Pioneer

07.20.11

The Godfather of Gay Marriage

For Evan Wolfson, who testifies today at a Senate panel on repealing DOMA, same-sex marriage is a civil right. Lois Romano on the man considered the father of the gay-marriage drive.

In 1983, Ronald Reagan was president, landlords were evicting HIV-infected tenants, and a young gay man at Harvard Law School was decades ahead of his time.

Evan Wolfson was working on a thesis that would become the blueprint for the cultural and moral arguments supporting gay marriage. He is considered by many the father of the gay-marriage movement, a pioneer who not only saw the legal arguments but advocated embracing the “vocabulary” of marriage when even progressive activists fretted about moving too fast.

“One of the main protections that come with marriage is the word 'marriage,'” Wolfson told me Tuesday. “It brings clarity … It’s a statement that you’re sharing your life with someone. No one ever wrote a song about civil union.”

Wolfson, 54, is now executive director and founder of Freedom to Marry, an advocacy group that works for marriage equality on both the federal and state levels. A New York resident, Wolfson will take advantage of the state’s new law legalizing gay marriage and soon wed his partner of nine years.

As a young man coming to terms with his own sexuality, Wolfson says, he first became sexually active in the Peace Corps in West Africa. Upon entering law school two years later, he was aware that he had to “organize my life in a way that allowed me to be intimate with other men.”

“My own journey,” he says, “was related to how I wanted to live in this world.”

The idea for his thesis came at a time of fear and confusion, both in the gay movement and among everyday Americans. People were still ignorant about the causes of AIDS and how it spread, and the religious right had part of the public whipped into a frenzy. Several law-school professors declined to be his thesis adviser because of the topic.

Wolfson made the requisite argument that marriage for gays was a civil right guaranteed under the equal-protection clause of the Constitution. But his most passionate arguments were historical and moral, maintaining that since society had arbitrarily defined homosexuals as “wholly apart and different,” it could also reverse such prejudices.

“Culture is an important part of the vocabulary of marriage,” Wolfson says. “We as a culture can’t say we believe in marriage, that we have the freedom to marry, and then create exclusions.”

On Wednesday, Wolfson will be testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of legislation that would effectively repeal the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman and forbids the federal government to recognize gay marriage. In practical terms, this means that a gay couple could get married in New York on Sunday—but one spouse would still not be eligible to receive the other's Social Security benefits if that spouse dies.

No one ever wrote a song about a civil union.

He brings up the story of Ron Wallen, who will testify Wednesday as well. A 77-year-old veteran, Wallen in 2008 married his partner of 55 years, who has since died; Wallen is faced with selling his home because he cannot collect his spouse’s federal benefits. “DOMA singles out one class of lawfully married couples for radically different treatment,” Wolfson contends.

Earlier in the year, the administration said that the Justice Department would no longer defend DOMA in court, and this week the White House said President Obama would support the new legislation repealing it. But the political reality is that DOMA is unlikely to be repealed this year because the Republican-controlled House supports it. Wednesday's hearing, Wolfson says, "is just a first step ... The environment is very different since DOMA passed in 1996. Twelve countries on four continents now allow gay marriage. Gays can marry anywhere in the world."

Indeed, Wolfson has long believed the cultural tides of history ultimately affect sexual politics. He notes that the book that changed his life was John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe From the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century, which explores the history of attitudes toward homosexuality. “Tolerance waxed and waned through the ages, and if it changed for the worse, I figured it could change back for the better,” he says.

In his well-received 2004 book, Why Marriage Matters, Wolfson points out how many states once had laws prohibiting marriage between races—a nonissue today. “He really understood the marriage issue before anyone else, and he educated so many of us,” says David Mixner, a prominent activist and friend. “If you fight for marriage, then you will get the increments along the way as well.”

Mixner calls Wolfson a “visionary” whose calm advocacy and cogent arguments helped pass marriage laws in six states and the District of Columbia.

When he left law school, Wolfson became an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn, and an activist for gay rights on the side. He found that his progressive ideas were not always welcome at the table. Marriage was not a high priority for a population just trying to achieve simple equality and respect. There was a concern among gays that if they asked for too much too soon they would wind up with nothing. Wolfson’s view was that you don’t get even half a loaf if you ask for half a loaf.

“Our job is to advocate for what we truly deserve—not just for what we think is doable,” says Wolfson. “We have 44 states to go.”