Evan Wolfson is Founder and President of Freedom to Marry, the campaign to win marriage nationwide. In 1983, Evan wrote his Harvard Law School thesis on gay people and the freedom to marry. During the 1990s he served as co-counsel in the historic Hawaii marriage case that launched the ongoing global movement for the freedom to marry, and has participated in numerous gay rights and HIV/AIDS cases. He earned a B.A. in history from Yale College in 1978; served as a Peace Corps volunteer in a village in Togo, West Africa; and wrote the book, Why Marriage Matters: America, Equality, and Gay People’s Right to Marry, published by Simon & Schuster in July 2004. Citing his national leadership on marriage and his appearance before the U.S. Supreme Court in Boy Scouts of America v. James Dale, the National Law Journal in 2000 named Evan one of “the 100 most influential lawyers in America.” Newsweek/The Daily Beast dubbed Evan “the godfather of gay marriage” and Time Magazine named him one of “the 100 most influential people in the world.” In 2012, Evan received the Barnard Medal of Distinction alongside President Barack Obama.
I Am Driven By | I have loved history my entire life. When I was in law school, shortly after I came out as gay, I read the book that changed my life – the groundbreaking, acclaimed history by John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. Prof. Boswell showed that the treatment of gay people had varied widely throughout the first three millennia of Western civilization. That gay people have not been hated, despised, and subordinated in all cultures through all of history made me realize that we could shift the way gay people are treated in America; I believed that if it had been better before, it could be better again. I’m driven by history, and I’m also driven by the lessons we are taught by leaders like Rev. Dr. Martin King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln. I think it’s important for everybody to do their part to make the world a better place.
My Highlights | I’m grateful to have had both a tremendous professional career and fulfilling personal life. I began my career with a vision of how to win the freedom to marry for gay people, and how to use marriage to transform people’s understanding of who gay people are. I’m proud that I stuck with the work, drove the winning strategy, and built the campaign to deliver that goal through many ups and downs over 30 years, especially in the beginning, when so many people said it wasn’t possible. In my personal life, I’m so lucky to have a wonderful family of birth, and a wonderful family of choice in the good friendships I’ve retained. My husband Cheng is grounded and good, smart and caring and funny…and he keeps me laughing. I am a very lucky person.
A Key Talent | I think the most important strength that has contributed to my success has been my optimism. I always believed we could win the freedom to marry, and didn’t second-guess or let myself off the hook, even in the early days when I received a lot of criticism and skepticism. Being able to convey my optimism to others and rally them to the same vision I’ve had has helped me immensely to build the needed campaign and inspire others in this movement and in the general public. Persistence, and keeping at the work even when it looks difficult to many – and impossible to some – is critical to success. My watchword has been this thought from the woman who coined the word “feminism,” the French suffragist, Hubertine Auclert: “If you would obtain a right, first you must proclaim it.” You have to believe you will win.
Resources I Use To Stay Inspired | I believe in making time for family and friends, even when busy; it is important to stay in touch with the many things that matter to you, and enrich you, in life. I feel very lucky in my support network. My husband is a great support for me with his distinct quality of always being able to make me laugh. Spending time with him and having him in my life makes me happy even during the most stressful parts of my professional life. I read a lot and draw inspiration from that, particularly from reading history. I enjoy theater and time with friends, and, finally, I love to travel. I’ve always believed in connecting with the things you care about in life by visiting interesting places, meeting new people, and seeing the world’s great monuments and scenery in order to gain inspiration and drive.
My Future Dreams And Ambitions | Although we are on the verge of winning the freedom to marry for all Americans, our work is not done. We must secure a nationwide victory at the U.S. Supreme Court as soon as possible. Even after we win marriage, there are still multiple avenues of discrimination in place against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people that must be removed in order to ensure our full freedom and dignity in America – such as nondiscrimination in employment and public accommodations, support for youth and seniors and the most vulnerable, and ensuring that people’s lived experience, not just the law, is all it should be.
The Best Advice I’ve Received | The greatest piece of advice that immediately comes to mind is to not worry about the things you can’t do anything about, but to focus on those that you can do something about.
I Am Inspired By | I take frequent and significant inspiration from reading the biographies and works of major leaders. My greatest heroes are Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and Franklin Roosevelt. I greatly enjoy reading about their lives and battles, as well as other chapters of history.
The Legacy I Would Like To Leave | My goal since law school has been to win the freedom to marry for all Americans (and also secure that freedom for as many others in the world as possible). We are on track and the momentum is on our side, but we still have to finish the job. The freedom to marry is not just a matter of law, but of real joy, security, dignity, and inclusion – and I want to bring that home for as many people as possible. Everyone should have the precious freedom to marry the person that they love, no matter where they live.