Evan Wolfson, leader in same-sex marriage battle,
High-profile attorney says his talents are better used elsewhere now
by Laura Kiritsy, Bay Windows staff
Evan Wolfson may be leaving the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund (Lambda), but more than ever, he remains committed to working for full equality for gays and lesbians, particularly in the fight for equal marriage rights.
During his 12-year tenure on staff at Lambda, the nation's oldest gay and lesbian legal advocacy organization, the 44-year-old attorney played a pivotal role in propelling the discussion of gay rights out of the closet and into the national mainstream with several high-profile cases that began in the early 1990s.
Wolfson served as co-counsel in the historic Baehr v. Anderson -- which sought marriage rights for gay couples in Hawaii -- kicking off the ongoing debate on the freedom to marry. As director of Lambda's Marriage Project, he furthered that discussion by lending his expertise to Baker v. State, which resulted in the groundbreaking Vermont civil-unions law. Last year Wolfson argued before the U.S. Supreme court against the Boy Scouts of America's gay ban in Boy Scouts v. Dale. Though the high court ruled the Scouts could allow discrimination within their ranks, the case continues to reverberate across the country as increasing numbers of school districts, churches and others refuse to support BSA's anti-gay policy.
On the momentum of those landmark cases, Wolfson is leaving Lambda April 30 to develop over the next few months new ways to increase the power of the freedom-to-marry movement with a planning grant from the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, a philanthropic foundation dedicated to social justice issues. "[T]he grant is a special opportunity for me to explore the next steps for how our movement is going to win the freedom to marry and to figure out how do we bring in the new strategies, the new voices, the new partners together with the great people we have to really mount the kind of sustained campaign that we will need over the next several years to achieve what I believe is a very attainable victory," Wolfson told Bay Windows. "And the goal here is to really have a chance to talk to the best and think anew and really be liberated to bring people together in a new way from a new angle with a new platform, new resources, to make this happen. Because it's within reach and it really will transform the place of lesbians and gay men in our society."
Though he is enthusiastic about his new enterprise -- "I think anyone who knows me knows that I'm not just going to be sitting around writing a book report," he laughs -- Wolfson also says that the decision to leave the organization was not easy. "I love Lambda and I'm just extremely proud to have had the opportunity to work here with such wonderful people over the many, many years. There's something extraordinarily satisfying about doing what you believe in and being paid, however minimally, to do that," he laughs. "But last year really felt like a culmination of a lot of what I've been working on. Both with the marriage work -- which is so near to my heart -- and the Boy Scout case that I did for Lambda for 10 years. . On the very same day that I argued in the Supreme Court on behalf of Lambda and James Dale and the whole movement in that really thrilling case, we learned that the governor of Vermont Gov. [Howard Dean] had signed the civil-union bill. So it really just felt like here are two major pieces of my work coming to this exciting culmination point. I really felt then that a chapter had closed and it was time to open the next chapter. I spent some time figuring out what that was, and of course what's been so great is that in both marriage and the Boy Scouts and youth work we've really seen the country responding and had the opportunity to build on that work, and now that's what I want to do as I go off into my new next chapter."
Wolfson's inspiration to join the gay civil rights movement occurred during his years at Harvard Law School in the early 1980s, when he attended a lecture by Tim Sweeney, Lambda's then-executive director, and Roz Richter, who at the time was its managing attorney. At that point, they were also the only two employees of the organization, which began in 1973. "That was when it first occurred to me that you could do [gay rights litigation] full-time after law school," he recalls. "I decided that as soon as I got to New York and got settled in my new job I would volunteer with Lambda and that's what I started doing 17 years ago. And of course both Tim and Roz have gone on to become two of my closest friends and certainly incredibly admired colleagues."
Another turning point came with the 1982 publication of "Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality," by the late Yale historian John Boswell. "In that book [Boswell] put the experience of being gay into this extraordinary historical context and showed how the opposition and the hostility and the stereotypes and the prejudices that we experience in our society today were not always there and have changed dramatically over time and that there are causes for those changes," Wolfson explains. "Reading that book really did change my life because it took my own personal identity and thinking as a gay man and gave me a way of thinking about the social justice questions and the way in which our society affects who we are and either gives or denies us opportunity to flourish. As a result, ever since then I've really understood that ours is a civil-rights struggle and that we stand together with others in that struggle and that things can change. It doesn't have to be the way it is because it hasn't always been the way it is. So I really believe that, I'm moved passionately by history and therefore I just feel really excited to be part of something that I see is connected to history."
As a result of those law school experiences, Wolfson began volunteering at Lambda about two months into his first job as an assistant district attorney in the Brooklyn D.A.'s office, which necessitated outing himself to his superiors at a time when -- to Wolfson's knowledge -- there were no other openly gay district attorneys. Wolfson was also the first to raise the question of whether or not assistant district attorneys were even allowed to do pro bono work, but after a lot of battling within his office, he was permitted to take on work for Lambda in addition to his full-time job.
"So I began doing pro bono cases for Lambda in my little Brooklyn apartment on the weekends at a time when we were still writing on yellow pads, there was no computer, no WordPerfect, no e-mail -- you know, that's how I began." The pro bono gig with Lambda, which lasted for five years, before he joined the staff in 1989, turned out to be a boon to his career in more ways than one. "Ultimately, as it turned out, I think it really helped my career because not only obviously did I get the connection with Lambda and have the chance to do something that I really believed in and have found a home in," he laughs. "But also the D.A.'s office said, 'Gee, if this guy's so interested in doing this constitutional law stuff, why don't we have him do some of that for us?' As a result I wound up doing important cases and taking on special projects within the D.A.'s office as well. So actually coming out and being involved with Lambda not only enriched my life in terms of the Lambda work, but also enhanced my career within the [D.A's] office."
Though he has built his career arguing on behalf of gay rights in the courtroom, there are other ways to achieve equality, says Wolfson, and he plans to leave litigating to his capable colleagues at Lambda, Boston's Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union, as well as all the other lawyers with whom he has worked over the years.
"I now have an opportunity to step back and figure out what else do we need to work alongside those lawyers and to enhance the methodologies of social change that we are not as strong in -- such as engaging the non-gay public, building coalitions, shaping the terms of the debate, helping the legislative work. I've always really been very deeply impressed by Martin Luther King's observation that there are many methodologies for social change and we really need them all pulled together in partnership and working to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts -- to bring it all forward," he explains. "So to my mind the litigation is actually where we're strongest and where I can afford to leave that to my colleagues."
There have been many highlights during his years as a Lambda attorney, says Wolfson -- being a young lawyer working on Bowers v. Hardwick (the infamous Georgia sodomy case that resulted in a crushing defeat at the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court), the Boy Scouts case, and in general, doing work about which he is passionate.
But Wolfson is most proud of the work he has done on the same-sex marriage issue. "It's only been eight years since the American public has even been asked to think about whether the denial of marriage should continue and in that time we've moved the public to the point where two-thirds of all Americans now believe that gay people will win the freedom to marry," he points out. "We have really seized and shaped the terms of the debate and made that victory attainable and I feel like I've played a very important part in that and I'm very proud of it. At the same time I realize there's much more to be done .. And that's why I want to take this new next step."
Given Wolfson's tireless advocacy for the right of gay and lesbian couples to marry, is the man currently involved with someone who could be marriage material? Wolfson tries to dodge the question, but with some prodding, laughingly responds, "What I usually say is, those who can't do, litigate."