Evan Wolfson, Architect of the Gay Marriage Equality Movement
This article by Chris Kompanek was originally published on June 26, 2015 in Financial Times. Read the full article here.
When Evan Wolfson bought his Greenwich Village apartment in 1996, he had barely enough time to move in before catching a plane to Hawaii to serve as co-counsel on Baehr v Miike. That case is now considered a watershed in the marriage equality movement, of which the charismatic lawyer is considered the prime architect. It was the first time a court ruled that excluding gay and lesbian couples from marriage was discrimination. It was also the catalyst in bringing about the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act, which was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013 — Wolfson’s campaign, Freedom to Marry, played an instrumental role.
In the past two years, he’s helped win 65 state and federal court rulings. The Supreme Court is set to rule imminently on whether same-sex marriages deserve federal protection. In the past two years, he has also completely renovated his apartment, which he now shares with his husband, Cheng He, 40, who uses his PhD in molecular biology to consult for pharmaceutical and healthcare companies. When they met online in 2002, there was an “instant connection”, says Wolfson, and they’ve been together ever since, marrying in 2011 when New York joined a growing number of states to legalise same-sex marriage.
After the couple gave up on a long-running fantasy to buy the studio next to their one-bedroom flat, they decided to renovate instead. “I wanted to make it his too, not just mine,” Wolfson explains. They found an extra room hiding in the “dead space of the entry hall and walk-in closet”, he says. “I thought if we pulled the kitchen forward and out, we’d be able to carve something into that dead space. It worked out better than we thought; it really feels like a little room instead of just an alcove,” Wolfson says excitedly of the newly created media room that is accessed by a large sliding door off the entry hall. Guests sleep on an elegant futon he found online, above which hangs a poster from the Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of Cabaret, the classic Kander and Ebb musical that shows the chilling consequences of inaction.
“I remember going to see it in summer camp for the first time when I was probably 10 or 11 and was absolutely captivated by it,” Wolfson says. That it is a musical combined with history and “some real message” was a revelatory experience for Wolfson, who was told at an early age that he should be a lawyer. “I was very verbal, liked to argue, and I always wanted to accomplish something,” he recalls of his childhood in Pittsburgh. He is sitting on a brown leather couch in his living room. Above him hangs his impressive collection of hand-carved wooden masks, which span many countries and represent decades of travel. They are hung more or less chronologically, from left to right, beginning with ones he bought while serving in the peace corps in west Africa after graduating from Harvard Law School.
“I used to buy a mask every time I travelled, partly because that was one of the great art objects I was able to find when I was in my twenties in Africa. I also liked the idea because it connects to gay history,” he says, referencing the Mattachine Society, one of the first gay liberation groups in the US. “They wore masks because the idea was that gay people wear masks. We pass as something we’re not because we’re being persecuted.”
Wolfson realised that who you are is influenced not only by the choices society gives you but also by the language at your disposal. In 1983, he began exploring this in his law school thesis, which advocated for marriage equality. At the time, he reasoned that “by claiming the vocabulary of marriage we would be seizing an engine of transformation that would help non-gay people better understand who gay people were”.
Living in a village in rural Africa while in the peace corps, he noticed something about the men he was sleeping with: “If they lived in a different society, they would probably be gay. Because they lived in a society where that wasn’t allowed, and they didn’t even have a language for it, they were probably going to grow up, marry women and live somewhat unfulfilled lives.”
Read the full article at Financial Times.