Sunday, September 30, 2007
Evan Wolfson, the founder of the modern gay marriage movement, tells the waiter he would like an iced decaf and “the usual.” Wolfson, one of Time Magazine’s Most Influential People in the World, is a man who unflinchingly knows what he wants and stays his course, whether it be in his choice of restaurant or in his choice of battle. And others always know when they see Evan coming what it is that he wants.
Since his time at Harvard Law School when he wrote a paper on the topic, what Wolfson wants is the right for gay people to marry. The issue gained national prominence in 1993 when the Hawaii Supreme Court held in Baehr v. Lewin that the government had to show a reason for the denial of the freedom to marry, not just deny marriage licenses to the plaintiff gay couples. Wolfson was co-counsel in the historic 1996 Hawaii trial in which he argued that the government does not have a sufficient reason for excluding same-sex couples from marriage. In 1999, Wolfson contributed to Baker v. Vermont, the case that led to the creation of civil unions; advised the lead attorneys in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, the case that led to same-sex marriage in Massachusetts; and since 2003, when he founded the primary umbrella organization coordinating the efforts to win marriage for gay people, Freedom to Marry, Wolfson has played a role in every marriage equality case in the United States. He is the movement’s founder and leader, and his focus remains square on winning that right. “For years,” said Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, “many of us were saying to him, ‘We’re not ready. The country’s not ready. And, by the way, you’re crazy.'”
When I make a statement to him about his devoting his life to gay marriage, he corrects me: “I’ve played a part in cases that span the entire spectrum of eliminating gay people’s exclusions and limitations on who gay people are, and I’ve also written on immigration and economic justice, and I have worked on cases involving race discrimination in jury selection and women’s inequality. I don’t think one has to pick one of these things; they work together.”
Indeed, he has. Wolfson was lead counsel before the Supreme Court in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, the case arguing against the expulsion of gay scoutmasters. As an intrepid young assistant district attorney in Brooklyn, Wolfson worked on People v. Liberta to end the exemption that allowed women to be raped by their husbands legally, a right in New York State as early as 1984. And he helped end the practice of choosing jurors based upon their race.
Wolfson’s entire career has been at the center of the most explosive legal and cultural issues of the last 30 years in the United States, and his influence has been profound. David Shankbone sat down with him to discuss some of the recent decisions affecting gay marriage, gender in marriage and reactions in the gay community to his fight for their rights.