Freedom To Marry Founder: 'The Day Of The Gay Exception Is Over'
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're joined now by a man who's been making the legal case for same-sex marriage for more than 20 years. His name is Evan Wolfson. He's the founder of a group called Freedom to Marry, and he wrote a paper back in 1983 when he was a student at Harvard Law School. That paper has been called the blueprint for the same-sex marriage movement. Evan Wolfson joins me now. Thanks so much for talking with us.
EVAN WOLFSON: Good to be here today.
MARTIN: Where were you when you heard the court's decision, and what was going through your mind?
WOLFSON: I was at Freedom to Marry, our campaign headquarters, with my staff and team. And I actually got to be the one who saw it first, despite all my digital wiz kids.
WOLFSON: And I got to announce it, which was a real thrill. And it just - it hasn't stopped being moving and wonderful and lovely.
MARTIN: We just heard a bit of Chief Justice John Roberts' dissent. As a lawyer, as someone who has been thinking and working on this issue from a legal perspective for so many years, did anything in this decision surprise you on either side?
WOLFSON: I don't think we could have asked for a stronger decision, and the decision recognizes that this has been a debate and a discussion and a struggle going on for decades. It's not new. It's not sudden. It's not being sprung on the American people. It's - and Justice Kennedy notes that it's precisely because there's been so much discussion, debate and growth in understanding that the American people now, by a supermajority, support the freedom to marry and believed that the court should do what the court did today.
But Justice Kennedy also talks about our Constitution and the commitment to the freedom to marry and the commitment to equal protection under the laws. And he makes clear that the day of the gay exception is over. It is no longer tolerable for the law to exclude gay people from the basic dignity, protections and respects that are part of America's promise and that our Constitution guarantees.
MARTIN: Although, as you know, same same sex marriage has not been approved by all voters in every state.
WOLFSON: Well, that's true, but, probably, that would be the same today, believe it or not, with interracial marriage and interfaith marriage and so on. We don't put basic rights up to a vote in our country. That's why we have a Constitution. That's why they're called rights, not votes. People don't vote on whether you have freedom of speech or whether someone else should have freedom of religion or whether I should have the freedom to marry. And what the court affirmed today is that the freedom to marry, which has been recognized as a constitutional guarantee in more than 14 cases over the years, cannot be denied to a group of Americans who happen to be gay.
MARTIN: I'm holding this paper here, the paper you wrote in 1983 when you were a Harvard Law student. It's a big paper, typed, it looks like, on a typewriter.
WOLFSON: In those days, that's all we had.
WOLFSON: That was pre-Internet.
MARTIN: It's titled "Same-Sex Marriage And Morality: The Human Rights Vision Of The Constitution." How was that paper received way back in 1983?
WOLFSON: Well, I got a B, which...
WOLFSON: ...Was, of course, disappointing at the time. But I tried to make up for it with extracurricular activities ever since. And years later, the professor who gave me that grade and who advised me on it was quoted in a profile of me in the paper saying, it's so refreshing to see a student apply something he learned in law school. So I feel like the paper has come into its time. And, fortunately, the country has moved forward, and we've all made the case. And it, obviously, is not just a paper. It's been millions of conversations and lots of hard work and a true willingness on the part of the majority of the American people to open their hearts and to change their minds.
MARTIN: Massachusetts was the first state to legalize same-sex marriage in 2003. Through the years, dozens of other states would follow, now culminating in this Supreme Court decision today. Did this play out as you thought it would or as quickly as you hoped it would?
WOLFSON: Well, it certainly followed our strategy. I mean, we followed our strategy, drove that strategy. And the way we've won is the way the strategy always said we would. And by the way, it wasn't a secret strategy. We put it on Freedom to Marry's website. And what we always said we needed to do in order to get the Supreme Court to finish the job, which was the way we knew we would get to national resolution, was to build a critical mass of states and a critical mass of support, and that required persuasion. It required organizing. It required education. It required litigation. It required lobbying. And so we blended all of those together and, with many stumbles and successes, worked that strategy through.
And I always said to people, as I was preaching and pushing and going around the country leading and encouraging this campaign, that it wasn't going to happen overnight. Civil rights change doesn't happen overnight. I told people that it would take a long time, but we would get there. But when you're younger, your idea of long is shorter. So I don't think in 1983 or 1993, when I was working on it as an activist and so on, that I necessarily thought that we would get here only in June of 2015. And on the other hand, by historical standards and, I think, in most people's experience, it's gone very quickly because once we broke the silence about gay people's lives and talked about why marriage matters and really figured out how to most effectively engage non-gay people in this conversation, it did move with accelerating speed, and we came to the day we've come to today.
MARTIN: You've spent, I think it's fair to say, the majority of your adult life working to legalize same-sex marriage.
MARTIN: What do you do now?
WOLFSON: You know, I haven't thought about it, really. I mean, I've of course been asked about it probably about 20 times a day in the last couple months as we, you know, built toward what we hoped would be a victory. But I really didn't - I haven't thought about it because in order to think about it, I have to really figure out, you know, like, who am I when I'm not Mr. Marriage anymore?
WOLFSON: And I just want to allow myself time to really think about what do I want for this next chapter in life. What would I be good at? Where can I make a contribution? What will excite me and then try to figure out what can I get, you know? Hopefully, some offers will come in and so on. But I didn't - I just didn't want to get into that until we finished the job.
MARTIN: So things are still up in the air for you as you try to figure out your next steps. What about your organization, Freedom to Marry?
WOLFSON: Well, Freedom to Marry was created as a campaign to get to a particular goal. And, of course, today, we've now achieved our goal. So we will, in a matter of months, shut down. Freedom to Marry has achieved its mission, and we will engage in a smart, strategic wind-down, working with movement colleagues, to capture the lessons and to share the resources and hopefully have some of my extraordinarily brilliant team go on to other causes. And the organization will close, but the work of the movement is far from over. And so, while this campaign is done, the movement, of course, needs to harness the power of the marriage win and the marriage conversation to the work ahead.
MARTIN: You married your husband in 2011 in New York. What do the two of you plan to do to celebrate to mark the moment tonight?
WOLFSON: Well, you know, again, we really didn't get to that point. I mean, he, obviously, was the - he was going to be the first call I made. I actually held my phone up in my head to call, and I got a call from my parents, which was very beautiful. So he was the next call. But he knows I'm going to be running around tonight doing, you know, more media, more organizing, more speaking. And eventually, we'll get to connect with him, and I'm sure we'll figure out a way to celebrate.
MARTIN: (Laughter). Evan Wolfson is the founder of the group Freedom to Marry. Thanks so much for talking with us.
WOLFSON: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
We'll be hearing a variety of reactions to the Supreme Court's decision legalizing same-sex marriage throughout the program.
MARTIN: That includes the view from South Dakota, where a majority of residents still oppose gay marriage. The Attorney General says he's - says his state is already complying with the new law, even though voters in South Dakota passed a ban on same-sex marriage by popular vote.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.