Evan Wolfson
BornFeb. 4, 1957
BirthplaceBrooklyn, New York
SpouseCheng He

Evan Wolfson (born February 4, 1957) is a prominent American civil rights attorney and advocate. He is the founder and executive director of Freedom to Marry, a national non-profit organization working for marriage equality between gay and straight couples. Wolfson authored the book Why Marriage Matters; America, Equality, and Gay People's Right to Marry, which Time Out New York magazine called, "Perhaps the most important gay-marriage primer ever written..."[1] He was listed in Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People in the World. He has taught at Columbia Law School as an adjunct professor; has appeared before the Supreme Court in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale; and he is a Senior Fellow at The New School's Wolfson Center for National Affairs. He lives in New York City.


Wolfson was born in Brooklyn, but he grew up in Pittsburgh. In 1978 he graduated from Yale College, where he was a resident of Silliman College and was Speaker of the Yale Political Union. After graduation he served in the Peace Corps in Togo, in western Africa. He returned and entered Harvard Law School, where he earned his Juris Doctor in 1983.

Early career

Wolfson taught political philosophy at Harvard College before he returned to his birthplace as Kings County (Brooklyn) assistant district attorney. In that capacity, he wrote a Supreme Court amicus brief that helped win a Court ban on race discrimination in jury selection (Batson v. Kentucky). He wrote a brief to New York's highest court, the Court of Appeals, that helped win the elimination of the marital rape exemption (People v. Liberta).[2]

Before Lambda, Wolfson served as Associate Counsel to Lawrence Walsh in the Office of Independent Counsel (Iran/Contra).

Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund

Landmark marriage cases

Main article: Same-sex marriage

From 1989 until 2001 Wolfson worked at Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a national non-profit organization that furthers gay rights through litigation, education, and public policy work. He directed their Marriage Project and coordinated the National Freedom to Marry Coalition, the forerunner to Freedom to Marry. In the landmark Baehr v. Miike (80 Hawai'i 341), the Hawaii Supreme Court said prohibiting same-sex couples from marrying may violate Hawaii's constitutional equal protection clause unless it is justified by a compelling reason.[3] In 1998 Hawaiian voters amended their Constitution to allow the state legislature to restrict marriage to men and women only—an invitation that the Hawaiian legislature promptly accepted—which rendered the equal protection clause argument moot.[citation needed] Wolfson worked on Baker v. Vermont, the Vermont Supreme Court case that led to the creation of Civil Unions. This was the Vermont legislature's attempt at a compromise between Wolfson's group, wanting identical rights for gay couples, and those objecting to same-sex marriage. Wolfson called the unions a "wonderful step forward," but not enough.[4]

Boy Scouts of America et al. v. Dale

Template:SCOTUSCase Wolfson appeared before the United States Supreme Court on April 26, 2000, to argue on behalf of Scoutmaster James Dale in the landmark case Boy Scouts of America v. Dale. In that opinion, the Court overturned the New Jersey Supreme Court's application of the state's public accommodations law, which forced the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) to readmit Dale. When he was a student at Rutgers University, Dale took part in a seminar on gay youth.[5] He was expelled from Scouting after BSA officials saw coverage of the seminar in a local newspaper and Dale was quoted as gay. Justice Stevens wrote in the dissent, "Indeed, in this case there is no evidence that the young Scouts in Dale's troop, or members of their families, were even aware of his sexual orientation, either before or after his public statements at Rutgers University."[6] The Justices questioned Wolfson "aggressively."[7] Justice Scalia, who joined the majority opinion written by Chief Justice Rehnquist, told Wolfson he placed himself in the awkward position of arguing that if the Boy Scouts placed more of an emphasis on anti-gay teachings, the organization would have First Amendment protection. Wolfson responded that the BSA would never want the likely negative public reaction to explicit anti-gay messages.[7] Chicago Tribune reporter Jan Greenburg said it was an "intense hour of questions."[8] Wolfson pointed to Supreme Court rulings that the Jaycees, Rotarians and other large organizations cannot discriminate against women under certain state anti-discrimination laws.

A split Court ruled 5-4 against Dale. Wolfson, however, reflected on the positive publicity the case received: "This is great. Even before we change the [Boy Scout] policy, we are succeeding in getting people to rethink how they feel about gay people."[4]

James Dale said of Wolfson: "Evan understood the importance of the organization to me, and the importance of an American institution like the Boy Scouts discriminating against somebody and how that could impact the public dialogue and conversation."[4]

On April 30, 2001, Wolfson left Lambda to form Freedom to Marry with a "very generous" grant from the Evelyn & Walter Haas Jr. Fund.[4] Wolfson described the breadth of his vision for the new organization: "I'm not in this just to change the law. 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."

Lambda Executive Director Kevin Cathcart said that over 12 years Wolfson had "personified Lambda's passion and vision for equality." Kate Kendall, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said of her experience with Wolfson at Lambda: "What I can now say 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."[4]

Freedom to Marry

Main article: Freedom to Marry

Freedom to Marry

In 1983 Wolfson first wrote about marriage equality in a Harvard Law paper; twenty years later Time Magazine recognized him as symbolic of that civil rights movement.[9] In his book Why Marriage Matters, Wolfson calls marriage "a relationship of emotional and financial interdependence between two people who make a public commitment."[10] With this view, Wolfson heads Freedom to Marry, a coalition organization fighting for marriage equality in the United States.[11]

In 2004 Time Magazine included Wolfson on its list of the "100 most influential people in the world."[9] Time credited Wolfson for making an impossible idea—marriage for gay people—conceivable. His influence has been far-reaching: On September 1, 2006, Jewish Week reported the Conservative movement will ordain gay rabbis and sanction same-sex unions.[12]

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled on February 4, 2004, that the legislature can't substitute "civil unions" for marriage with same-sex couples.[13] However, recent decisions in New York and Washington State have dealt setbacks for Wolfson's work. Known for his optimism, Wolfson commented on the Washington Supreme Court's decision in a column entitled, Stay in the Fight.[14] "It was a splintered court. Four justices joined powerful dissents. A three-justice plurality applying the wrong standard of review—one that was undeservedly, hopelessly, and self-fulfillingly deferential—was joined by two justices in a fiery anti-gay concurrence, making up the margin of defeat."


Template:Rquote Some critics assert Wolfson's work has focused the gay community's resources on a limited marriage agenda. On July 26, 2006, academics, activists, authors and gay rights allies, including Gloria Steinem, Rabbi Michael Lerner, Armistead Maupin, Terrence McNally, and Cornel West, signed a proclamation called, Beyond Same-Sex Marriage: A New Strategic Vision For All Our Families & Relationships.[15] Richard Kim, signatory and founding board member of Queers for Economic Justice, explained his position on his blog The Notion.[16] Kim disputes Wolfson's assertion that the marriage equality movement is not pushing for a traditional, heterosexual model for all gays and lesbians. "This is true of recent domestic partnership or civil union legislation in Connecticut, New Jersey and California -- which are only available to same-sex couples -- but it is patently false when it comes to the longer history of domestic partnerships, many of which were available to hetero and homosexuals alike." Kim further states, "For Wolfson and others to pretend, now, that alternatives to marriage and marriage equality can amicably walk hand-in-hand utterly effaces their own role in creating this political schism, and as such, gravely misrepresent the consequences of their own work for the past 20 years."[16]

New York Times Book Review

In the New York Times review of Why Marriage Matters, author William Saletan points out what he sees as several flaws in Wolfson's reasoning.[10] He states that although Wolfson praises California for extending "family protections" to unmarried heterosexual couples, he never articulates why these people deserve such protection. Saletan believes Wolfson vindicates the fears of people who worry marriage has lost meaning and is being replaced by relationships with less stability. "[His] abstract theory of equality flattens...distinction.... Thus he demands protection of committed gay couples not because they resemble heterosexual couples in all relevant respects but because it's wrong to discriminate against people because of their 'differences'." However, Wolfson dismisses the slippery slope argument that this reasoning will lead to legal incestuous and polygamous marriages. According to Saletan, "his do-your-own-thing rationale invites it." In what Saletan calls the "totalitarianism of the antitotalitarian," he raises a similar critique as Richard Kim: Wolfson does not favor the civil union or domestic partnership approaches, because semantic differences create "a stigma of exclusion" and deny gay couples "social and other advantages."

Selected writings

  • When the police are in our bedrooms, shouldn't the courts go in after them?: An update on the fight against "Sodomy" laws, (with Robert S. Mower); 21 Fordham Urban Law Journal 997 (1994).
  • Crossing the Threshold: Equal Marriage Rights for Lesbians and Gay Men and the Intra-Community Critique, 21 N.Y.U. Rev. L. & Soc. Change 567 (1994).
  • The Supreme Court's Decision in Romer v. Evans and its Implications for the Defense of Marriage Act, (with Michael Melcher), 16 Quinnipiac Law Review 217 (1996).
  • Symposium: The Right to Marry: Making the case to go forward: Introduction: Marriage, Equality and America: Committed Couples, Committed Lives, 13 Widener Law Journal 691 (2004).
  • Why Marriage Matters; America, Equality and Gay People's Right to Marry, Simon & Schuster hardcover edition printed July 27, 2004.
  • Marriage Equality and Some Lessons for the Scary Work of Winning, 14 Law & Sexuality 135 (2005).


  • Del Martin Phyllis Lyon Marriage Equality Award[17]
  • "One of the most influential attorneys in America." (2000) National Law Journal
  • "One of the 100 most influential people in the world." (2004) Time Magazine[9]


  1. Simon & Schuster website with quotes from reviews.
  2. Evan Wolfson biography on the Freedom to Marry website.
  3. Baehr v. Miike
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 Peter Freiberg, Wolfson leaves Lambda to focus on freedom-to-marry work, March 30, 2001, Washington Blade, via Freedom to Marry's Geocities website.
  5. Press Release, Boy Scouts v. Dale: Case History , Lambda Legal Defense & Education Fund (on file with the author)
  6. Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, 530 U.S. 640, 697 (2000)
  7. 7.0 7.1 Matt Alsdorf, Supreme Court Hears Boy Scout Case, The Advocate, April 26, 2000, via
  8. Jim Lehrer interview with Jan Crawford Greenburg, Boy Scout Debate, April 26, 2000, via
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 John Cloud, Gay Marriage as a Civil Right of Our Times, Time Magazine, April 26, 2004, via
  10. 10.0 10.1 William Saletan, The Peculiar Institution, The New York Times, September 26, 2004; Section 7, Page 9.
  11. Sean Bugg. "The Marriage Man: Gay marriage and the next steps from Evan Wolfson, Director of Freedom to Marry", Metro Weekly, 20 May 2004. Retrieved on 2008-03-16. 
  12. Debra Nussbaum Cohen, Conservative Movement Seen Ending Ban on Gays, The Jewish Week, September 1, 2006, via
  13. Washington Post Online Interview with Evan Wolfson, Massachusetts Ruling on Same-Sex Marriage, February 5, 2004, via
  14. Evan Wolfson, Stay in the Fight; The Court Stumbled, but the Movement for Justice Continues, The Stranger, July 27-August 2, 2006
  15. Press release, Beyond Same-Sex Marriage: A New Strategic Vision For All Our Families & Relationships, (on file with the author)
  16. 16.0 16.1 Richard Kim, The Wedding Crasher, The Nation, August 1, 2006, via
  17. San Francisco Sentinel, February 2008

External links

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