, getting our country back on track, and making a better world.
And history tells us, including our own history of winning the freedom to marry, that we can change things. We the people can do it, and it’s up to us to do it. We have the tools, we have the opportunity—we certainly have the urgency— and we have each other.
For four decades, gay rights activists and couples who appealed to the courts for the right to marry their partners were fighting against a legal system. The real battle, however, was against public perception. Evan Wolfson, founder of the national bipartisan organization Freedom to Marry, outlines the strategy that transformed public understanding and led to a triumph in the Supreme Court in June 2015. It wasn’t the legal appeals or height of the headlines that brought marriage equality to gay people, Wolfson says, rather it was millions of quieter, more personal conversations "around coffee tables and living rooms and water coolers in offices" that became the necessary engine of change. It’s much more difficult to deny a person a basic human right one on one, face to face. Wolfson opens his strategic playbook to Americans in a time of cavernous political division. "The elements of success [of Freedom to Marry] are very applicable and adaptable... for other causes, other organizations, other countries, other ways of moving our society forward, getting our country back on track, and making a better world," he says. Wolfson and the marriage equality story are the subject of the new documentary The Freedom to Marry, in cinemas now.
Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?
- Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
- It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
- COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
What conditions of the new normal were already appreciated widely?<p>First, we understand that higher education is unique among industries. Some industries are governed by markets. Others are run by governments. Most operate under the influence of both markets and governments. And then there's higher education. Higher education as an "industry" involves public, private, and for-profit universities operating at small, medium, large, and now massive scales. Some higher education industry actors are intense specialists; others are adept generalists. Some are fantastically wealthy; others are tragically poor. Some are embedded in large cities; others are carefully situated near farms and frontiers.</p> <p>These differences demonstrate just some of the complexities that shape higher education. Still, we understand that change in the industry is underway, and we must be active in directing it. Yet because of higher education's unique (and sometimes vexing) operational and structural conditions, many of the lessons from change management and the science of industrial transformation are only applicable in limited or highly modified ways. For evidence of this, one can look at various perspectives, including those that we have offered, on such topics as <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/rethinking-higher-education/lessons-disruption" target="_blank">disruption</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/20/education/learning/education-technology.html" target="_blank">technology management</a>, and so-called "<a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/media/Excerpt_IHESpecialReport_Growing-Role-of-Mergers-in-Higher-Ed.pdf" target="_blank">mergers and acquisitions</a>" in higher education. In each of these spaces, the "market forces" and "market rules" for higher education are different than they are in business, or even in government. This has always been the case and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p> <p>Second, with so much excitement about innovation in higher education, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that students are—and should remain—the core cause for innovation. Higher education's capacity to absorb new ideas is strong. But the ideas that endure are those designed to benefit students, and therefore society. This is important to remember because not all innovations are designed with students in mind. The recent history of innovation in higher education includes several cautionary tales of what can happen when institutional interests—or worse, <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/09/apollos-new-owners-seek-fresh-start-beleaguered-company" target="_blank">shareholder</a> interests—are placed above student well-being.</p>
Photo: Getty Images<p>Third, it is abundantly apparent that universities must leverage technology to increase educational quality and access. The rapid shift to delivering an education that complies with social distancing guidelines speaks volumes about the adaptability of higher education institutions, but this transition has also posed unique difficulties for colleges and universities that had been slow to adopt digital education. The last decade has shown that online education, implemented effectively, can meet or even surpass the quality of in-person <a href="https://link-springer-com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/article/10.1007/s10639-019-10027-z" target="_blank">instruction</a>.</p><p>Digital instruction, broadly defined, leverages online capabilities and integrates adaptive learning methodologies, predictive analytics, and innovations in instructional design to enable increased student engagement, personalized learning experiences, and improved learning outcomes. The ability of these technologies to transcend geographic barriers and to shrink the marginal cost of educating additional students makes them essential for delivering education at scale.</p><p>As a bonus, and it is no small thing given that they are the core cause for innovation, students embrace and enjoy digital instruction. It is their preference to learn in a format that leverages technology. This should not be a surprise; it is now how we live in all facets of life.</p><p>Still, we have only barely begun to conceive of the impact digital education will have. For example, emerging virtual and augmented reality technologies that facilitate interactive, hands-on learning will transform the way that learners acquire and apply new knowledge. Technology-enabled learning cannot replace the traditional college experience or ensure the survival of any specific college, but it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale. This has always been the case, and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p>
What conditions of the new normal were emerging suspicions?<p>Our collective thinking about the role of institutional or university-to-university collaboration and networking has benefitted from a new clarity in light of COVID-19. We now recognize more than ever that colleges and universities must work together to ensure that the American higher education system is resilient and sufficiently robust to meet the needs of students and their families.</p> <p>In recent weeks, various commentators have suggested that higher education will face a wave of institutional <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/scott-galloway-predicts-colleges-will-close-due-to-pandemic-2020-5" target="_blank">closures</a> and consolidations and that large institutions with significant online instruction capacity will become dominant.</p> <p>While ASU is the largest public university in the United States by enrollment and among the most well-equipped in online education, we strongly oppose "let them fail" mindsets. The strength of American higher education relies on its institutional diversity, and on the ability of colleges and universities to meet the needs of their local communities and educate local students. The needs of learners are highly individualized, demanding a wide range of options to accommodate the aspirations and learning styles of every kind of student. Education will become less relevant and meaningful to students, and less responsive to local needs, if institutions of higher learning are allowed to fail. </p> <p>Preventing this outcome demands that colleges and universities work together to establish greater capacity for remote, distributed education. This will help institutions with fewer resources adapt to our new normal and continue to fulfill their mission of serving students, their families, and their communities. Many had suspected that collaboration and networking were preferable over letting vulnerable colleges fail. COVID-19's new normal seems to be confirming this.</p>
President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address during the Arizona State University graduation ceremony at Sun Devil Stadium May 13, 2009 in Tempe, Arizona. Over 65,000 people attended the graduation.
Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images<p>A second condition of the new normal that many had suspected to be true in recent years is the limited role that any one university or type of university can play as an exemplar to universities more broadly. For decades, the evolution of higher education has been shaped by the widespread imitation of a small number of elite universities. Most public research universities could benefit from replicating Berkeley or Michigan. Most small private colleges did well by replicating Williams or Swarthmore. And all universities paid close attention to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and Yale. It is not an exaggeration to say that the logic of replication has guided the evolution of higher education for centuries, both in the US and abroad.</p><p>Only recently have we been able to move beyond replication to new strategies of change, and COVID-19 has confirmed the legitimacy of doing so. For example, cases such as <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/03/10/harvard-moves-classes-online-advises-students-stay-home-after-spring-break-response-covid-19/" target="_blank">Harvard's</a> eviction of students over the course of less than one week or <a href="https://www.nhregister.com/news/coronavirus/article/Mayor-New-Haven-asks-for-coronavirus-help-Yale-15162606.php" target="_blank">Yale's apparent reluctance</a> to work with the city of New Haven, highlight that even higher education's legacy gold standards have limits and weaknesses. We are hopeful that the new normal will include a more active and earnest recognition that we need many types of universities. We think the new normal invites us to rethink the very nature of "gold standards" for higher education.</p>
A graduate student protests MIT's rejection of some evacuation exemption requests.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images<p>Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we had started to suspect and now understand that America's colleges and universities are among the many institutions of democracy and civil society that are, by their very design, incapable of being sufficiently responsive to the full spectrum of modern challenges and opportunities they face. Far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted. And without new designs, we can expect postsecondary success for these same students to be as elusive in the new normal, as it was in the <a href="http://pellinstitute.org/indicators/reports_2019.shtml" target="_blank">old normal</a>. This is not just because some universities fail to sufficiently recognize and engage the promise of diversity, this is because few universities have been designed from the outset to effectively serve the unique needs of lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color.</p>
Where can the new normal take us?<p>As colleges and universities face the difficult realities of adapting to COVID-19, they also face an opportunity to rethink their operations and designs in order to respond to social needs with greater agility, adopt technology that enables education to be delivered at scale, and collaborate with each other in order to maintain the dynamism and resilience of the American higher education system.</p> <p>COVID-19 raises questions about the relevance, the quality, and the accessibility of higher education—and these are the same challenges higher education has been grappling with for years. </p> <p>ASU has been able to rapidly adapt to the present circumstances because we have spent nearly two decades not just anticipating but <em>driving</em> innovation in higher education. We have adopted a <a href="https://www.asu.edu/about/charter-mission-and-values" target="_blank">charter</a> that formalizes our definition of success in terms of "who we include and how they succeed" rather than "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/10/17/forget-varsity-blues-madness-lets-talk-about-students-who-cant-afford-college/" target="_blank">who we exclude</a>." We adopted an entrepreneurial <a href="https://president.asu.edu/read/higher-logic" target="_blank">operating model</a> that moves at the speed of technological and social change. We have launched initiatives such as <a href="https://www.instride.com/how-it-works/" target="_blank">InStride</a>, a platform for delivering continuing education to learners already in the workforce. We developed our own robust technological capabilities in ASU <a href="https://edplus.asu.edu/" target="_blank">EdPlus</a>, a hub for research and development in digital learning that, even before the current crisis, allowed us to serve more than 45,000 fully online students. We have also created partnerships with other forward-thinking institutions in order to mutually strengthen our capabilities for educational accessibility and quality; this includes our role in co-founding the <a href="https://theuia.org/" target="_blank">University Innovation Alliance</a>, a consortium of 11 public research universities that share data and resources to serve students at scale. </p> <p>For ASU, and universities like ASU, the "new normal" of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary. Our record breaking summer 2020 <a href="https://asunow.asu.edu/20200519-sun-devil-life-summer-enrollment-sets-asu-record" target="_blank">enrollment</a> speaks to this. What COVID demonstrates is that we were already headed in the right direction and necessitates that we continue forward with new intensity and, we hope, with more partners. In fact, rather than "new normal" we might just say, it's "go time." </p>
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