The Architect of Marriage Equality on Why the Freedom to Marry Is Going Global

Evan Wolfson working with Taiwanese marriage equality advocates.

Evan Wolfson

On Wednesday, Taiwan’s Constitutional Court ruled that laws prohibiting marriage between two people of the same sex violate constitutional guarantees of equality. The court ordered parliament to amend the civil code within two years to comply with its decision. Once it does, Taiwan will become the first jurisdiction in Asia to allow same-sex marriages.

The triumph in Taiwan was especially thrilling for Evan Wolfson, the architect of marriage equality in the United States. After the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, Wolfson closed up his campaign, Freedom to Marry, and became an ambassador for marriage equality. Wolfson has traveled the globe promoting LGBTQ rights and working with local activists to change both laws and public opinion. On Thursday, I spoke with him about the Taiwanese ruling and the path forward for international marriage equality. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.

Mark Joseph Stern: What’s your reaction to the ruling?

Evan Wolfson: I’m exuberant. For the last several years, as I’ve been crisscrossing the world sharing the lessons from our campaign, one of my lines has been, “We now had the freedom to marry in 22 countries and six continents—and the continent we don’t have is not Antarctica.” Now we have our first win in Asia and the freedom to marry on all seven continents.

Why did Taiwan cross the finish line first?

There are some terrific organizations and activists there whom I’ve had privilege of working with. They’ve done the kind of work that’s needed, making the case in public—not just to decision-makers. They talked about real families, real lives, and shared values. They’ve done an excellent job in laying that foundation over the last several years.

In addition, Taiwan has strived to solidify and establish its commitment to democratic values. Allowing the freedom to marry is part of the maturation of a democracy, a way of securing pluralism and the rule of law. We’ve seen that freedom-to-marry countries, like Spain and Argentina and Portugal, where leaders said, “This is not just about gay people, this is about our commitment to being a true constitutional republic.” Taiwan has also been on that journey and had that conversation.

Do you think Taiwan will embrace marriage equality?

Yes. The work to lay foundation for this victory has been going on in the public arena, legislative arena, and in the courts. Our colleagues in Taiwan have been pursuing each of these tracks as we did in the U.S.—and they’ve already built majority public support. The current president ran on pledge to support the freedom to marry. Many political leaders have also endorsed it. And of course, the court itself issued a very strong ruling with almost all the justices coming out in support of the freedom to marry. We’ve seen that reflected in news coverage and in the public’s response.

Now, I’m sure, as in the U.S., we will still hear a small but very noisy opposition. They may try to push back; the work is not done. We’re going to have to keep engaging as we did in the U.S. But the people of Taiwan were ready for this decision. Our colleagues already made the case in the court of public opinion, creating the backdrop for a victory in the court of law.

Who were the advocates and organizations that led this battle?

The Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership Rights and its chief leader, Victoria Hsu, have done indispensable work on the legal side, in addition to public education campaigns. Another group that has stepped up and led a coalition of organizations is the Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline Association. Tongzhi means “comrade,” and it historically had its roots in communism, but it has become a way of saying “gay.” The association did an extraordinary job of mobilizing crowds in the streets. The Taiwan team also did public education events that involved going to temples with gay couples where couples traditionally seek blessings for families and having the priests there greet them. It wasn’t a legal thing, but it allowed the couples to publicly declare their commitment, their love.

It sounds like the Taiwanese marriage equality campaign borrowed some strategies from your own work at Freedom to Marry.

One of the things I’m finding as I meet with activists, officials, and business leaders, and working with teams on the ground, is that the inspiration from our campaign has been very sought after and valuable. It’s not like there’s a one cookie-cutter formula, but the elements and the playbook and the approach are absolutely relevant and adaptable to the work in so many other countries. That’s been really gratifying.

Do you think the Taiwan ruling will have ramifications in mainland China?

Absolutely. Some activists on the mainland have already said that the ruling is giving them more momentum and more to talk about. Obviously, China’s position is that it’s all one country—so now, from their point of view, the freedom to marry has come to China. Taiwan might take a different position, of course. Regardless, there’s no question that having the freedom to marry in Taiwan will energize advocates throughout China and have a major impact on the conversation there.

Marriage equality recently arrived in Bermuda. What other countries might see the freedom to marry this year?

Taiwan was one of two countries I thought we had the biggest chance of winning this year; Australia is the other one. The activists have been working really hard. One of the lines I’ve always used in Australia is, “It’s bad enough you’re lagging behind the U.S., but do you really want to be lagging behind New Zealand?” Now Australia is lagging behind Taiwan, too. But there’s overwhelming majority support for the freedom to marry, and we’re fighting to get the job done.

We’re also doing a lot of work and conversation-building in countries as diverse as Japan, the Czech Republic, Chile, and other Asian countries like Vietnam, Thailand, and South Korea. The conversation there isn’t as far along as it has been in Taiwan, but this decision is going to energize advocates in so many places around the world. We need to see advocates stepping up their work in Italy and Germany, too, and keep building toward the tipping point in Europe.

The number of marriage equality countries is growing faster than most Americans likely realize.

We now have 1 billion people in the world living in a freedom to marry country. That’s 15 percent of the world’s population. And Taiwan will add to that. So the countries that are now discussing ending this discrimination are not where we were in the U.S. when we started. There’s now a mountain of evidence that families are helped and no one’s hurt. There’s now a clear track record: When opponent says terrible things will happen, they don’t. None of these countries are starting from scratch; they’re starting from a place where they can move forward with confidence.

Where we win freedom to marry, public support goes up. You saw the latest Gallup poll: 64 percent of Americans now support the freedom to marry. It has been nearly two years since we won, and it’s not like all these terrible things are happening. All these other countries are having this conversation and recognizing that this is not an experiment, a new thing they’re being asked to take a leap on. They’re simply being asked why the people in their country have less protection than the 1 billion people in the world who already have the freedom to marry thanks to this momentum.

In some countries, though, the LGBTQ community is so persecuted that marriage equality is far from a priority.

We all know that working for LGBT rights, women’s rights, and human rights around the world involves confronting some real terrible situations. Just look at Chechnya, Indonesia, Uganda, Saudi Arabia, Iran—countries where homosexuality is illegal, where gay people are put to death. It’s absolutely crucial that we work on these dire places, and help gay refugees, and push for decriminalization of homosexuality, and so on. All that work is extremely important and should not be lost in the shuffle. But it’s also important that we get rule-of-law countries where they need to be in order to create human rights momentum that’ll be helpful in moving the world forward. We have to make sure that we win the freedom to marry in countries where we can win and use those victories as building blocks so we can to lift up everyone, everywhere.