Evan Wolfson’s 1983 thesis on the freedom to marry featured in Harvard Law Library
April 02, 2013
While a student at Harvard Law School, Freedom to Marry founder and President Evan Wolfson wrote one of the earliest - and still today, most influential - cases for why the freedom to marry is important and how winning marriage for same-sex couples will signal a broader path to equality for gay and lesbian Americans. The paper, which Wolfson published during his third year at Harvard Law in 1983, is titled "Samesex Marriage and Morality: The Human Rights Vision of the Constitution."
The 140-page thesis, which served as a guideline for Wolfson's 2004 book Why Marriage Matters: America, Equality, and Gay People's Right to Marry and a roadmap to the founding of Freedom to Marry, is now being featured in the Harvard Law Library's new exhibit, "Long Road to Equality," which also includes work from other HLS students, faculty and alumni who have contributed to the movement to win marriage nationwide.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the landmark paper. The exhibit also comes on the heels of last week's oral arguments in two key Supreme Court cases - one challenging California's Proposition 8 and one challenging the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits federal respect for marriages between same-sex couples. The marriage movement has come a long way since 1983, when same-sex couples had no country- or state-level legal recognition, let alone marriage itself. Wolfson reflected on his paper today in a statement. He said:
"In 1983, as a recently returned Peace Corps volunteer and young law student, I wrote my paper because I believed then, as ever since, that marriage matters, that we can learn from history, and that change is possible, and believed that by claiming the resonant vocabulary of marriage - love, commitment, connectedness, and freedom - we could transform non-gay people's understanding of who gay people are and why exclusion and discrimination are wrong. There is a power in aspiring to make a difference and a power in ideas. As more gay and non-gay people have engaged, the freedom to marry for loving gay couples is an idea whose time has truly come."
You can read the entire thesis HERE (PDF), and check out a few key excerpts from the thesis:
Marriage, as a commitment and a statement, evokes ... core constitutional concerns for every individual, and for society as a whole. For gay lovers, whose very self and social definition involves an expressive act of love, the issue is paramount.... For individuals who wish a public commitment of love and life together with the partner of their choice, this failure [to accord the freedom to marry] is oppressive, in real terms, not just in principle. Because such a denial is also immoral and unconstitutional, it is time to recognize samesex marriage with equal respect and joy.
By abolishing ... discrimination and permitting full and equal self-expression on the part of all lovers for all beloveds ... we will create a society more safely and richly founded on our individual freedom and equality. Such a society, where people are equally free to love and choose according to the dictates of their heart, best promotes the just and moral pursuit of happiness.
Constitutional human rights and the fundamental needs of each person compel the recognition of samesex marriages as equal in legality and worth to those between men and women. It is time that our society's attitudes toward sexuality focus on the "quality of love, not the gender of the parties involved or the biological function of their affection." The interests of gay lovers in getting married are the same as any others seeking marriage: an occasion to express their sense of self and their commitment to another human; a chance to establish and plan a life together, partaking of the security, benefits, and reinforcement society provides; and an opportunity to deepen themselves and touch immortality through sexuality, transcendence, and love.
The Constitution morally respects the freedom of individuals to create, live, and love in the happiness they can make for themselves in the world, consonant with the rights of others. Marriage, the social recognition and approbation of one such choice, is an institution of much value to many. People are born different, into different circumstances, but are inherently equal in moral terms and in the eyes of the law, as our Constitution confirms. According this equality is perhaps most vital·when it comes to love, the great leveler, which comes to each of us not wholly by choice or design. The choice we do and should have is what to make of what we are. For gay women and men, who also love, samesex marriage is a human aspiration, and a human right. The Constitution and real morality demand its recoggition. By freeing gay individuals as our constitutional morality requires, we will more fully free our ideas of love, and thus more fully free ourselves.
The exhibit at the Harvard Law School Library will continue through July in the Caspersen Room.