April DeBoer and Jayne Rouse live in Michigan. Between them, they have FIVE adopted children. They couldn’t legally adopt all five jointly because the laws of the state prohibit unmarried couples from adopting. But being a lesbian couple, they couldn’t get married anyway because same-sex marriage wasn’t legal in their state. This leaves their family very vulnerable to being split up should something happen to one or both of them.
The answer to why this matters comes in The Freedom to Marry – a 2016 documentary about the Supreme Court case (actually a consolidation of several similar lower-court cases) that legalized same-sex marriage in the United States. Marry was recently screened at the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival in Melbourne.
The film begins around the time the Supreme Court decided to take the case in January 2015 and follows it through to the handing down of the verdict nearly six months later. In between, the film traces the fight for marriage back to as far back as 1973 with pit stops to pivotal moments in 1983, 1991, 2004 and 2008 that ultimately led to that landmark ruling in 2015.
In addition to DeBoer and Rouse, there are three key players in the fight for marriage equality who were signaled out for this documentary: Evan Wolfson, founder of the Freedom to Marry organization whose 1983 Harvard Law School dissertation essentially set the framework for achieving marriage equality in the United States; Mary Bonauto, a civil rights attorney for GLAAD who argued the case in front of the Supreme Court; and Marc Solomon, the national campaign advisor for the Freedom to Marry organization.
The film does a great job of taking us through the successes and setbacks that comes with any civil rights victory against inexplicable opposition. We see the strategies behind their approach to achieving this victory and the necessary shifts in those strategies as it related to how the opposition fought back to try and prevent this victory.
An interesting inclusion were two members of that opposition – Brian Brown, President of the National Organization for Marriage and Janice Shaw Crouse, an author and former Presidential speechwriter.
While I understand the documentary wanting to present an opposing viewpoint, it isn’t really necessary here since it’s really only about the one viewpoint. And since the film doesn’t go into WHY these two feel the way they do, they look provincial in their thinking and you have to wonder why they agreed to be included in a documentary where they’re not going to be seen in the best light. Neither are included in the film’s victory lap after the verdict was handed down, but perhaps should have been in order to better punctuate their respective appearances.
In between the Supreme Court arguments on April 28 and the verdict on June 26, the documentary explains the stakes for a victory and the ramifications of a loss. We also watch as Bonauto listens to the tapes of the arguments — which was surprisingly fascinating. And though we know the outcome, the tension from having to wait for a decision of this magnitude is still palpable.
The Freedom to Marry is very well-done in both its presentation, framing and context. It should serve as a joyful reminder of a hard-fought victory as well as a wonderful historical reference point for the victories we have yet to fight hard for.
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Eddie Rosenstein