Tony Kushner’s Presentation of Pride Agenda’s Douglas W. Jones Leadership Award to Evan Wolfson

By Tony Kushner – October 17, 2013

I was initially reluctant to present Evan Wolfson with this award, because I felt that the presenter should maybe be someone who knew Evan really well and would work closely with him, and could tell specific and funny and meaningful antidotes about him that would explain how he’s done the extraordinary things he’s done and what makes him the genuinely great man we all know him to be.

I don’t know Evan very well. We’re the same age and we’ve been bumping into one another at rallies and fundraisers for many years, but we sort of move in different circles. I don’t know this for a fact, but I imagine Evan’s circle must be composed of serious characters who, like Evan, talk precisely and clearly and non-hyperbolically about the things they understand deeply and are engaged with for noble, non-self-aggrandizing reasons. People like Evan who are seriously, wholeheartedly, tirelessly committed to making progress happen in real historical time. I am a playwright, and when my circle gets together, we complain about Ben Brantley.

But here I am presenting this award to this very serious character. Evan is also charming, amiable, affable, witty, and fun. But in the core of his being, where it counts, he is a very serious character, a true player on the world historical stage, and I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to say that, because in the course of this decidedly un-heroic age, how often do you get to talk about and publicly thank a true hero?

Evan, I’m going to say nice things about you for a little while, so… you know when people do that you never what to do with yourself, and what to do with your face… so feel free to text or answer emails or something. I won’t take very long.

As is always true of communities fighting for inclusion and enfranchisement, the changes that the LGBT community in America has fought for often come when times are anything but propitious… when they’re bad, in fact. So the changes, when they come, come in surprising, dramatic lightning-flash leaps, or seem to.

The ground that made this springing ahead possible has been prepared and solidified by the unsparing labors of a whole host of characters of every variety: serious, semi-serious, astonishing, flaming, and ridiculous. But progress for us often appears to be a sudden surge forward when the currents of history are perceived to be running in the opposite direction.

Think of the Mattachines marching in McCarthy-era America, or Act Up advancing not only LGBT rights, but universal human rights, in the cause of human dignity, through the first awful years of a biological calamity and an unforgivable failure of decency and political courage and will. And today, when what every sane citizen hopes will be the final spams and death throes of the Reagan coalition that has infected the machinery of American democracy and American justice with what we all must hope and pray is merely a near-fatal, but far too protracted and holocaustally costly, perilous paralysis... In this moment – I left a preposition out so that made no sense, but you got the general idea…

At this moment, look: progress. In this, the 33rd year of an ongoing life- and planet-threatening effort to dismantle government and the rule of law and the social contract and, well, the fundamental tenets of causal thinking of rationality, if not to say of civilization, if not to say of reality... In the midst of these new nightmarish dark times, on one frontier at least, a surprising, dramatic lightning-flash leap forward – rapid progress in the battle for same-sex marriage.

As evidence of which rapidity, consider that in The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” article on May 28th, 2012, which was about Evan receiving a Barnard medal alongside President Obama, only 18 months ago, same-sex marriage – according to The New Yorker (and we know that their fact-checkers never get anything wrong) – same-sex marriage was, 18 months ago, legal in six states and the District of Columbia. Now, 18 short months later, it’s legal in 13 states – 14 if you count New Jersey. In other words, the number of states has more than doubled in less time than it’s taken me to getting around to finish reading my copy of the May 28th, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.

Evan told Jeffrey Toobin, who wrote the article, that when he was a student at Harvard Law School, he brought a copy of John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality to Florida on a visit to his grandparents. He said that he learned from Boswell that that “homosexuality was not hated, despised, subordinated through all of history,” which, he said, “gave him the idea that if it had been better at one time, it can be better again.”

Adversity isn’t a blessing in disguise, something to be wished for; it’s nothing like that. Adversity falls more heavily and punishingly on the vulnerable and the oppressed, as all of us know or we wouldn’t be here tonight; it’s something everybody ought to know instinctively. Something that the Tea Party urgently needs to learn, assuming they are capable of learning anything at all. The news since last night suggests otherwise. I’m sorry, I’m just like still completely traumatized by what’s happened the last three weeks. I’ll get over it eventually but… not yet.

Adversity is a grinding, sometimes painful, sometimes lethal pressure, and if the world was better, change would happen without the pressure of suffering and loss. But the world makes its incremental steps forward towards becoming a better place because in some people, an open-eyed, open-hearted consciousness of adversity and a desire to alleviate suffering to eradicate injustice, discrimination, and oppression are combined with an understanding that history is dialectical, full of twists and turns. Retrograde as well plain forward motion: “if it was better once, it can be better again.”

History creates the preconditions for more history to be made. Some people get how pressure is a fire for catalyzing change. Some rare people have the courage to act on that understanding. These are the people who discern plausible paths through the worst of adversity to a better, more just, more human world. These are the people who illuminate and who guide us, as together we forge our way through the wilderness. These are our heroes. They bring their fire to make the blaze brighter and the change more sweeping and grand.

In his beautiful book, Why Marriage Matters, Evan quotes Martin Luther King: “Eventually the civil rights movement will have contributed infinitely more to the nation than the eradication of racial injustice. It will have enlarged the concept of brotherhood to a vision of total of interrelatedness.”

Evan’s vision of marriage equality has always been as generous and expansive and deserving of the word “vision” as his pursuit of it has been strategic, disciplined, and realistic. He saw, long before most of us could see it, that marriage equality was an achievable goal with a vast promise. He saw that marriage equality would be a critical advance in the struggle for LGBT enfranchisement, and, as such, a contribution to the nation – and, as such, an enlargement of the democratic spirit, essential to that spirit’s survival, because unless democracy strives to perfect itself and expand itself and to include more and more people, it dies… which God – and the Democratic majority in the Senate and, lets go for it, a Democratic majority of the House in 2014 – forbid.

With the imminent achievement of nationwide marriage equality and all that that earth-shakingly implies – imminent, though, as Evan always reminds us, not to be taken for granted; we have a lot of work left to do – democracy and democratic government proves itself to us, the people, once again. We, the people, prove ourselves to ourselves yet again, working yet another political miracle.

Along with his honorable, skillful, devoted stewardship of marriage equality – for which we all feel enormously grateful – I think that what I admire most in Evan is his quiet, unwavering adherence to faith in democracy, which admonishes all of us, even in dark times, to do likewise.

Evan Wolfson, it’s my honor and my very, very great pleasure to present you with the Empire State Pride Agenda’s Douglas W. Jones Leadership Award.