Attorney Evan Wolfson was instrumental in marriage equality’s victory in the United States. The founder of the organization Freedom to Marry, Wolfson crafted the foundational political, legal, organizing, and messaging strategy that ultimately triumphed when the Supreme Court affirmed same-sex couples’s freedom to marry in 2015.
He focused on marriage early, writing his 1983 Harvard Law thesis about marriage equality. He took a job at Lambda Legal where, in the 1990’s he became co-counsel for the plaintiffs in the Hawaii marriage case that resulted in the world’s first-ever court ruling in favor of the freedom to marry and launched an ongoing global movie.
Subsequent setbacks, including the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s passage of Proposition 8, and resistance from other activists and organizations, didn’t dim his vision.
“I was very lucky to have that sense that being gay was not something wrong with me, it was the way the world treated gays that was wrong with everybody else,” he said.
Wolfson put himself out of a job with the victory in 2015, winding down Freedom to Marry, and now spends his time teaching at Georgetown Law and Yale University and advising and assisting other movements, causes, and other countries, sharing the lessons on how to win. He lives in New York with his husband, Cheng He.
How and when did you first know that you were gay?
I feel like I’ve always known I was gay. I was certainly aware of it even before I exactly knew what gay meant. When I was three or four, I remember having a dream that I now I recognize as a gay dream.
I also remember the very first time I was called a faggot, when I was walking to elementary school, and then of course around 13 or 14, being attracted to the boys in gym class.
How did you come out?
I was graduating from college at 21, getting ready to go into the Peace Corps. I first came out to my then-girlfriend, essentially so that she wouldn’t wait for me when I was away. That didn’t take, so I had to do it again when I came home two years later.
And then at 23, once back in the US, I began coming out, first to close friends, then to everyone at law school, then my siblings, and finally my parents. By the time I was 25, I was publicly out, including to my family.
What about coming out within law firms or other organizations?
I had to decide how ‘out’ to be when applying for positions at law firms. I resolved pretty early on that if an organization didn’t want an openly gay person, then I didn’t want to be there anyway. And so as I was interviewing, I chose to be open on my resume and in interviews about the various activities I was pursuing.
My first job out of law school was working in the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office under Elizabeth Holtzman, whom I had admired as a Congresswoman back in the Watergate days. I’d not considered being a prosecutor, but her office recruited me pretty heavily, including Barbara Underwood, who was then the Chief of the Appeals Bureau, and is now the first woman Attorney General of New York State. I was out during that process, and joined the office as an openly gay Assistant District Attorney.
And then when I started work, I told them that I wanted to do pro bono volunteer work for Lambda Legal, and that required me to come out all the way through to the top of the chain of command, and ultimately Holtzman had to make the decision. And really the decision was not just about whether I’d be able to work specifically for Lambda Legal, but whether an Assistant District Attorney should be able to do any pro bono work. Apparently nobody had really pressed to do the kind of impact litigation work I wanted to do, as an ADA.
And that resulted in the leadership letting do great work with Lambda, and also saying, ‘Well if this guy wants to do this progressive, good-guy stuff for another organization, why don’t we make him do it for us.’ And that opened even more doors.
Working with Holtzman and Barbara Underwood, I wrote a brief challenging the marital rape exemption, which we succeeded in overturning in New York, and which was an important pro-woman marital rights case. And, I had the opportunity to argue that before New York’s highest court because I had come out as openly gay. I got to write the amicus brief to the Supreme Court, on behalf of our office, in the case challenging race-based peremptory challenges in jury selection. And we won that case too, and that’s stuff that I got to do because I was openly gay, because I had sought permission to work with Lambda.
I will say, I also suspect that on two other occasions I lost jobs, or was discriminated against, not so much because I was gay but because I was an activist gay.
How has being a gay person impacted your perspective and your style as a leader?
I think it’s a little hard to know for sure. It’s hard to know how much of it is being gay, versus how much of it is just my own temperament and luck and fortunate circumstances, sense of self and upbringing. It’s a little hard to separate part of yourself from your own larger self and your own experience.
From an early age, I believed that it was important to make a difference in the world. I wanted to change things. I wasn’t afraid of rejection. I had confidence that we could make the world better, that other people could rise, that I could make the world better.
I was very lucky to have that sense that being gay was not something wrong with me, it was the way the world treated gays that was wrong with everybody else. Having that confidence to try to make changes I thought the world needed, to try to change my own experience and my circumstances around how I was treated as a gay person, it shaped my larger sense of what’s possible, as an activist and a leader.
If you could do something else, do you think about what it could be?
I would like to have been Sinatra. I love the music, I love the performance, the ability to enrich people’s lives. The ability to create joy and emotion, and jump from project to project, while centering on something that he did so well.
I should qualify – I’d want to be Sinatra without the sexism and thuggishness.
But in other respects, he was pretty enlightened. He pushed pretty hard for racial equality for a good part of his career.
What’s the most important thing that you’ve learned from a boss in your career?
When I was working at the Brooklyn Appeals Bureau, Barbara Underwood instituted a rule that everyone who was preparing a brief or an argument should be edited. It didn’t matter how senior you were, your writing and your arguments needed to be subject to input from others.
And that was an important lesson, broader than just being edited, but, rather, about being exposed to difference. We all have something to learn from different perspectives, even from contributors who may be less experienced. It’s important to test your ideas and your advocacy on other ears. You benefit from learning how other people react.
What have you learned from people who have worked for you?
I learned so much from my extraordinarily wonderful Freedom to Marry team. I definitely learned how to think about different modes of communication. I am very in love, as you might be able to tell, with words and argument. But my team was very good at pushing me to keep in mind that different people have different learning styles, and to not just rely on words. Which meant that we’d communicate with images, or a blend of images and text, and experiment with different styles. And often our materials would be more story-based, more emotional, or less intellectual – and more effective because of it.
This idea wasn’t foreign to me, but it wasn’t my strength. Having others push me and wrestle with me on this helped us make a better case to America, particularly in the court of public opinion.
If you could sit down with somebody who graduated from college in 2018 and tell them one of the most important things that you know now, what would you tell them?
Don’t worry about the things you can’t control. Spend your time and energy doing your best on the things that you can do something about. The rest will then unfold. Hopefully, they’ll unfold better than you might have feared.
I really strongly believe in optimism, in believing you can do something, believing others will rise, believing you will get there.
And, if necessary, compartmentalizing away some of the negatives. Focus on the pathway, not the problem. You will feel better, you will convey that optimism and empowerment to others and they will join you and that will help you get where you want to go.
Do you have a story maybe about a time when a mentor or a sponsor helped you take the next step?
On April 26, 2000, I argued Boy Scouts of America v. Dale in front of the Supreme Court on behalf of Lambda Legal. It was an immense experience, the culmination of 10 years of my work. I was the first Lambda attorney to argue in front of the Supreme Court. And pretty much everyone was in the room that day. My parents, my friends, my college roommates, a who’s who of the legal establishment, a who’s who of the movement…. It was almost like a bar mitzvah. This giant gathering of my entire life on this immense, important day.
On the bus ride home from Washington, as we were schlepping back up after this very long, exciting, wonderful, challenging day, I learned that Howard Dean, who was then the governor of Vermont, had just signed into law our civil union bill. It was, at that point, the peak of what we had achieved so far. State level recognition of same-sex couples, albeit short of marriage itself.
So literally, on the same day, these two projects I’d been working on for 10+ years culminated. It felt like a signal that I should think about what I was doing next.
Lambda was really supportive; they allowed me to step back and think. I was wondering whether I should stay at Lambda, whether I should continue to drive the marriage campaign, and if I did, what that would look like. Or, maybe I’d done my part, and should step away and let someone else take a crack at it.
At that time, I got a letter from the Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, a foundation that had been doing some work supporting gay pride. They were looking create a new gay rights program. I went to my friend, the Lambda legal director, and said, ‘You really should apply for this.’ She said, ‘No, you should apply for this.’ I said, “What are you talking about? I have no interest in working at a foundation or moving to San Francisco or any of this.’ But I decided, in the process of testing and thinking about what I wanted to next, I should go talk to them, or at least I should give them my thoughts about what they should do.
So, I reached out and said, ‘I don’t want to apply for the job, but I will be in San Francisco. Would you like to just sit down and chat about it?’ They said, ‘Absolutely, come in. You’ll meet with the president.’ I went in and we began a set of conversations, which lasted months, in which they kept inviting me back and we kept talking with each other. Because I wasn’t necessarily sure I even wanted this and they certainly weren’t sure that I was the right person. We were very candid and direct with each other, rather than trying to necessarily make it work.
And I told them that they should not just fund a gay project here, a gay project there, haphazardly, but that they should fund the next big campaign – a campaign for marriage. Not the piecemeal gay agenda, but the freedom to marry, itself. And we looked at the case studies, what had happened so far, Hawaii, Vermont. Here’s where we stumbled. Here’s what’s needed. I told them, you should fund this, and you should fund it in a big way, bigger than anyone has funded anything in the community before. As an institution, the fund was usually focused on California, and really just the Bay Area. But I said, this has to be national, this isn’t just about California.
In turn, they were saying things to me like: ‘The movement doesn’t seem to want this. It seems like it’s already failed. Are you serious? Gay marriage! That seems crazy!’
But after several months of these discussions, they said, ‘You know what? You’ve sold us on your vision. We are willing to support you.”
And that’s how I wound up leaving Lambda and creating what became Freedom to Marry. And we then partnered with Lambda and other critically important organizations to drive a strategy and leverage our movement and win marriage.
The vision of how to make it happen, and the life choice I ended up making, were very much shaped by my interactions with this non-gay foundation, and the philanthropists who didn’t really know how to do something like this, and didn’t set out thinking it should be done.
What is your favorite interview question?
Why do you want this job?
Who’s your LGBT+ hero?
Tim Sweeney. Tim began his activist career, at least his gay activist career, as the treasurer for the campaign Harvey Milk led to defeat the Briggs Initiative in California in 1978. He was then one of the first executive directors of Lambda Legal. He was the executive director of GMHC, in the early and tough periods of the AIDS epidemic. He was one of the leaders of the Empire State Pride Agenda, and helped win the passage of the nondiscrimination law here in New York State. He then went on to work at the Haas Jr. Fund, where he became my partner on the inside.
As a friend, as a leader, as a movement pioneer, as a philanthropic titan, Tim has been a renaissance man, and a mentor to me and many, many others over the years. He’s an extraordinary human being.
What is the most tantalizing leadership opportunity that you see in the world right now?
I think the job of ‘President of the United States loyal to our country’ is currently not filled. We need to get the right person in there as soon as possible.
What is your motto?
Believe you can do it and convey that belief to others. Don’t focus on the problem, focus on the path.
What do you think the next big thing for the global LGBT+ community is?
Fulfilling the universal human rights of freedom, equality, safety and dignity, including the freedom to marry, in every country. Ensuring that all people, gay and transgender and everyone else, are entitled to these human rights, no matter where they live. But even above this, defending our democratic republic and getting America back on track.
What is your next big step?
Sharing the lessons of our campaign, particularly with activists in other countries. One of the happy consequences of winning, particularly when you succeed at doing something that people thought was impossible five minutes ago, is that then everybody wants to know, how did you do it?
If you were planning a dinner party and could invite any five people from history, who would you invite?
Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Moses… now it gets challenging because you’ve got to think who would be entertaining as well.
Maybe Tom Lehrer.
And Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.
I’d want to go from person to person, and I’d want to know: how did you sustain yourself? How did you persuade others? How did you hold onto your vision? What lessons did you take away?
Reading about people like that, which I do often, you learn that many of them were not necessarily happy at the end. They didn’t necessarily fully appreciate all they’d done. One of the lessons I try to take from the lives of people I’m inspired by is how to find my own fulfillment in life and be happy as well as, hopefully, as they did, make the world better.
How do you try to be happy?
I try to focus on the positive, focus on the good. Try to tune out some of the bad and not wallow in it. I’m certainly better at doing that on a professional level than on a personal level but I try to remember that lesson in my life. I try to appreciate and be grateful for the wonderful luck I’ve had and the good things I have in my life. My husband, my family, my friends, my country. My freedoms and dignity. The opportunity to make a difference and to do good. I try to nourish myself with things that I love, like history and travel and theater and good conversation and reading. I think that’s really the key.
What would the opening song in a movie about your life be?
‘Make Them Hear You’ from Ragtime. And, obviously, ‘Over the Rainbow.’
What’s your favorite vacation destination?
There’s a terrible tension between going back to places I love and going to some of the places I want to continue exploring. I’m working through Richard Halliburton’s list of the “Complete Book of Marvels.” Halliburton was an explorer in the 1920s and ‘30s, who wrote this series of adventures I was given as a kid in the ‘60s by my mom. He turned out to be gay, actually. It inspired a real love of travel in me, and a desire to go to places I haven’t been before.
I’m always torn between going to the places I love or going to the new places. I love going to Europe, the Ancient World, historical sights in the Mediterranean and throughout Europe, but I also love going to the developing world, to Japan and to China… One of my absolute favorite trips was my honeymoon with my husband, when we went to Antarctica. I’ve loved going on safaris in Africa and in India and Nepal.
So, basically everywhere?
I hate to say that, but I don’t feel like I’ve ever had a bad trip. I’ve gotten the chance to see many, many wonderful things, both here in the United States and around the world. I’ve been to all 50 states. I’ve been to 91 countries and can’t think of one I didn’t enjoy visiting.
What are three books that you would take to a desert island?
Memoirs of Hadrian, by Marguerite Yourcenar, is a book that I re-read every 10 years or so, and definitely one of my favorites. And the collected works of Lincoln and Shakespeare.
The book that changed my life, now I’m cheating by adding another, was John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Power and Homosexuality. Reading that book did change my life and put me on the course of writing my paper about that why we should fight for the Freedom to Marry, while sitting in law school back in 1983. It really set the course for all the work I’ve done ever since.