More than 30 years ago, when marriage equality seemed like an impossible fantasy, a law student at Harvard wrote his thesis on same-sex marriage. What seemed like a lost cause then appears like a sure thing now, thanks to Evan Wolfson’s tireless commitment to the cause. Wolfson, head of the organization Freedom to Marry, has been a linchpin in the movement to achieve marriage equality.
“When I wrote my law school thesis in 1983, I was writing about the first wave of marriage cases that took place in early 1970s, all of which had been rubber stamped away,” Wolfson recalls. “The movement leadership didn’t believe that it was something we could fight for or should fight for. I felt differently.”
Hard as it is to believe now, throughout the 1980s and well into the 1990s, the lesbian and gay movement was split on the idea of marriage equality. Even within Lambda Legal, which Wolfson joined in 1989, there was a vigorous debate about whether marriage was a key right or an oppressive institution contrary to the spirit of gay liberation.
For Wolfson, the question was never in doubt. “I think history has vindicated the belief that marriage equality is an engine for transforming people’s hearts and minds,” he says.
The turning point–or what Wolfson calls the second wave–came in 1993, when the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled that denying same-sex couples a marriage license was discrimination on the basis of sex, which was banned in the state constitution.
“It was the first day we had in court to prove that if the government discriminated against us, it had to show a reason,” Wolfson notes. “With that ruling, we were able to pull together a crucial mass, as well as tremendous grass roots energy.”
Marriage equality in Hawaii failed because the state wasn’t quite ready. The passage of the Defense of Marriage Act, signed by supposedly gay-friendly Bill Clinton, was another blow to the movement.
Still, Wolfson remained dedicated to the cause. “When I was going around the country in my Paul Revere phase in the 1990s and buiding the national freedom to marry coalition, I told people all the time that it’s winnable, that it’s going to take work, and that it’s not going to happen overnight.”
The one setback that caught Wolfson off guard was President Bush advisor Karl Rove’s tactic of using anti-marriage amendments on state ballots to turn out conservative Christians for the 2004 presidential election. “It was so radical and so foreign to the American way of doing things,” Wolfson says. “The constitutional amendments made it harder to win some of the battles we could have won legislatively. It forced us to rely on litigation.”
Wolfson acknowledges that society’s embrace of marriage equality has moved at a historically swift pace. However, he cautions that it’s taken longer than most people think.
“People tend to think of the chapter they got involved in, like Proposition 8 or the battle in New York or the Windsor decision,” Wolfson points out. “In the end, it has moved quickly, but it’s a quickly that took over 40 years.”
With the ultimate victory for marriage equality within site, Wolfson is prepared for Freedom to Marry to wind down. “It’s a campaign, not a movement organization intended to last forever,” he says. “Once we have marriage nationwide, the work of this campaign will be done. We will close the doors, over a period of a few months.”
But the battle is far from over. “The marriage conversation with all of its power to change people’s understanding will only just have come to places like Texas and Alabama,” says Wolfson. “Rather than pivoting away from marriage, we must harness the power, visibility and transformative effect it brings in every corner of the country to the work that remains on many fronts. Some of it will be fighting against subverting the win. There’s also a federal civil rights law and support for our youth and seniors. That work will be fueled by the power of the gains we’ve made.”
The battle has had a profound impact on Wolfson’s personal life. For years, as he was promoting marriage equality he was, by his own definition, “whinily single.”
“People used to point out the irony of Mr. Marriage not being involved,” he recalls. “I would respond, those who can’t do, litigate.”
That’s all changed. Wolfson married his husband, Cheng He, in 2011. Their parents joined in the celebration. Wolfson says “I’m still aglow from that day.”
As a result, he says, “I heartily recommend marriage. But it’s not mandatory. It is freedom to marry, after all.”
Photo credit: Freedom to Marry