Freedom to Marry board chair, Cal Western Law vice dean retiresFeature Story, Latest Issue, Section 4A Thursday, July 20th, 2017
Thom Senzee, author of this article, is a West Coast-based freelance journalist, and a regular contributor to San Diego LGBT Weekly.
San Diego’s loss of Barbara Cox is Wisconsin’s gain
Barbara Cox has seen the future. And while the mid-term outlook for marriage equality, one of the most consequential achievements of her professional lifetime, may be shadowed in the arguably dimmer light of recent political developments, according to the California Western School of Law vice dean, the U.S. legal system and our system of government always offer a silver lining.
“I just can’t believe that, even if a future Supreme Court or a constitutional amendment would say, [to same-sex couples] ‘you can’t get married’ in the future – I mean that would be terrible and we’d have to fight back on that – but I can’t believe that people can be ‘unmarried’ by a law,” Cox said during a recent interview in her transitional office on CWSL’s downtown San Diego campus.
The law school professor, faculty administrator, civil rights activist and Freedom to Marry Board chair, has engaged at the grass-roots level in the constitutional aspects of marriage across four decades.
In fact it’s probably fair to say the (recently named emerita) vice dean is among the 25 or so most instrumental leaders and organizers responsible for bringing forth the advent of marriage equality in the United States.
“I got involved in marriage equality in 1983,” Cox said, recalling the year after which the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) failed to be ratified by a required 38 states. It was both a crushing blow and call to arms to this unapologetic progressive.
“Phyllis Shlafly, you know, said [the ERA] was going to lead to ‘gay marriage,’” she said.
While Shlafly and people like her who despised the idea of equal rights for LGBTQ folks won many battles, Barbara Cox and legions of equality allies can now say we’ve won the war for marriage.
“I really do believe in the American system,” said Cox, who doubts an amendment abolishing marriage equality would ever come by way of a constitutional convention.
“You know, it sounds really trite, even [whereas] at the same time I don’t stand up at ball games for the national anthem because I think I have the right – and so I exercise my right; not a popular thing in San Diego – I think [a constitutional convention] hasn’t happened because everybody’s afraid that the other side, or a different side, or a different belief will carry the day.”
Although an unabashed optimist with unshakeable faith in the system the founding founders laid out, Barbara Cox isn’t leaving her office at Cal Western looking back at America through rose-colored lenses. One worrisome and perpetually disappointing blind spot that the system she ultimately trusts, yet seems mindlessly slow if not willfully obstinate about improving centers on gender.
“I just think the fact that the Constitution doesn’t protect women as women is – you know, it protects religion; it protects race; it protects color and nationality, but it doesn’t protect sex,” Cox lamented. “All the others are right there in the Constitution or there as amendments. Protection for women is only in a statute. I mean it’s been interpreted as being in the Constitution, but …”
Freedom to Marry
The alliance of Barbara Cox as board chair and Evan Wolfson as executive director of Freedom to Marry resulted in several rapid-fire strokes of branding and programming genius that helped move more Americans to support marriage equality.
One example of their genius was the decision to promise partner organizations, equality activists and other allies that once its singular purpose of securing equal access to two-partner marriage for all people in the United States irrespective of gender had been achieved, Freedom To Marry would cease operations and disperse the bulk of its remaining funds among likeminded advocates.
That assured previously existing organization that aiding the single-proposed Freedom to Marry wouldn’t be akin to aiding something what might otherwise have gone on as a “zombie-org” siphoning off donor resources and occupying competing spaces.
“We gave almost $2 million to other gay rights and progressive organizations when we shuttered,” Cox said. “We also funded Evan [Wolfson] for a few years to document the history of the work for others to learn from our successes and failures so they wouldn’t have to repeat the same mistakes. The Oral History Project [at U.C. Berkeley] came out of that.”
While Freedom to Marry’s board chair was always keen to defer the spotlight to her executive director (of whose voice and public image Cox was fiercely protective for she believed Wolfson, as the face of the organization, had always to be head-and-shoulders above the progressive-politics fray), the Cox-Wolfson collaboration was responsible for the creation of wildly effective messaging campaigns and partnerships.
At least one of those partnership-and-messaging campaigns paid homage, however unspoken, to 1930s Associate Press editor, Byron Price’s and the late House Speaker, Thomas “Tip” O’Neill’s philosophy that “all politics is local.”
“From small towns to big cities, America’s mayors know that including gay couples in the freedom to marry does nothing but strengthen families and communities for all,” Wolfson once said.
Promulgating a partnership within the U.S. Conference of Mayor’s by creating an adjunct group, Mayors for the Freedom to Marry, Barbara Cox’s work came full circle. Jerry Sanders, then mayor of her adopted hometown, San Diego, eventually became chair of the group.
Comprised of top elected officials from cities across the United States who supported repealing or overturning the Defense of Marriage Act, former Mayor Sanders’ arrival on the marriage-equality scene a few years earlier had been dramatic.
The conservative Republican was expected to veto his own city council’s vote in 2007 to support marriage equality. But instead of vetoing the city council resolution, the day the veto was expected, he instead announced that learning his daughter was a lesbian had changed his mind about marriage, and convinced him to oppose DOMA along with city legislators.
“I see a lot of people who say it has helped change their minds too,” Sanders said in an interview he gave me in 2012. “I can’t tell you how good it felt when a local resident at Starbucks told me, ‘I felt all alone when my child said, ‘Dad I’m gay,’ but when I heard about your family and saw you say it’s OK to be gay, I felt I wasn’t alone.’”
But perhaps the simplest yet most brilliant work toward securing the dream of state-recognized marriage for same-sex couples was the deliberate, persistent and vigilant “rebranding” that Cox and her Freedom to Marry cohorts performed on a daily basis both inside and outside of the LGBTQ community.
The decision to persuade people to stop saying “gay marriage” or “same-sex” marriage was a momentous one, says Cox. It’s hard to imagine marriage equality having come to pass without it.
Cox says the she and Evan Wolfson thought hard and talked a lot about getting the messaging right. She notes that similar language as “freedom to marry the person they love” was present in a previous case won along the way to winning marriage nationwide. It was used by Justice Anthony Kennedy, whose “swing vote” was crucial.
“It was marriage,” Cox said. “Just marriage. We don’t want to get same-sex married; we just want to marry the person we love.”
While Barbara Cox says she won’t start a career in politics in Wisconsin, she is available to help equality-minded organizers, campaigns and any social-justice effort there. She is absolute about her lack of interest in running for political office.
The fact that she won’t be running for office in Wisconsin doesn’t mean Barbara Cox is headed into an apolitical Wilderness.
“We’re going to turn Wisconsin blue again,” she said.
Wisconsinites Scott Walker and the Koch Brothers may not have Barbara Cox on their radar, but the activist cum law professor from California has a recipe for winning against those who would like to maintain the status quo – and she’s taking it to Wisconsin as her 30-year career at Cal Western School of Law comes to an end.
“I’ll still be connected to the law school,” Cox said. “Peg and I made a donation for an LGBT law school scholarship. Cal Western has been amazingly supportive of me, of us, since I first came here in 1987. The law school was not horrified when the Daily Journal put ‘Lesbian Law School Dean Fights for Same-Sex Marriage’ on the front page.”
Cox, who was one of three faculty who established the law school’s Diversity Committee, is proud of the progress the institution has made in terms of creating a diverse campus and opening access to students of color.
“When I came here in 1987, we had five students of color,” she said. “And now our student body is about 50-50 diverse and non-diverse.”
Cox is both grateful and proud that Cal Western has supported her work to achieve marriage equality. She’s also proud that the law school’s own social justice efforts are exceptional.
“We’ve been recognized by the federal government as one of only two law schools over the last several years that win the pro bono award consistently,” Cox said. “We really have tried to make sure that our California Innocence Project, our community law project, the New Media Rights project helps people …”
“I’m going to miss this place and the people,” Cox said. “I’ll be back, but being here on a daily, weekly basis for 30 years has been a privilege.”
A longer interview with Vice Dean Emerita Barbara Cox will appear in August at Cal Western School of Law’s Web site: CWSL.edu In it, Cox shares a humorous anecdote about the reaction she got from a customer service representative at a rural Wisconsin utility when she put in her order letting the company know she and her wife would be moving to the area from San Diego. She also shares her impressions of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who visits the law school every year.
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