Friday, November 13, 2009

Evan Wolfson and ABC's Twittercast
on Gay Marriage

A gay political insider from DC told me a few days back that I simply had to watch Evan Wolfson lose a debate with Maggie Gallagher on ABC News Nightline Twittercast. He's the leader of Freedom to Marry, while she's head of the National Organization for Marriage. Actually, debate is the wrong word, because the reporter did a lousy job of keeping the discussion civil and respectful. As too often happens on TV, the debate was really an interruption-fest, especially by Maggie, who was not adequately reined in by the reporter.

That being said, I wasn't impressed with Evan's performance and told him so in an email, asking him to reply to my concerns. Unfortunately, he declined to engage with me on the record. His response was off the record and I'll respect this. Evan's excuse for not wanting to be quoted? He'd rather not be quoted evaluating his own performance. Sounds like extreme "control queenism" to me.

A few things that bothered me were Evan's insistence that we came very close to winning in Maine last week, we're not fighting for gay marriage per se, but for marriage freedom, and that gays aren't out to redefine marriage. I believe the vote was far from close, that saying this battle is not gay-specific is not a view the voters agree with, and that gays, like straight people, are indeed reinventing the institution of marriage.

The part where Evan really tried my patience with his lawyerly and stiff debating style, was when he didn't directly answer the reporter's question about why gays can't just accept the benefits of civil unions and giving gay marriages another name. See vid number 2, at the 4:40 mark.

For once, Maggie didn't immediately interrupt Evan, but he totally avoided addressing the question at hand. Instead, Evan went off on a tangent about groups that oppose civil unions giving money to Maggie's organization, and that NOM is under investigation in three states. He tried desperately to be heard over her sniping, and the cross-talk was beyond irritating.

About 4 minutes after the civil unions question was posed, some calmed reigned, and Evan offered a response about vocabulary nuances associated with marriage as one reason why civil unions aren't enough for the gay community, which I don't think would satisfy average voters who aren't English majors. I would have preferred to hear a cogent answers why civil unions just don't cut it, and to hear the answers before a tirade about bad donors or state investigations.

Overall, I found Maggie came across on the computer monitor as a very sore winner, but one with a demeanor that lots of voters in Maine apparently like because they voted as she and her allies asked them to. And again, the ABC News reporter must be spanked for her lame control of the segment and failure to keep the talk respectful, following basic rules of decorum for a political debate, yet still entertaining to viewers.

But my biggest frustration from the program was with Evan's performance. This is unfair, but I have to say watching and listening to Evan brought back painful memories of all the infuriating appearances on TV by No on Prop 8 leaders Geoff Kors and Kate Kendell, leading up to the election last year. Just like Evan this week, when Geoff and Kate went on TV to discuss gay marriage and ballot measures, they didn't win my empathy, all because they projected cerebral lawyerly parsing of language and spent too much time denying the issue before voters was indeed gay-specific.

If we want to radically change how the gay community fights these gay marriage ballot initiatives, and potentially winning the hearts and minds of average Americans and voters, we're going to have to engage in public criticism and constructive suggestions to improve the performances of our leaders who get on national TV.

We gays are not helping the situation when we only examine how Maggie comes across in such TV interruption-fests. Over at GoodAsYou, Jeremy Hooper analyzes just Maggie and what he doesn't like about her performance. Sure, we don't like her, her arguments or her style, but she's racking up more wins than us. No one on our side is helped when we ignore or fail to evaluate how our leaders behave in such appearances.


Ed Sikov said...

I have nothing at all bad to say about Evan, but I do think that our community's leaders all - every last one of them - totally avoid taking any responsibility for what is turning out to be a national fiasco. Whatever momentum we once had has turned in the other direction. It's really a catastrophe at this point, and - funny! - nobody at the top is at all to blame for it! Not even a little. No heads ever roll. Nobody steps up and said, "Look, we blew it. We're sorry. We resign."

They should try that approach.

Anonymous said...

Don Mendell, by appearing on those Yes On 1 ads, has shown a lack objectivity and thus is incapable in serving in is capacity as a youth guidance counselor.

That's what Evan Wolfson should have said. Why is it so hard for these so called arbiters of equality to say or write this?

John Wilkinson said...

The ABC "Twittercast" was a horrible forum. The host was at fault for letting Maggie drone on. Then the host consistently stepped on Evan's responses, or interrupted his response to change the subject.

Evan is one of the best spokespeople out there on the topic of marriage equality. When he came up against Michael Medved a few years back on Medved's own radio show -- with no 3rd party host to muck things up -- he prevented Medved's persistent efforts at redirection. And Medved is one of the most difficult opponents out there, because his demeanor bespeaks reasonableness. Yet Evan more than held his own.

Evan's message is simple, and when he has a chance to express it, he's highly effective:

It's not "gay marriage," it's "marriage." Civil unions aren't enough because marriage is the universally understood currency of commitment -- so simple that's it's represented by a metal band on a finger. And the expansion of the availability of marriage to include same-sex couples helps these couples and harms no one.

We certainly do have some things to think about coming out of Maine. The top two are probably how to counter the "save the children" approach that our opponents used so devastatingly in California and Maine, and how to counter fears (reasonable or not)in religious communities that their interests will be subverted.

One of the places that these questions will come to the fore is likely Washington state, were voters have now supported an incremental approach to achieving full marriage. Activists are choosing to forego immediate action in the upcoming legislature in order to plan a more broadly-based statewide path.

Evan is very good at taking the long view. He's consistently said that the quest for the freedom to marry is a decades-long process, and that we'll see a confounding -- but expected -- mix of victory and defeat.

In the broad view, we're learning and profiting from experience. In some places, such as New England, successful court cases have bought time for the public and legislatures to catch up. In others, incremental approaches have put important protections in place, giving legislatures practice in saying "yes" to same-sex couples, while laying the groundwork for education and demographic change to do their inexorable work.

So we learn, make necessary course corrections and move along.