For Freedom to Marry's Founder, a Date with History
This article by Richard Wolf was originally published on June 17, 2015 in USA Today. Read the full article here.
The Supreme Court is likely to putEvan Wolfson out of work in the next two weeks, and he couldn't be happier.
In many ways the godfather of the same-sex marriage movement, Wolfson has spent the past 32 years waging what seemed a quixotic battle to win for gays and lesbians the same matrimonial rights that opposite-sex couples have had for millennia.
When he debuted in 1983 with a 140-page Harvard Law School thesis, he didn't have much support. A decade later, when Hawaii nearly legalized, then banned same-sex marriage, he took on the role of Paul Revere, insisting gay marriage was coming. It was, he promised, only a matter of time.
"I spent the '90s trying to get people to talk about 'gay' and 'marriage' in the same sentence," says the 58-year-old New Yorker who grew up in Pittsburgh, where his parents this month celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary and his kid sister last month married her partner of 11 years.
Only in the past few years has Wolfson's pet issue taken off. There are 37 states and 19 countries where same-sex marriages are legal — and the generally conservative Supreme Court may be on the verge of making it 50 and 20.
How Wolfson and other leaders of the same-sex marriage movement — people such as Mary Bonauto, the nation's top gay-marriage lawyer — brought a seemingly impossible dream to the brink of nationwide reality is a story of perseverance through legal, legislative and political setbacks. The turning point, Wolfson says, wasn't any single episode but a growing realization by a majority of Americans of what it means to be gay or lesbian.
Rather than buying the stereotype that "our relationships are all about sex and not about love," says the American Civil Liberties Union's James Esseks, another leader in the movement, Americans are learning that gays and lesbians want the opposite — relationships that are "lifelong, monogamous and celebrated in public."
If the justices strike down the nation's remaining bans against same-sex marriage, it will render Freedom to Marry, the advocacy and lobbying organization Wolfson founded in 2003, superfluous. That's OK with him, because it would go a long way toward eliminating stereotypes about gay and lesbian relationships.
It wasn't until 2011 that Wolfson finally experienced what he had sought for nearly three decades. Once New York legalized gay marriage, Wolfson married his longtime partner, Cheng He, in front of their families and friends. It proved to be a moving experience.
"I still feel the glow of that day," Wolfson says, sitting beside He in their Greenwich Village apartment overlooking the site of the former World Trade Center. "After years of preaching it, I actually experienced it, and wow — it turns out it was true. There is power in this."
Marriage and Mortality
It all began with a law school thesis titled "Samesex Marriage and Morality" that, Wolfson says, "has shaped my work ever since." It was written amid the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, which "shattered the silence about gay people's lives."
It also was a shot in the dark. Gays and lesbians were on the losing side of most court cases at the time — notably Bowers v. Hardwick, a Georgia case in which the Supreme Court denied gays and lesbians the right to engage in consensual sodomy. Wolfson, then a lawyer for Lambda Legal, wrote a friend-of-the-court brief for the losing side.
The initial victory for gay marriage came in Hawaii — first in 1993, when the state's Supreme Court said Hawaii could not ban the practice, then in 1996, when three couples won a lower court trial. Wolfson helped as co-counsel in the case when other gay rights groups saw little hope.
Ultimately, Hawaii voters passed a constitutional amendment in 1998 prohibiting same-sex marriage, prompting the state Supreme Court to reverse itself the following year.
"The lesson in that is we won in court, and we lost in the court of public opinion," says Ninia Baehr, one of the original plaintiffs in the case.
Wolfson parlayed the Hawaii story "to help foster a national conversation, and that conversation has continued ever since," says Bonauto, civil rights project director atGay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, who won the case that made Massachusetts the first state in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage in 2004. She also argued the case pending at the Supreme Court.
"Evan took this issue and has run with it relentlessly," says the ACLU's Matt Coles, one of about a dozen gay rights leaders who worked with Wolfson in 2004-05 to map out a strategy for achieving marriage equality. "He pushed everyone, all of us, the litigation groups, the big organizations, to get on it."
Even after Hawaii and Massachusetts, defeats kept piling up. In 2004 and 2006, 18 states passed constitutional amendments banning gay marriage. When California's top court struck down a state law banning gay marriage in 2008, voters swiftly amended the state constitution to replace the law. Voters in Maine did the same a year later.
Amid the setbacks came a few victories, and "wins trump losses," Wolfson says. Connecticut joined Massachusetts in 2008. Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire and the District of Columbia signed up in 2009. Then in 2011 came New York, and support for gay marriage finally topped 50% in national polls.
Around that time, Wolfson began growing Freedom to Marry and an affiliated lobbying group, placing operatives on the ground in key states. By 2013, the two groups reported nearly $12 million in annual revenue.
Since then, helped by the Supreme Court's twin decisions in 2013 upholding same-sex marriage in California and striking down a key part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, the number of states has soared to 37.
"In historical terms, you could say that it's gone fast. The crescendo has gone fast," Wolfson says. "But we didn't just begin this fight five years ago or 10 years ago."
Advantages of Wedlock
What Wolfson did begin more recently — 13 years ago — was a relationship with He, a management consultant with a doctorate in molecular biology. Until then, Baehr recalls, "he used to say, 'Always the bridesmaid, never the bride.' "
The couple wed in 2011 in a ceremony that combined Wolfson's Jewish and He's Chinese faiths and traditions. They moved their rings from their right to left hands. Afterward, He recalls, "I literally broke down in tears."
For them as for all gay couples, marriage has offered practical advantages. Without a green card despite student and work visas, He would have to wait nervously in a different line whenever the pair returned from their frequent vacations overseas. Now they are treated as a married couple everywhere and can file taxes jointly — a privilege that has not led to financial gain.
But marriage has meant far more than green cards and joint tax returns.
"There is that connection, there is that family, that unity," He says. "That is not something you can easily express by saying, 'This is my boyfriend.' "
Within days of the high court's imminent ruling, Wolfson plans to hold a party in Manhattan for up to 1,000 of the movement's movers and shakers.
"We're making it clear that we're doing this win or lose," he says. "We're hoping it will be a celebration, but if not — a mobilization."
If it's a celebration, he will shut down Freedom to Marry and become, at least temporarily, happily unemployed.