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Wolfson leaves Lambda to focus on freedom-to-marry work

by Peter Freiberg
Originally published in the Washington Blade, March 30, 2001

Mr. Marriage is moving on.

Evan Wolfson, who was instrumental in bringing Gay marriage to the forefront of American political debate, is stepping down April 30 as director of Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund's Marriage Project.

But the 44-year-old lawyer is hardly stepping away from the marriage issue: With what he terms a "very generous" grant from the Evelyn & Walter Haas Jr. Fund -- he won't tell how much -- Wolfson will spend the next several months developing "new resources, new strategies, and new partnerships" to advance the national freedom-to-marry movement.

"Now is the beginning of the next chapter," Wolfson told the Blade in an interview.

"We have an unprecedented opportunity," he said. "All across the country people are talking about Gay people and marriage. We need to figure out how we build on the pretty solid third of the public that's with us and what is the specific mix of litigation and legislation that we employ in various states."

Because of his advocacy work on behalf of Gay marriage, and because he argued the high-profile case against the Boy Scouts' anti-Gay discrimination before the U.S. Supreme Court, Wolfson is one of the best-known movement lawyers in the Gay community and nationally.

In a press release announcing Wolfson's departure, Lambda Executive Director Kevin Cathcart said that during his 12 years with the organization Wolfson had "personified Lambda's passion and vision for equality."

Wolfson has also drawn notice in the legal community, too: Last June, the National Law Journal named Wolfson one of the 100 most influential attorneys in America.

Nevertheless, one of Wolfson's recurring refrains is that lawsuits, while important, cannot by themselves bring Gay people equality.

"I'm not in this just to change the law," he said. "It's about changing society. I want Gay kids to grow up believing that they can get married, that they can join the Scouts, that they can choose the life they want to live."

For that to happen, Wolfson said, public opinion must be altered. And he argued that that is happening, to a much greater extent than could have been envisioned just a decade ago.

Even negative decisions, Wolfson said, generate societal change. He points to the ripple effect of last year's U.S. Supreme Court -cision on the Boy Scouts, which allowed the organization to continue to exclude openly Gay members and leaders. Nationwide, parents, school boards, United Ways, churches and synagogues, and other institutions are wrestling with the Boy Scout issue.

"People constantly tell me stories," Wolfson said, "about how they ... overhear a conversation between two presumably non-Gay mothers, asking, 'Should we keep these kids in this pack or troop or not?'"

The ferment, he said, is "reflected in the wave of press [coverage] and political action all across the country. This is great. Even before we change the [Boy Scouts] policy, we are succeeding in getting people to rethink how they feel about Gay people."

But to accelerate change, Wolfson urged that Gay activists and their supporters at least start out by asking for full equality, rather than by seeking a compromise.

In Connecticut and other states where political battles over legal rights for Gay couples are likely to take place, Wolfson says activists should press for marriage even if they eventually settle for less.

It would be a "terrible mistake," he said, "to go into any discussion or into any legislative battle" without seeking equal access to marriage.

"What I [advocate]," Wolfson said, "is that we go into the room asking for what we deserve, telling our powerful stories, and engaging the reachable allies.

"We may leave the room not getting everything we want," Wolfson said, "but don't go in bargaining against yourself."

Wolfson noted that where Gay couples have made the most progress toward equality Vermont with its civil unions and Hawaii with its domestic partner law activists began with lawsuits demanding the right to marry.

"We did not win civil unions in Vermont by asking for civil unions," Wolfson said. "The non-Gay middle we need to reach, our opponents, and even our allies understand that this debate is about marriage. We must know how to talk about it. There is no end run [possible]."

It is no coincidence, Wolfson insisted, that the two states "where we have more protections for Gay families than any other are the two [states] where we fought the hardest, and came the closest to winning, the right to marry."

James Dale, the former Boy Scout whose expulsion for being openly Gay was the basis for the lawsuit that reached the Supreme Court, said he believes Wolfson has "a very clear vision of the direction that we need to be going as a community."

Dale asked Lambda to handle his case in 1991. Wolfson, he said, immediately "understood the importance of this issue when a lot of other people sort of said, 'Why do you want to be back in the Boy Scouts, aren't you a little old for that?'

"Evan understood the importance of the organization to me," Dale said, "and the importance of an American institution like the Boy Scouts' discriminating against somebody and how that could impact the public dialogue and conversation."

Asked about what seems to be Wolfson's omnipresent optimism even in the face of defeat, Dale, who became personal friends with Wolfson over the course of the lawsuit, maintained: "Sometimes he's optimistic, and sometimes he's not. I don't think they're rose-colored glasses. You have to envision equality, because if you don't you won't get it."

Wolfson acknowledged being disappointed that both in Hawaii and Vermont, the lawsuits initiated by activists did not ultimately gain the right to marry.

In Hawaii, the state Supreme Court delayed an anticipated pro-Gay decision so long that opponents were able to take an anti-Gay initiative to voters who directed the legislature to amend the state constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage, making a court decision moot.

In Vermont, the state Supreme Court left it up to legislators to give Gay couples equal rights, and they opted for civil unions which Wolfson called a "wonderful step forward" but not full equality.

Nevertheless, there seems little question that pursuit of the right to marry will continue to be a major goal of the movement for Gay equality in good part because of Wolfson's forceful advocacy of that goal.

When three Hawaii Gay couples filed suit in 1991 to force the state to give them marriage licenses, Lambda and other Gay legal and political groups initially rejected getting involved, for strategic and ideological reasons; the Gay community itself was divided on the marriage issue.

But Wolfson pushed Lambda to join the suit and, after the couples' heterosexual private attorney won a major court victory in 1993, Lambda agreed to become co-counsel, assigning Wolfson to the case.

Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, recalled that, when she first joined NCLR in 1994, she joined the "roundtable" discussions that take place for most groups involved in Gay-related litigation.

"Evan made a very passionate update around achieving the right to marry," Kendell remembered. "I piped up, my naivete blazing, with something like, 'Well, why do we really want the right to marry anyway? Isn't that just aping the patriarchy?'"

"For just a flash of a second," she said, "I feared Evan was going to crawl over the table and throttle me, and for a good reason. Not because the substance of my opinion was unworthy of consideration, but because I didn't know much about the issue."

Instead, Kendell said, Wolfson discussed the arguments for making marriage a priority, and talked about the cons.

"What I can now say," Kendell asserted, "is that, in the intervening years, what has been made unmistakably clear to me by the Lesbians and Gay men that we work with and represent, is that the denial of our right to marry exacerbates our marginalization; winning that right is the cornerstone of full justice."

Lambda Director Ruth Harlow said the organization has no intention of letting up on the marriage issue when Wolfson leaves; the resources available to the Marriage Project are in fact expanding, she said.

The project, Harlow said, will be headed by David Buckel, a longtime Lambda attorney who has focused on harassment of Gay youth in schools; a "huge amount" of Buckel's work will now be devoted to the marriage issue, Harlow says, and a team of Lambda attorneys will work with him.

Meanwhile, as Wolfson prepares to leave the place that has been his professional home for the last dozen years, he noted one personal irony: The man who epitomizes the freedom-to-marry movement is still single.

He is, however, optimistic.

"I believe," said Wolfson, "in the possibility of change."

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