Evan Wolfson and Cheng He - Vows

Author: Nate Schweber
Publication: New York Times
Publication Date: October 23rd, 2011

Click here to read the article at the New York Times

EVAN WOLFSON can recall being 10 or 11 when, while watching television with his mother, he turned to her and told her he didn’t think he’d ever get married.

At the time, his mother, Joan Colter Wolfson of Pittsburgh, thought nothing of it. “I didn’t know why he said that,” noted Mrs. Wolfson, now 77. “At that age we didn’t know that he was gay. We also couldn’t have known the wonderful way everything would turn out.”

Mr. Wolfson, now 54 and widely considered to be a key architect of the movement to legalize same-sex marriage, said that at that early age he already had an inkling of the direction his life was about to take. He also clearly remembered feeling that “the images of marriage in society didn’t include me.”

“But I always dreamed of falling in love,” he added, “finding someone to care for and be cared for by.”

It was in college that he said he came to the conclusion that “marriage reflected this societal language of commitment and worth, and the law cemented it.” In 1983 he began challenging the laws that barred him and others from participating by writing his Harvard Law thesis on legalizing same-sex marriage. A decade later, as a senior staff lawyer for the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, he founded the Freedom to Marry Coalition, and thus formalized his dedication to the fight.

But in his personal life — “whinily single” is how he described it — his own hopes for marriage seemed ever more distant.

“He was always the bridesmaid, never the bride,” said his friend, Linda Hirshman, 67 and an author.

Another friend, George Chauncey, 57 and a Yale history professor, said that Mr. Wolfson’s “principal motivation was a moral one, not a personal one.”

Nevertheless, the moral and the personal came together when Mr. Wolfson met Cheng He, whom he married on Oct. 15 at Guastavino’s, a New York restaurant.

Joking in his typically disarming fashion, Mr. Wolfson summed up the moment by paraphrasing a television tagline: “I’m not only the Hair Club president, but I’m also a client.”

It was the wit and humor of Dr. He, however, that first attracted Mr. Wolfson, who came across his companion in January 2002 on the site gay.com. In turn, Dr. He, who was then studying for a Ph.D. in molecular biology at New York University, fell for Mr. Wolfson’s sense of humor — so much so that this normally introverted graduate student was inspired to make the first move.

“I e-mailed him first, which is unusual, because I am the shy type,” said Dr. He, now 36 and a management consultant at Philosophy IB, a consultancy in Florham Park, N.J., where he assists pharmaceutical and consumer-product clients. The two men met in person at Mr. Wolfson’s West Village apartment, whereupon they began exploring their mutual love of going out to see Broadway shows and staying in to watch “Seinfeld” reruns.

Dr. He, who was born in Beijing and at age 19 emigrated to Canada with his parents, recalled being particularly impressed when Mr. Wolfson introduced him to the best Chinese restaurants in the city.

By December 2002 the relationship was going so well that Mr. Wolfson and Dr. He decided to travel together to Spain and Portugal. They enjoyed that trip so much that they made an annual ritual of visiting an exotic destination. Together they have seen the Pyramids, Maccu Picchu, the Parthenon, the Taj Mahal, the Galapagos Islands, the Great Wall of China and the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Dr. He said he realized he’d fallen for Mr. Wolfson by the way he felt lonely when Mr. Wolfson, who by 2003 had become the president of Freedom to Marry, now an independent organization, left for business trips. “I felt I did not want to be away from him,” Dr. He said. Once Mr. Wolfson had to have an operation and Dr. He visited his hospital bedside and ached for his partner to heal.

“I began to realize this was the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with,” Dr. He said. “For me, getting married is not about making a political statement; it’s about wanting to build a life together, wanting to have protections for one another, wanting to make a commitment in front of your family and friends, just like everyone else.”

He added that this is not something he might have had in China — from which his parents decided to flee after watching as soldiers attacked civilians near Tiananmen Square in 1989. Had they remained, Dr. He said: “Most likely I would be a closeted man in a heterosexual marriage. Moving to the West made it easier to come out.”

For Mr. Wolfson, who soon gave Dr. He the key to his flat, this was the first time in his adult life he loved someone who reciprocated his feelings.

Dr. He moved in a year later. Mr. Wolfson said, “I felt very lucky to be with such a wonderful person, someone who is so not-screwed-up, someone so comfortable with who he is; caring, connected, interesting, entertaining, quirky and real.”

In 2008 Dr. He purchased a car to commute to Philosophy IB’s offices. The consultant came home one June day to find a wrapped present. Inside was a GPS system and a note from Mr. Wolfson. It read, “Dear Cheng ... As we travel life’s journey, I’d be lost without you. Let’s travel together. Will you marry me? Love, Evan.”

“I said, ‘Where’s my diamond ring?’ ” Dr. He recalled with a laugh. “It was still quite a nice feeling to be proposed to.”

For years they resisted eloping to Canada, of which Dr. He is a resident, and deferred the dream until it became legal for same-sex couples to wed in New York.

In February of this year, on the Chinese New Year, the two donned platinum engagement rings on their right hands, and waited, vowing to switch them to the more traditional left hands as soon as they could legally marry.

When Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed the bill making it legal for same-sex couples to wed, the couple’s plans were set in motion.

At their Oct. 15 wedding, the two men wore matching black suits and Hawaiian leis as they exchanged vows under a bamboo wedding canopy that stood beneath one of the Queensboro Bridge’s great stone arches that are a unique feature of Guastavino’s décor.

The couple also wore ties emblazoned with a Chinese symbol meaning “double happiness.” (Mr. Wolfson had them customized in Chinatown at a shop on Elizabeth Street called — what else? — Elizabeth Tailor.)

Their officiant, Justice Rosalyn H. Richter, who sits on the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court in Manhattan, proclaimed before a crowd of around 50 close friends and family members that here, at last, was “the ceremony you wanted, in the city you call home.” After reciting their vows, Mr. Wolfson and Dr. He put their wedding rings on their left hands.

At the celebratory dinner that followed, Rendong He of Victoria, British Columbia, Dr. He’s 72-year-old father, said that his son’s marriage “is not traditional in China, but the world is changing.”

“I love my son, and Evan is good, his family is good, and my son is good. I support my son.”

Mr. Wolfson’s father, Jerry Wolfson, 81, sweetly chimed in, claiming that somehow he just knew that the precocious boy who became a lawyer could even, he said, “go to China and back” for a principle he believed in.

“Little did I know he would bring us such a treasure.”