Evan Wolfson: 'I Believed We Could Win'

This article written by Jim Rutenberg was originally published on July 24, 2015 in The New York Times. Read the full article here.

Way back in 1983, long before you started Freedom to Marry, you wrote your Harvard Law thesis on why same-sex marriage should be legal. How’d it go over with your professor?

Well, I got a B on the paper, which was somewhat disappointing, so I tried to make up for it with extracurricular activities ever since.

Your goal was always to build a movement that would help push same-sex marriage to a win at the Supreme Court. Was 32 years the time frame you had in mind when you wrote that paper?

I believed we could win, and I absolutely believed we could get there in our lifetime but that it wasn’t gonna be easy and it wasn’t gonna happen overnight — that it would take a long time. But when you’re younger, your idea of long is shorter, so I didn’t really necessarily think it would take this long.

Did your original legal theory stand up?

The legal arguments, much like Justice Kennedy’s opinion, did talk about liberty — including the freedom to marry — and equality and our Constitution’s guarantee of both. The constitutional arguments have always been clear; they were clear enough for a 26-year-old law student to write them back in 1983. But what we needed to do was to help the public and then the decision makers to apply that command of the Constitution to gay people.

When people say, “It moved so fast,” do you concur, or do you roll your eyes because you’ve been at this for so long?

By historical civil rights standards, it has moved quickly. But, of course, this overnight victory came after four decades. It has gone quickly by historical standards, but it has not gone quickly in the way that people sometimes experience it.

All the major Democratic politicians are on board now, including Hillary and Bill Clinton. But of course Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act. Did you ever get an explanation for that?

It really came down to politics and the fear that the country wasn’t there yet and he didn’t want to be ahead of the country on it. They were also getting some pressure, to be honest, from many of our partners and allies, including gay activists, some of whom were right there agreeing that we had to take a hit for political reasons. And I believe their political analysis was wrong, not to mention that they were wrong in terms of what was right.

What was the primary political concern?

They were concerned that this would be used against Clinton in states he wanted to win in the presidential election later that year.

Did your allies think that was more important for the bigger cause?

Understandably, people felt that re-electing a generally friendly president was in our interest, and I certainly understood that analysis. But I didn’t agree that this was going to cost him the election. At that point, it wasn’t even that he necessarily had to come out for the freedom to marry; what he had to do was veto a radical, un-American, discriminatory attack.

Did you ever believe that the Clintons really didn’t believe that same-sex couples should marry?

No, I personally did not believe that. I believed that they knew what the right answer was. But at the same time, what I’ve always felt is I don’t so much care what a politician believes in his or her heart. I care what they do.

President Obama had previously stated, emphatically, that he believed marriage was between a man and a woman. Yet now is he being seen as having one of the most important, if not themost important, records on gay rights.

The civil rights of gay people and the freedom-to-marry leadership will unquestionably loom large in any accounting of his legacy. And he has taken many important steps to end discrimination against transgender people and gay people, including the freedom to marry. It’s not only marriage.

But did his previous statements that marriage was “between a man and a woman” frustrate you at the time? Did you believe it?

I certainly didn’t take that as his final position. Even though both Hillary Clinton and President Obama were not always where they eventually came to be and where we wanted them to be, they were never where some of our anti-gay opponents were. They were never supporting anti-gay measures; they were never trying to take things away.

Is there a Republican candidate right now running for president whom you could see embracing same-sex marriage?

Well, it’s a long time between now and Election Day, and every single day between now and then, more and more people are gonna support the freedom to marry and move.

Do you foresee Jim Crow-style rollbacks in the more resistant states?

I don’t actually fear that that will happen. I feel like we have moved forward and we’ve won the freedom to marry and that’s here throughout the land. But I do fear that people will think we’re done. What we need to do now is, first, harness the power of the marriage conversation to continue moving hearts and minds, particularly in parts of the country where the freedom to marry will only have just arrived. And then we want to build on that to secure the other protections that are needed. We still don’t have a federal civil rights law in this country prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

So now that you’ve won on same-sex marriage, what’s your next move? Same-sex divorce?

Well, as far as my next career option goes, some have suggested that that might be a good way to catch up on the money making. But I have not made any decisions and am happy to entertain offers.