Married to the Cause, One State at a Time

This article Robin Finn was originally published on February 26, 2007 in New York Times. Read the full article here.

When he was 13 and growing up in Pittsburgh with his gayness under the radar, his own radar included, Evan Wolfson aggravated his parents by deciding to invite President Richard M. Nixon to his bar mitzvah.

Theirs was not only a Jewish household, but also a Democratic one. Mr. Wolfson, the unmarried powerhouse behind the hyper-vocal Freedom to Marry coalition since 2001, was willing to overlook Mr. Nixon’s partisan flaws in favor of a presidential presence for this very special, very personal occasion, and defiantly mailed the invitation.

The commander in chief did not attend the festivities, but he did send a formal note of congratulations topped by the presidential seal. Even Mr. Wolfson’s parents, whose dream for him involved Ivy League smarts (he obliged with degrees from Yale College and Harvard Law), getting married to a woman (sorry, not in the cards), and becoming the first Jewish president (would being the first gay Jewish president suffice?), found it impressive.

They saved the Nixon note, along with sheaves of patriotic poetry he churned out as a teenager, like a halfhearted homage to Lyndon B. Johnson in 1969, from which Mr. Wolfson, sitting in his Chelsea office beneath portraits of two high-caliber role models, Abraham Lincoln and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., merrily recites his favorite lines:

He fought for what he thought is the right thing for you,

And so we should realize some credit is due.

Ever the rationalist and moralist, even as a youth.

Mr. Wolfson, who celebrated his 50th birthday and the 10th anniversary of Freedom to Marry Day with a politically charged fund-raiser on Monday night (Lincoln’s birthday), still has the Nixon note, not to mention the Impeach Nixon button he wore a few years later, among his impressive assemblage of memorabilia. His is a well-documented life, imminently memoir-ready even if he fears seeing himself “played by Danny DeVito” should his role in the legal fight for gays to marry — from 1994 to 2001 he ran the Marriage Project while working as a senior staff lawyer for the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund — be reprised on film someday.

“The classic pattern for civil rights advancement in America is patchwork,” he says, “but I see equal marriage rights for gays becoming a nationwide reality over the next 15 to 20 years. I really believe it will happen in my lifetime.”

And he really believes it will happen in New York in the next three years. Gov. Eliot Spitzer could not attend Mr. Wolfson’s party, but he and his wife, Silda Wall Spitzer, Harvard classmates of Mr. Wolfson’s, sent a letter of support for Freedom to Marry. Helping to turn the cause into a state law is on the governor’s agenda this year; nagging the governor about it, Mr. Wolfson hopes, is not going to be necessary.

“But nagging people to do the right thing is not a problem,” he says, “and giving all people the freedom to marry is the right thing.”

Mr. Wolfson read Mr. Spitzer’s letter at the party. The key line? “The bonds of marriage are built upon the affirmed love, trust and commitment of couples and should be a personal choice for all New Yorkers.”

Although several countries, Canada among them, permit gay marriage, in the United States only Massachusetts allows gays to marry. The civil unions approved by Vermont, Connecticut (where a marriage bill was introduced this week) and New Jersey are, in Mr. Wolfson’s opinion, preliminary exercises in a civil rights crusade that has gripped him since he wrote his third-year paper at Harvard on gays and the right to marry.

In 2004, he wrote a book, “Why Marriage Matters,” in an attempt to generate dialogue with (mainly) heterosexual Americans who don’t realize that civil unions are a parallel alternative, not on an equal footing with marriage.

“One state down, 49 to go,” Mr. Wolfson says of Freedom to Marry’s success rate. “Gay marriage is not what we’re looking for. We’re looking for the legal right for gays to marry. You don’t ask for half a loaf. We don’t need two lines at the clerk’s office when there’s already an institution that works in this country, and it’s called marriage. One of the main protections that come with marriage is inherent in the word: certainly in times of crisis any other word than marriage would not bring the same clarity or impart the same dignity.”

Not that this is about Mr. Wolfson getting hitched. He is ring-less, not even engaged. “Why get engaged,” he says, “if you aren’t allowed to get married?”

Before Harvard, he spent two years with the Peace Corps in Togo in West Africa, and had his first gay relationship. After law school, he was recruited by the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, then run by Elizabeth Holtzman.

He worked as a prosecutor from 1983 to 1988 (and wrote amicus briefs arguing for a ban on racial discrimination in jury selection and the abolition of the marital rape exemption) and, with Ms. Holtzman’s blessing, moonlighted free at Lambda from 1984 to 1988. Which meant he had to “come out” professionally.

With Lambda, he represented James Dale, the ousted Eagle Scout, against the Boy Scouts of America, and participated in Baker v. State, which led to civil unions in Vermont.

Portly, short and baldish are Mr. Wolfson’s physical self-descriptors; banana pudding from the Magnolia Bakery is his vice.

No, he and his significant other for the last five years, Cheng He, a Canadian whose field is molecular biology, are not married, he says, “but we would love the opportunity to have that choice.” So he’s earning it.