Harvard Exhibit Showcases Wolfson’s Law School Thesis on the Freedom to Marry, Marking 30th Anniv.
Prescient 1983 Student Paper Became Manifesto for the Marriage Movement
Communications Associate, Freedom to Marry
New York – A new special exhibit mounted at Harvard Law School showcases the 1983 thesis written by then-law student Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, the campaign to win marriage nationwide. Surrounded by subsequent writings by other Harvard figures, Wolfson’s 140-page manifesto, “Samesex Marriage and Morality: The Human Rights Vision of the Constitution,” made an early and influential case for marriage and foreshadowed his 2004 book, “Why Marriage Matters: America, Equality, and Gay People's Right to Marry” and the global movement for the freedom to marry Wolfson has led ever since.
“In 1983, as a recently returned Peace Corps volunteer and young law student, I wrote my paper because I believed then, as ever since, that marriage matters, that we can learn from history, and that change is possible, and believed that by claiming the resonant vocabulary of marriage – love, commitment, connectedness, and freedom – we could transform non-gay people’s understanding of who gay people are and why exclusion and discrimination are wrong,” Wolfson said. “There is a power in aspiring to make a difference and a power in ideas. As more gay and non-gay people have engaged, the freedom to marry for loving gay couples is an idea whose time has truly come.”
The exhibit is particularly timely, not only because of the paper’s 30th anniversary, but in light of closely watched Supreme Court arguments in two marriage cases last week and the extraordinary momentum for the freedom to marry that surges seemingly daily. A who’s who of America filed briefs before the Court, political figures continue to evolve to support for the freedom to marry, and an ABC News/Washington Post poll released last month shows that a record 58% of American voters favor allowing same-sex couples to legally marry – a far cry from the much more silent and lonely circumstances surrounding marriage and gay people when the then-26 year-old Wolfson penned his prescient law school paper 30 years ago. At the time, there was no country- or state-level legal recognition of same-sex couples, let alone marriage itself; courts had a decade earlier rejected the first wave of freedom to marry cases brought by couples in the immediate aftermath of Stonewall; and even at Harvard, many faculty declined to serve as advisors on the paper.
After writing the marriage thesis, Wolfson went on to co-counsel the world’s first-ever trial showing that there is no legitimate reason for denying gay couples the freedom to marry, in Hawaii in the 1990s, and in 2003 founded Freedom to Marry, the campaign to win marriage nationwide. As the freedom to marry cause advanced, The National Law Journal deemed Wolfson one of "the 100 most influential lawyers in America," Newsweek/The Daily Beast dubbed him "the godfather of gay marriage," Andrew Sullivan hailed him as “the indispensable man in bringing marriage equality to America,” and Time Magazine named Wolfson one of "the 100 most influential people in the world." In 2012, he received the Barnard Medal of Distinction alongside President Barack Obama just days after the president embraced the freedom to marry and the cause that Wolfson envisioned and leads.
The Harvard special exhibit will be on view through July in the Caspersen Room of the Harvard Law School Library.
Some excerpts from the 1983 paper:
Marriage, as a commitment and a statement, evokes … core constitutional concerns for every individual, and for society as a whole. For gay lovers, whose very self and social definition involves an expressive act of love, the issue is paramount…. For individuals who wish a public commitment of love and life together with the partner of their choice, this failure [to accord the freedom to marry] is oppressive, in real terms, not just in principle. Because such a denial is also immoral and unconstitutional, it is time to recognize samesex marriage with equal respect and joy.
By abolishing … discrimination and permitting full and equal self-expression on the part of all lovers for all beloveds … we will create a society more safely and richly founded on our individual freedom and equality. Such a society, where people are equally free to love and choose according to the dictates of their heart, best promotes the just and moral pursuit of happiness.
Constitutional human rights and the fundamental needs of each person compel the recognition of samesex marriages as equal in legality and worth to those between men and women. It is time that our society's attitudes toward sexuality focus on the "quality of love, not the gender of the parties involved or the biological function of their affection.” The interests of gay lovers in getting married are the same as any others seeking marriage: an occasion to express their sense of self and their commitment to another human; a chance to establish and plan a life together, partaking of the security, benefits, and reinforcement society provides; and an opportunity to deepen themselves and touch immortality through sexuality, transcendence, and love.
The Constitution morally respects the freedom of individuals to create, live, and love in the happiness they can make for themselves in the world, consonant with the rights of others. Marriage, the social recognition and approbation of one such choice, is an institution of much value to many. People are born different, into different circumstances, but are inherently equal in moral terms and in the eyes of the law, as our Constitution confirms. According this equality is perhaps most vital·when it comes to love, the great leveler, which comes to each of us not wholly by choice or design. The choice we do and should have is what to make of what we are. For gay women and men, who also love, samesex marriage is a human aspiration, and a human right. The Constitution and real morality demand its recoggition. By freeing gay individuals as our constitutional morality requires, we will more fully free our ideas of love, and thus more fully free ourselves.
Freedom to Marry is the campaign to win marriage nationwide. We are pursuing our Roadmap to Victory by working to win the freedom to marry in more states, grow the national majority for marriage, and end federal marriage discrimination. We partner with individuals and organizations across the country to end the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage and the protections, responsibilities, and commitment that marriage brings.