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'America Is Ready': Freedom to Marry Founder Evan Wolfson on Gay Marriage and the Supreme Court

We spoke to Evan Wolfson, an attorney who has spent 32 years pushing the country to support marriage equality, about what to expect this week during oral arguments at the Supreme Court.

by Colleen Curry
Apr 27 2015, 6:53pm

Photo via Flickr

As the Supreme Court prepares to hear oral arguments about whether marriage is a constitutional right for gay couples, Evan Wolfson, a driving force behind the country's sweeping acceptance of same-sex marriage, says he feels "exuberant."

Wolfson has a good reason to be excited. The founder of the non-profit advocacy group Freedom to Marry, he has spent 32 years and his entire professional legal career pushing the country to support marriage equality. Now, with the court poised to decide the issue once and for all, the end of his campaign is potentially in sight.

A Harvard Law graduate, Wolfson worked for two decades at Lambda Legal, an advocacy group devoted to civil rights for the LGBT community and people with HIV/AIDS, before leaving in 2003 to found Freedom to Marry, where he launched a political, public relations, advertising, and legal campaign to get Americans talking about gay marriage.

He spoke with VICE News about what to expect during oral arguments this week, and what happens next after the Supreme Court hands down its ruling later this summer.

Related: Supreme Court shoots down attempted block on gay marriage in Alabama

VICE News: How do you feel going into the oral arguments tomorrow?
Evan Wolfson: I'm exuberant. I feel we've made as strong a case to the country and to the court as we could possibly make. Everyone can feel the momentum, but the job is not done until it's done.

What happens to Freedom to Marry after the decision?
If the Supreme Court doesn't end this discrimination now, we will keep working to make sure we do end this discrimination and build on progress we've made and build on the majority of Americans that now support the freedom to marry and understand it's time to end exclusion. We can't stop until we've won the right to marry in every state.

At same time, I'm hopeful the justices will understand the urgency, that time matters, that couples shouldn't have to fight state by state, case by case, year by year any longer. Many families will be helped. Freedom to Marry — the organization, the campaign — will have then achieved the goal we set out to deliver.

If that happens, we'll start a strategic wind down, we'll close our doors. The work of the movement will be far from over… but the campaign will be done, and the movement will continue.

Take me back to Harvard Law in the 1980s. What made you become interested and passionate about this as a legal issue?
Number one, it was coming out myself and being gay and wanting to have a life without limitations based on being gay, as well as my love of history and politics and my sense of justice.

In between college and law school I was in the Peace Corps, and when I was there I really came out to myself. I always had known I was gay and hadn't known what to do about it, and when I was teaching and working in a small village in Africa, I began having sex with men and accepting this is what I wanted and I'd have to figure out how to build a life.

'We knew we'd eventually win by the Supreme Court, but to do that we'd need to create the climate to encourage the justices to do the right thing.'

I realized that if the men there that I had friendships with and sex with lived in a different society that gave them more opportunity, more freedom, they'd be gay. Not all of them, but for others it was clear it was something they would have wanted, to have an identity, to be gay, but because society didn't allow that, didn't even have language for it, they wouldn't have fulfilling lives. So the real epiphany was that who you are is profoundly shaped by the opportunities and freedom and vocabulary that society gives you.

So I took that insight and left the Peace Corps and started law school and read the book that changed my life: [John] Boswell's Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, which was this sweeping, award-winning unprecedentedly brilliant history of the first several thousand years of Western civilization and how it treated homosexuality. What Boswell showed was that — contrary to what I had assumed — the way gay people were treated in other societies varied widely and was not all the way we treat gay people and homosexuality with discrimination and oppression now.

Was marriage equality on the minds of gay rights leaders back then?
Gay people had been seeking the freedom to marry throughout the gay rights movement. By 1972 there had been at least three major cases that made their way up through the courts, one of which went to the Supreme Court. That first wave of cases was rubber stamped away, including one case that the Supreme Court summarily threw out. So 10 years later much of the leadership were still pursuing other objectives, and thought this was going to be too hard, that we had tried and failed, so there were not many people advocating we take it up anew.

So I did. I advocated that marriage is important, that we should be claiming that vocabulary. I also argued that by claiming that vocabulary and fighting for marriage, we would be claiming an engine of transformation that would help non-gay people change their understanding of who gay people are, and that that would advance us on many fronts.

That was a very contested idea, let's just say, in 1983 when people still remembered the failure of marriage legislation, and were dealing with the onslaught of AIDS and an unprecedentedly hostile administration in Washington, the Reagan administration, and fighting a war. There was a lot of resistance and opposition on taking on that fight even among gay advocates. So I was a minority or even a lone voice, and that remained so when I graduated law school and came into movement.

Related: A gay Mormon man and his wife want the Supreme Court to know they support marriage equality

When did the movement start to pick up momentum?
What changed that was the Hawaii case. It was the first time a court had ever not just rubber stamped it away, they gave us our day in court. So that was the second wave of marriage litigation that led to everything else that follows.

Why did the first wave fail and second wave succeed? The reason is because of what came in between: AIDS. AIDS shattered the silence about gay people's lives, and transformed non-gay people's understanding of who gay people are. It also awakened in gay people an understanding of how frozen out we are of the law, including gay marriage.

How did you come up with a strategy to convince America to get behind marriage equality?
I always believed it was a matter of helping people see who gay people really are, and that through the shared values of love and commitment and this language of marriage we would be able to help them do that, would help them have those conversations. But of course to do that, to generate the millions of conversations needed, it took a lot of ups and downs, and failures, and efforts that got us partway but not fully there. We've won more than 60 court rulings in the last two years, after losing many in '80s and '90s and so on, and of all those 60 rulings we've won in last two years, my favorite passage was from the Utah case, where the judge wrote, "It's not the constitution that has changed, it's our knowledge of what it means to be lesbian or gay." That insight exactly encapsulates our strategy

We knew we'd eventually win by the Supreme Court, but to do that we'd need to create the climate to encourage the justices to do the right thing and allow us to sustain the win we'd get in court, so it became about building a critical mass of states and a critical mass of support. We now believe on the strength of all this work that we have now built that critical mass of states, 37 states, and the critical mass of support, 63 percent, up from 27 percent when I was doing the trial in Hawaii. We can now say to the Supreme Court that America is ready.

'It's part of the greatness of America that with all the flaws, we can change things.'

How does it feel, knowing that you've shaped history?
I always believed we could win. I always believed that by reaching out to people and doing the work, we could change things, that was the lesson I had learned reading that book way back as a law student. I believe it's part of the greatness of America that with all the flaws, we can change things.

What else needs to be done, if the court rules in your favor? Where does the movement go next?
There is still no federal civil rights act preventing discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation for employment or education or public accommodation, housing, and so on. There are too many states where gay people can be discriminated against, where transgender people can face discrimination. There aren't clear legal protections that people need to have.

We also need to makesure youth are supported and protected, and that seniors are able to age and die with dignity and legal protection and support. Beyond the changes in the law that are still needed to combat discrimination, we need to make sure every person's lived experience is happy and rich and full of possibility. People should not grow up feeling alone or isolated.

Where will you be tomorrow?
I've been waiting for this day in court for 32 years. I'm going to be there.

Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen

Photo via Flickr