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Evan Wolfson was born in 1957 in Brooklyn, New York, and grew up in Pittsburgh. His dad was a pediatrician; his mom was a housewife, and later a social worker. From day one, Evan was intensely aware of the social conflicts erupting in America during the 1960s, appalled at the injustices foisted upon minorities, and determined to make the world a better place before he kissed it goodbye.

After high school, Evan headed off to Yale College, served with the Peace Corps in Africa, then entered Harvard Law School. In his 1983 law school thesis, he addressed a very basic issue – why gay people should be free to marry, and why this freedom was worth fighting for – essentially drawing the roadmap for the next 32 years of his life. 

Leaving law school, Evan worked in Brooklyn as an assistant district attorney, prosecuting sex crimes and homicides. During these years, he wrote a US Supreme Court amicus brief to the US Supreme Court that helped win a federal ban on race discrimination in jury selection. In 1989, he joined Lambda Legal, working there until 2001 when he formed the organization Freedom to Marry on the strength of a $2.5 million grant from the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund. Over the next 14 years, Evan poured every ounce of his being into a four-pronged “multi” campaign – multi-year, multi-state, multi-partner and multi-methodology – that boosted public support for same-sex marriage from 27% in 1993 to 63% in 2015, and ultimately resulted in the 2015 US Supreme Court decision that made marriage equality the law of the land. 

Evan’s book Why Marriage Matters was published in 2004. That same year, Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world. In 2011, after joking/whining for years that the marriage movement would benefit everyone except himself, Evan tied the knot with Cheng He, a molecular biologist originally from Beijing. On the couple’s wedding ties was emblazoned a Chinese symbol meaning ‘double happiness’.

It’s a sign of the robust diversity of the American queer community that one can find within the pages of this book, vastly different opinions on the marriage issue that Evan first tackled in 1983. Perhaps what is most admirable and inspiring about Evan Wolfson is not the actual result he achieved – but the steely, passionate focus he used in the pursuit of his mission. In whatever cause we embrace as individuals and as a community, let us all be Evans in the devotion we bring to the fray.
Mason Funk: [00:00:00] Do me a favor. Start off by just telling me and spelling out your first and last names.
Evan Wolfson: Evan Wolfson, E-V-A-N W-O-L-F-S-O-N.
Mason Funk: Can you tell us the exact day and place of your birth.
Evan Wolfson: Today is June 19th, 2018, and I was born in Brooklyn, New York.
Mason Funk: What date were you born?
Evan Wolfson: Oh, is that what you asked for?
Mason Funk: Yeah.
Evan Wolfson: [00:00:30] I'm sorry. All right. I was born on February 4th, 1957 in Brooklyn, New York.
Mason Funk: Now, I know that you were born here effectively, but grew up in Pittsburgh. Is that right?
Evan Wolfson: That's right.
Mason Funk: Give me a little story of how that happened.
Evan Wolfson: Are your questions going to be heard? Do you need me to repeat the question?
Mason Funk: Exactly, if possible. My questions will not be heard.
Evan Wolfson: Right.
Mason Funk: Ideally.
Evan Wolfson: Okay.
Mason Funk: How did you come to grow up in Pittsburgh?
Evan Wolfson: [00:01:00] I was born here in New York. When my parents, who were New Yorkers, had me, they however always wanted to get out of New York, having grown up their lives and lived in New York. When my father began his post medical school journey of having an internship and a residency and also serving in the Army for two years back in those days, they were exploring different cities outside of New York. Their internship, their medical internship was in Pittsburgh. They really loved it. They then went off to do two years in Texas
Evan Wolfson: [00:01:30] on an Army base where my brother was born and so on, but always wanted now to come back to Pittsburgh and settle there and that's what they were able to do. I grew up in Pittsburgh along with my sister and two brothers and parents, some of whom still live there, but I always wanted to get back to New York. Even as a young kid I thought of myself as a New Yorker, having been born in New York and our family still had of course family ties to New York. Our grandparents lived here, et cetera.
Evan Wolfson: [00:02:00] My parents had met in summer camp in upstate New York and that camp became very important to us, the kids as well. We would go there during the summers and therefore had that New York connection. My parents would sometimes come and spend time in the camp on the visitor's side. My Dad, was for a period of time, the camp doctor. We always had this New York summer thing even while growing up in Pittsburgh and I always wanted to come back to New York.
Mason Funk: [crosstalk]. Let's just turn it off. This frequently gives us trouble. In some ways if it gives me like-
Evan Wolfson: [00:02:30] Are you sure it's on? Actually, is it on? Oh, it just died.
Mason Funk: You know what, it just got turned off. Oh no, it went off. That's weird. Let's try it one more time and then we'll see. This is so capricious that I often had... I just punish it by turning it off.
Mason Funk: [00:03:00] These are all supposed to be freshly charged. I did hear one thing. I couldn't tell if it was from that room or the hallway. It was like a beep beep beep beep. Does that ring a bell with you? No pun intended.
Evan Wolfson: I didn't hear it. There are little alarms under the air conditioning.
Mason Funk: We'll carry on for now. We're speeding?
Isabel Bethencourt: Yes.
Mason Funk: My question for you was going to be what was your family like? As a little community, as a little unit?
Evan Wolfson: [00:03:30] I had my mother, my father, and there were four of us kids. I'm the oldest of four. We were a very close family. My parents definitely put the kids first and instilled in us the importance of family and how we needed to mean to each other. I remember one time my parents, when the kids were fighting saying to us, "Look, we, Mom and Dad, will always have each other. You kids have to have each other. You need to love each other,
Evan Wolfson: [00:04:00] love your brother who's annoying you..." and so on and so on. Even though of course we bickered and quarreled like kids do, we were also very close and remained very close to this day. My parents had a loving marriage. They were married for 62 years. My father died last year. Just this past weekend we all returned home to do the unveiling of his gravestone. We were all together with my Mom and the siblings and spouses and the grandchildren and so on. Everybody's very much in each other's lives, even though we are in many ways very different.
Mason Funk: [00:04:30] That's one value that your parents established which was this idea that you guys have to look out for each other. What were some of the other values your parents espoused and tried to instill in you kids?
Evan Wolfson: My parents first and foremost very much instilled this value of love and commitment to one another as a family. They were an example of a committed, loving couple as a married couple for ultimately 62 years.
Evan Wolfson: [00:05:00] They also lived in and showed us the value of caring for our grandparents and feeling connected in that way and taking care of our grandparents, respecting our grandparents. Also, we're very much involved in the community. My Dad was a pediatrician for decades and we couldn't walk down the street without people stopping him and saying, "Dr. Wolfson, you remember me? I was your patient..." et cetera, et cetera. This continues to this day also,
Evan Wolfson: [00:05:30] even since he's died. We still get it when we're walking through the neighborhood. Very much an idea of neighborhood, of family, of community, connectiveness to the community. My parents were each involved in the community. My mother was active in the PTA for many years, served as President in our elementary school and the high school. She then after raising us most of the way went back to school, got her graduate degree as a social worker, worked in the community for... I forget exactly how long,
Evan Wolfson: [00:06:00] but over 10 years. Following having raised the kids. My Dad, as I said, had this very active pediatric practice, was always involved, but he also served on committees and commissions around racial tensions, shaping the hospital as the Pittsburgh hospitals evolved, and so on. They role modeled also this idea of engagement in the community and being involved in the community. They also had a pretty strong circle of friends for many decades.
Evan Wolfson: [00:06:30] There would be the famous "Wolfson" parties... Our house was just very good for milling around, so they would one or twice a year have their friends over and then they were active in bridge club and they had an eating club where they got to go with a group of friends and went to different restaurants, and a book club and so on. They also really demonstrated the idea of building and maintaining and network and community of friends.
Mason Funk: [00:07:00] You mentioned the racial tensions which is... We get the opportunity to look back 50, 60 years when desegregation was starting to happen and civil rights, what do you remember of those conversations around issues of race when you were just a kid growing up?
Evan Wolfson: Of course. I came of age, I was born in 1957, but my memories really... my predominant memories, early childhood memories are from the Sixties, so I very much remember the struggles of the Sixties and because I was always a very politically interested kid.
Evan Wolfson: [00:07:30] Very interested in history and biography and politics and current events, I was attune to all the upheaval and drama of the Sixties. Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement, the Women's Movement as that came in towards the end of the decade as well as the moon landing and other historical events. I remember campaigning around my neighborhood in 1964, LBJ for the USA and wearing a button to school as a 7 year old.
Evan Wolfson: [00:08:00] I remember of course the assassination of Martin Luther King. I remember where I was as a kid, lying on the floor of the family room, watching TV, watching Bewitched and they interrupted it to say Dr. King had just been shot and I remember not going to school the next day and the drama and tensions. I remember the assassination of Martin Luther King... Sorry, of Bobby Kennedy and the day or two where we were hoping he was going to live at least as kids and learning
Evan Wolfson: [00:08:30] that he died. The Six Day War with Israel... These are some of the dramatic events I do remember. I remember watching LBJ on TV as he declared he wasn't going to run and then the drama of the 1968 Convention and so on. I was paying attention to all these things. Race of course was a particular strand of so much of that ferment in the country and my parents were, as I said earlier, active in committees on
Evan Wolfson: [00:09:00] Pittsburgh Human Relations Act and desegregation and integration of the schools. When I went to high school in 1970, the big urban city high school, which is an excellent school, but in that year or two when I started was racked with race riots and divisions amongst the three major groups. There were the blacks, the white ethnics and the Jews. The Jews were in the middle of these struggles
Evan Wolfson: [00:09:30] as I experienced it in the school. There was an older principal who had been there for many years, an older white guy who was ineffective and unable to bring peace to the school, who was replaced in my second year by a very young, dynamic African American principal, Mr. Fisher, who was amazing. Who really just walked those halls, worked with all the kids, knew everybody's name, gave tough love, instilled school spirit,
Evan Wolfson: [00:10:00] brought the different groups together and to this day... I was in Pittsburgh a few months ago and went to an event. He was there, in his nineties; still remembers my name, still remembers my family and so on. All of this was this racial element that I was growing up in and knowing where the different neighborhoods were. Knowing that as the Jewish community we were apart from each but also committed to this vision of a society that we believed in and so on. All of this was very much a part of my childhood and my experience in something that I took very seriously and was interested in.
Mason Funk: [00:10:30] When you say the white ethnic community, in my imagination Pittsburgh is mostly settled by recent immigrants relatively... recent say holes, I don't know, I'm making this up. That group had its own sense of identity, but you felt distinctly separate as a white Jewish community, which was probably smaller in numerically, I would imagine,
Mason Funk: [00:11:00] but probably still pretty active. I'm curious to hear a bit more about that. Any anecdotes that come to mind? How you figured out that you guys in some ways were the ones who could possibly bridge the gap?
Evan Wolfson: I don't know I would say the Jewish kids in the high school were bridging the gap, but we definitely felt like we were a different group, not part of the white ethnic group who of course we're composed of multiple strands and not a monolith either, but there was that.
Evan Wolfson: [00:11:30] There were the African American kids who were also not a monolith and so on. Then there were the Jews. It was just different and yes, numerically smaller, but certainly disproportionate in my experience in my primary circle of friends, my primary group from elementary school that had come over to the high school. The neighborhood in which we lived was one of the "Jewish" neighborhoods of Pittsburgh, which probably wasn't majority Jewish but felt majority Jewish and everything was shaped around the Jewish geography and so on at least as far as my life.
Evan Wolfson: [00:12:00] Coming into the school we were just aware of that and aware that we didn't share... We didn't need to be rioting in the halls. We didn't feel the pressures that were driving either group to go after the other. We wanted to be in the school and we wanted to get along. Many of us had friends in both camps. Friends I made in gym class. Friends I made, who might not have been my usual circle,
Evan Wolfson: [00:12:30] but was able to have them. Then of course, in the different clubs that was a big part of school life for me, particularly from the Student United Nations, though I was also involved in the French Club and a little bit in theater and so on. Those cut across the different lines as well.
Mason Funk: Fascinating.
Evan Wolfson: By the way, we were growing up literally in Mister Rogers; neighborhood. Mister Rogers who hosted the TV show lived a block away. This was Mister Rogers' neighborhood.
Mason Funk: [00:13:00] Oh my gosh. Have you seen the documentary yet?
Evan Wolfson: I have not seen the new documentary.
Mason Funk: It's just coming.
Evan Wolfson: I know. We talked about it this past weekend. We just didn't have time to go.
Mason Funk: All it takes is for my husband to see the trailer and he just starts bawling.
Evan Wolfson: I totally want to see it. I want to see that. I want to see RBG. Fortunately I have a lot of plane rides ahead so hopefully I'll get a chance.
Mason Funk: Stack 'em up. You mentioned the Pittsburgh Human Rights Act. Was that a-
Evan Wolfson: [00:13:30] There is a Pittsburgh Human Rights Act which is the local civil rights law essentially, but what I was talking about and what I should have said was the Pennsylvania Human Rights Commission, which as I understand, by dim memory, they were holding hearings... They had local committees and local hearings and so on to work on desegregation and racial tension and so on and my father was volunteering and active in that in addition to his pediatric practice.
Mason Funk: [00:14:00] When did you first conceive of yourself as being able to affect the work around you, through your own voice, through your own ideas, in a sense as a change maker.
Evan Wolfson: As I mentioned my parents gave us everything. Really were committed to the kids. I from a very early age believed that I was capable of making a difference. I wanted to make a difference in that I loved reading about history and biography,
Evan Wolfson: [00:14:30] politics and was encouraged in that by my parents. I was even more so maybe than they were, so at some point they didn't quite know what to make of it, but they were supportive. With that self confidence and with that support, from a very early age I always thought I was going to be able to do something and didn't think of myself as limited and
Evan Wolfson: [00:15:00] I should go out and get to do what I wanted to do. As a young kid and I'm talking about in the 9, 10, 11 era, even preteen, I knew the names of all the 100 Senators. I had written to some of them seeking to be a Senate page. I had done some political campaigning around the neighborhood. I remember going around collecting money to support Israel during the Six Day War in 1967.
Evan Wolfson: [00:15:30] As I mentioned I had campaigned even for, campaigned as a little kid running around the neighborhood, but I had campaigned for LBJ. I thought of myself as active. I engaged in... I was very active around Nixon's impeachment wearing an Impeach Nixon button and preaching it to anyone who would listen. Talking about why this needed to be addressed and so on. I remember being moved and engaged by the Civil Rights Movement, by the Women's Liberation Movement as
Evan Wolfson: [00:16:00] that really took root in the late sixties, early seventies and became a big topic of conversation. Always thought of myself as destined to go to law school, go into politics, make a difference.
Mason Funk: Law school became... That was going to become your ideal path.
Evan Wolfson: Yes and it was not because I was so much dying-
Mason Funk: Start by saying "Law school was..."
Evan Wolfson: From a pretty early age, I thought that law school was going to be part of my pathway. It wasn't so much
Evan Wolfson: [00:16:30] that I wanted to be a lawyer as that I saw being a lawyer as a way one became engaged in politics and engaged in government in making a difference. Though I did also enjoy shows like Judge for the Defense and lawyer shows and so on. It was never about the game of being a lawyer per se, it was about using the law and having the legal credential to be active in government and politics. Also, I was good at talking and good at arguing
Evan Wolfson: [00:17:00] and people made fun of me for wagging my finger and being very verbal and so on. "You should be a lawyer. You're good at arguing. You should be a lawyer."
Mason Funk: Were you different in that regard from your siblings?
Evan Wolfson: I was somewhat different from my immediate two next siblings when it came to being argumentative and verbal and sarcastic and so on. Although I'm very close to all of them in different ways and extremely close to my sister who's just a year and a half apart,
Evan Wolfson: [00:17:30] we are different. The one I'm most like in that regard is my youngest brother, my younger brother who's nine years younger and the baby of the family. He and I are both the "talkers" and the two middle ones, though they talk, they're the more held back ones.
Mason Funk: They squeeze in a word edgewise. Correct?
Evan Wolfson: Yeah. It's little more than squeezing in a word edgewise, but we are definitely the talkers. It's a pretty talkative family. I used to joke that if our family had a tea it would be Constant Comment
Evan Wolfson: [00:18:00] because everybody had a comment and then we would sometimes on vacation say, "Okay, we're going to adopt a rule. Two comments and then we settle the question. Where should we go to dinner?" You get two and then that's it.
Mason Funk: When did you first hear about this thing called the Peace Corps and realize "I want to fit that in also."
Evan Wolfson: I don't remember exactly when I first heard of the Peace Corps, but it was probably fairly early on because I was following the Great Society
Evan Wolfson: [00:18:30] and LBJ, the building of the programs and so on. Two of my great loves really very early on were as I said earlier politics, history and making a difference and being involved in government and all that and also international. Travel, events, et cetera. Peace Corps of course struck me as a way to combine everything; it was a way to provide service, be engaged, do something,
Evan Wolfson: [00:19:00] it was getting a chance to go abroad, it seemed like a big adventure as well as an opportunity to do good, and it seemed like something ... A form of national service that I was drawn to as opposed to the military which, though that was all very much in the air during the time and I was... I don't know if I was literally the first cohort of kids, but I was certainly right around them, that was not subject to the draft. It was definitely something I was aware of,
Evan Wolfson: [00:19:30] but I was much more drawn to the idea of serving in the Peace Corps. My parents were surprised when I came forward and said, "I want to go do this." They were a little reluctant to have me go away for two years, which to them seemed like a long time, but they were always very supportive of it and never objected or never said I shouldn't do it.
Mason Funk: I wondered, that was a question bubbling around in my head. Was there ever a time when you fell out of step, even in minor ways, with your family because you were more X, Y or Z?
Evan Wolfson: [00:20:00] Yes. Despite our closeness and the underlying love there were certainly differences and ways in which I felt like maybe I was a little apart in some ways. I was very verbal, very political, very historically minded, more so than my parents or the other kids who were of course also younger.
Evan Wolfson: [00:20:30] As I came to be aware of being gay I was aware that this was a difference and a separation... I assume we'll talk more about that. I also ... I would say because I was very opinionated and very drawn to government and politics, I even went through a period, certainly aesthetically, but even maybe politically, though it was more aesthetically, rebelled a little bit against my parents,
Evan Wolfson: [00:21:00] who were generally liberal and supportive of people's choices and so on. Although not very articulated about that. It wasn't like we spent all our time talking about race or women's liberation or the emerging Gay Rights Movement. It wasn't like we talked about those things, but they were just generally supportive and progressive and liberal. I rebelled a little bit against that and predominantly aesthetically.
Evan Wolfson: [00:21:30] There was a period of time when I supported the Vietnam War. I felt a degree of loyalty or a desire to support Johnson. I was disturbed by what I felt like an increasing anarchistic and rebellious and contemptuous tone in the discussion. I never like the "hippie" look and the ubiquity of blue jeans.
Evan Wolfson: [00:22:00] Everybody suddenly was throwing out looking good. Dressing politely, instead going for that emerging look, which of course in retrospect very much reflected my values and obviously my later career of support for freedom and diversity, including more people and all those things. All of which I wasn't politically against, but aesthetically didn't like the disruptiveness and
Evan Wolfson: [00:22:30] some of the ugliness of it. As a kid I refused to buy blue jeans. I never owned a pair of blue jeans or jeans as a kid.
Mason Funk: When you say as a kid, do you mean all the way through high school?
Evan Wolfson: All the way through high school, all the way through college. I don't remember how old I was when I may have bought my arguable first pair of jeans, which some would say they were the wrong kind of jeans. I never bought a classic pair of jeans. Even now I wear the more chino type pants and so on as my casual pants,
Evan Wolfson: [00:23:00] though I don't have the same feelings about it. That was a bit of a form of... I don't know if it's literally rebellion, but it was definitely marking my own way. Following my own aesthetic, my own sense of order or sense of the way to balance values like freedom inclusion with order and commitment to certain kinds of things. I did really lament the way in which LBJ, I felt was being wrongly
Evan Wolfson: [00:23:30] or unfairly treated despite mistakes he may have made, but in light of all the good things he had done. Again, I'm talking about LBJ a lot, but by the time he left office I was 11. All of this was very conscious and very much what I felt about, strongly about, even though I was 9, 10, 11 during this period. I remember my cousin, who I'm very close with and
Evan Wolfson: [00:24:00] work together in the same law firm now in part, he was four years older. So he went full "hippie." He was on the college campuses. He was doing the drugs. He had the long hair. He was doing all those things I did not like, even though I loved him and was close with him. I remember one time visiting him at his parent's home. We used to love going to visit our cousins and so on. He had a dart board, an LBJ dartboard, and I was just horrified. I was just so appalled.
Evan Wolfson: [00:24:30] On that level, I did have this... It didn't create an emotional distance, but I was different from my family and my loved ones and had my own views and my own political aesthetic that I was very aware of and still can remember to this day.
Mason Funk: It's a political aesthetic. It's almost a sense of what it means to be a patriot or what it means to be an American. I can't resist, although we're going to go back in time,
Mason Funk: [00:25:00] but I can't resist jumping forward to the present and asking you whether, in this current climate we live in, which is also marked by a tremendous loss what we might call containment civility, do you ever find yourself feeling somewhat in the middle... It's a different President, needless to say, but also a President who easily people could put up a dartboard, if not worse with Donald Trump's face. Do you find yourself experiencing anything similar these days?
Evan Wolfson: [00:25:30] I of course have evolved substantially since those 11 year old days, in my politics and in my aesthetic and in my appreciation of diversity and diverse expression and so on. I am still very much, and of course, I built the Freedom to Marry campaign around this idea. Very much committed to the idea of trying to think about how to find common ground.
Evan Wolfson: [00:26:00] Not by surrendering what you believe in or what you're aiming for and the degree to which you want to change things, but that the way of doing that is finding a way to bring people along rather than just attack them, just marginalize them, just sit in your own purity et cetera. That idea, much more nuanced and better developed, it remained part of my temperament
Evan Wolfson: [00:26:30] and part of my approach to politics and so on. Having said all that, there's a big difference between a president like Johnson, who in my view made mistakes versus a corrupt, despicable, loathsome, evil, racist, sexist, disgrace to the United States such as Trump, who is also beholden to a foreign power and is doing everything he can in my view to destroy pretty much everything
Evan Wolfson: [00:27:00] that makes America great. Including things as generic as they were as our alliances and our role in the world, but also the way that immigrants are being treated and you go right down the list. The anger and disdain and horror and outrage that people are expressing to Trump are completely fit. Having said that also, you still have to think about, "Okay, how do you achieve what you want to achieve?"
Evan Wolfson: [00:27:30] While we may feel that way and absolutely believe everyone with a brain and eyes ought to feel that way, we still have to figure out how to get the slice of people we need to get who may not fully get it that way. It doesn't help by going into the conversation not thinking about how do I remove that person. I do remain committed to that idea of engagement, but the benchmarks are also different. We're in a different place. Terrible as Johnson's mistakes around Vietnam were, in my mind they came from a good place. With Trump I do not think they come from a good place.
Mason Funk: [00:28:00] Segue backwards. You went out to the Peace Corps. You graduated college. I assume you had figured out I'm gonna go to college, I'm gonna go to Peace Corps, I'm gonna do law school.
Evan Wolfson: Pretty much, yeah.
Mason Funk: What did you experience in the Peace Corps that was important and maybe different or not different from what you thought you would experience and what did you take away? That's the big question.
Evan Wolfson: [00:28:30] The Peace Corps was a hugely important experience for me.
Mason Funk: Say that for us in terms of "Where did I go? What did I do?"
Evan Wolfson: After graduating college in 1978, I went off to the Peace Corps. I went to serve in a small country in West Africa, Togo. We assembled in Philadelphia from all around the country and then bussed to New York and then flew across the Atlantic to several different African... There was no direct flight at that point.
Evan Wolfson: [00:29:00] There only most recently is. I went back recently. For all those intervening decades there was this multistage you had to go through Dakar and then Abidjan and then or Sierra Leone, Freetown and then arrive in Togo. I do remember in the assembly point in Philadelphia when all these kids were together from around the country and I by the way was the youngest of my cohort, I was 21. Others were mostly in their 20s, but somewhere significantly older in their 20s
Evan Wolfson: [00:29:30] and then there were a few that were maybe in their 30s. I remember hearing a lecture on hiding your homosexuality which was not directly addressed to me, but of course I experienced it very directly, personally. One of the group dropped out after that staging experience, after that assembly period.
Evan Wolfson: [00:30:00] I didn't know why, but I'm assuming it probably had something to do with that. Then we all bussed to New York and I remember being struck on that bus ride from Philadelphia to New York, that some of the people in the bus were saying that they'd never been to New York and I of course having been to New York so much and having thought of myself as a New Yorker, even though having grown up in Pittsburgh, was thinking, "You're about to go off to Africa and you've never been to New York?" Anyway, so we then board the flight. We're flying over the Atlantic to... Ultimately to Africa
Evan Wolfson: [00:30:30] and I remember thinking on that flight, "Why didn't I tell them I speak French?" I had had my high school French, I was in the French Club; I did speak French relatively well as a high schooler, but now I was going to have to live in Togo, a country to which I had been assigned, predominantly because of my extensible French speaking background. Fortunately, as it turned out my French was okay and got much better much quickly as I was immersed in French, living in French, dreaming in French and so on.
Evan Wolfson: [00:31:00] When not also learning and studying the local languages, the local indigenous languages which I also got somewhat proficient in a very basic going to the market type way. Anyway, we arrived in the Peace Corps. The overview and then whatever details you want, the overview is that it was a wonderful experience. Absolutely something that I really loved. Here I was on my own,
Evan Wolfson: [00:31:30] even though I was only 21 at the time. Of course I felt grown up, a 21 year old and I was tackling all these challenges of navigating of living by myself in this little village and dealing with the problems and the degree to which you are an alien. The degree to which you have friends, but then you're in the conversation you're talking and you realize you just didn't fully understand each other, even if you like each other. You're coming from different places.
Evan Wolfson: [00:32:00] Having to learn all that as a 21 year old. Learning how to teach most effectively. I was there to teach English as a foreign language. I also then as I began volunteering and taking on other projects, wounded up teaching philosophy, health and sex ed in this small little regional, middle school, high school that was centered in this very small village that was about half an hour to an hour off the paved road. It was very isolated,
Evan Wolfson: [00:32:30] but because this village was also the hometown of the Minister of Development, it had this disproportionate infrastructure of a high school where I was teaching and a middle school that would attract students from around that area and would walk. Most of them were farmers or the children of farmers or peasants living in small villages and huts off the paved road with no electricity et cetera. Learning to deal with all that and enjoy it and make friends,
Evan Wolfson: [00:33:00] navigate all that of course great and challenging, but wonderful. I did make very close friends, both amongst my students and other young people in the village and also some of the teachers and so on. It was also an important part of my life because this is when I'd always known on some level I was gay, I had never really known what to do about it. It was during my time in the Peace Corps that I figured out
Evan Wolfson: [00:33:30] what to do about it and that I began having sex with guys. Thinking through what might my life be as a gay person once I came back to the United States.
Mason Funk: Were you carrying around with you any notions or preconceptions negative or otherwise about what it meant to be gay. Had you heard negative commentary or what were the internal experiences of realizing "Oh, this is really me."
Evan Wolfson: [00:34:00] Even before I got to the Peace Corps I had known I was gay. On some level always known I was gay. I remember a childhood memory, I must have been 3 or 4 of a dream I'd had that though I didn't have the word gay, I think in retrospect was kind of a gay dream. I remember the first time I was called a faggot by a kid in elementary school. I remember where I was, what I was reading, what I responded, et cetera.
Evan Wolfson: [00:34:30] Then I remember of course through high school being aware that I was attracted to the boys in gym class and so on. Never really having a girlfriend, though being pursued a little bit, but thinking of myself as "Well, I'm dedicated to my work, my politics, my leadership of student organizations, my vision of my role in history and so on and that became the way in which I would rationalize it. Having crushes on a couple of guys later in high school, but never really knowing exactly what to do about it. I didn't know-
Evan Wolfson: [00:35:00] But never really knowing exactly what to do about it. I didn't know whether I just didn't have the guts to pounce, or I didn't find the right person to pounce with, or whatever, it just ... that never happened. In terms of how I felt about this, I think I was lucky in that though I was aware that this was not something you should talk about, that other people may have a bad reaction to it, my being gay. I didn't really know anyone that I felt like I could go to to talk about it or to investigate it with.
Evan Wolfson: [00:35:30] At the same time, I never felt that this was something wrong with me. I felt it was something wrong with everybody else. That the way society treats gay people, and the fact that we had to keep it silent, and that there was no clarity. I didn't interpret that as I'm there for a bad person, I thought of it as I have to hide this. But, it's not something wrong with me, it's something wrong with society. So, obviously having that freed me of what many people struggle with, which is an internalized sense of
Evan Wolfson: [00:36:00] being bad, being wrong, being a failure, or having to ... having shame, etc. I didn't have shame. I just knew it was something not to share. So, by the time I got to the Peace Corps, then I was kind of ready to share it, and was able to figure out how to make that happen, and that was also an important part of what the Peace Corp time represented to me. That's certainly not the only thing, but it was definitely where I fully came into my own as a gay person.
Evan Wolfson: [00:36:30] And then began thinking about, "Okay, now what am I going to do with this? How am I going to build a life as who I am when I come back to the U.S.?"
Mason Funk: Wow. It strikes me, or reminds me a little bit. I went off during my junior year of college and worked on a kibbutz for a period of time, and I was about the same age as you, a little younger maybe. And I was aware there were some gay guys on the kibbutz, other volunteers, but I was so not ready yet to ... I was all the way to Israel, I could have easily had some adventures, but I look back of course and think, "Oh, that would have been perfect."
Mason Funk: [00:37:00] But no, I was still too like, "Ahh." They were having fun with each other, I was still just kind of looking out from the sidelines.
Evan Wolfson: Right, yeah. Well, some people would say you left the United States in order to come out in a rural village off the road, in West Africa. Kind of a bad timing, but I had no problem finding experience and making friendships and so on.
Evan Wolfson: [00:37:30] Most of the people, the guys that I was with were not gay as it turns out, and that was not really what the relationship was basically about, but it was enough to give me sexual experience, and my first sexual experiences with guys, and to enable me to know that this is what I wanted in my life, and now how am I going to have that when I come back to the country where I'm going to live?
Mason Funk: Right. That's great. Your interview answers are great, by the way.
Evan Wolfson: [00:38:00] Good.
Mason Funk: Just the right length, just the right amount of detail.
Evan Wolfson: Okay, good.
Mason Funk: I appreciate it.
Evan Wolfson: Thank you.
Mason Funk: Like I say, you've done this before, which definitely helps. Sometimes I'm like, "How do I stop this train?"
Evan Wolfson: Right.
Mason Funk: Going down the tracks.
Evan Wolfson: Well, feel free to stop me if I go on.
Mason Funl: Okay. I will. Kind of jumping to post law school. I know you did some work in prosecutor's offices and so on and so forth, and then at a certain point, you went to work for Lambda Legal.
Evan Wolfson: Uh-huh (affirmative).
Mason Funk: [00:38:30] But there is some work you did during those years, which was obviously important, before you went to Lambda, in terms of cases to do with racial issues, cases to do with feminist issues, and so on and so forth. So, and I think one of the things that I've read, and has seemed in the whole debate around marriage, obviously one of the strands has been is this solely in the interests of the gay community versus people like yourself. Do you have a kind of a rounder?
Mason Funk: [00:39:00] And you've always made a point of saying, "No, I'm not a one issue guy." So, I'd love to talk about that.
Evan Wolfson: Yeah. I think most people think of me as very much a one issue guy, not even the broader LGBT, but marriage.
Mason Funk: Right, that's what I mean.
Evan Wolfson: But, I think that's not accurate.
Mason Funk: Correct.
Evan Wolfson: Though I have been very focused in getting something done.
Mason Funk: Yes. Kind of a yin/yang a little bit. But I'm curious to know, maybe ... well, the question I had written down, what was the moment when you, in law school, when you wrote your thesis about marriage,
Mason Funk: [00:39:30] vis a vis gay people, was there sort of an ah-ha moment, first of all, just to do with that? When you sort of said, "This is what I'm going to write my thesis about, and this is maybe what I'm going to dedicate my career to."
Evan Wolfson: So, when I was writing the paper in law school, that [crosstalk].
Mason Funk: Set up what that paper was.
Evan Wolfson: Yeah, that became my [crosstalk].
Mason Funk: Okay. Sorry.
Evan Wolfson: That's all right. So, in law school, I wrote my third year paper, my thesis,
Evan Wolfson: [00:40:00] on why gay people should have the freedom to marry, and why we should fight for the freedom to marry. And, I well, I'm now trying to think, what exactly do you want to know about that?
Mason Funk: Well, I had asked was there an ah-ha moment, was there a moment when you knew that that's A, what you were going to write about, and B that you were going to devote.
Evan Wolfson: Can you use that first part, or do I need to do it again? What I just said?
Mason Funk: Why don't you start again? Just to [crosstalk]
Evan Wolfson: Okay.
Laura (Tech): Sorry actually, take ... just waiting for the siren.
Evan Wolfson: [00:40:30] Okay.
Laura (Tech): Okay, great.
Evan Wolfson: So, in my last year of law school, in 1983, we had to write a third year paper in addition to our regular coursework as part of the graduation requirements,
Evan Wolfson: [00:41:00] and I decided I was going to write this thesis on why gay people should have the freedom to marry and why we should fight for the freedom to marry. By that point in law school, I had now come out, having come back from the Peace Corps knowing I wanted to build a life, having spent the first couple years figuring out what that meant, having come out in progressive degrees to friends, and roommates, and older friends, and family, and the world. I knew I wanted to write about something gay,
Evan Wolfson: [00:41:30] and how to advance gay rights. Do you want me to go into detail on why I chose this topic?
Mason Funk: Yeah.
Evan Wolfson: Yeah. So, in thinking about what I wanted to write, knowing I wanted to write about something advancing gay rights, I really drew on two I'd say major experiences that had gotten me to this point. One was from the Peace Corps. That in this time in the Peace Corps, where as I mentioned,
Evan Wolfson: [00:42:00] I began really having sex with guys, and had friendships, and so on as part of my figuring out what it meant to be gay. I realized that some of the guys I was having sex with, friends and so on, were not really gay. They were curious, or indulgent, or they liked me, or it was sex, so what the hell, but it really wasn't for them. But some of the guys I realized probably were gay, like me.
Evan Wolfson: [00:42:30] And, had they lived in a different society, I realized, they would have a very different path in life. But, because they lived in a society in this rural West African village, they did not have the opportunity to build a life as who they really were, and were probably going to go on and live a very different life than I was going to be able to live. And this taught me a lesson as a 21 year old, 22 year old and so on. And that was the not original idea, but original to me, that who you are is profoundly shaped
Evan Wolfson: [00:43:00] by the choices your society gives you. Even on something as central to your identity as your sexual attraction, and your romantic desire. And that it's not even only the choices in terms of law and opportunity, but even the language that your society gives you. So, I had this idea from the Peace Corps, and I germinated on it for a while, and then in law school while doing everything regular in law school,
Evan Wolfson: [00:43:30] I was also exploring being gay, and what it'd mean to date, and what it'd mean to be openly gay, and to build a life and so on. And during that period, I saw in the paper and read the notice of a book that had just come out, which totally I had to read, because it spoke to my absolute passion, which was history, and now this interest in gay, and it was this ground-breaking, pioneering, epic history of the first several thousand years of gay people in Western Civilization written by a Yale professor named John Boswell,
Evan Wolfson: [00:44:00] that I went out and bought this book immediately, wrapped it in a fake cover, took it down to Florida, where I spent Christmas vacation, holiday break, visiting my grandparents, reading this massive tome on the beach. Written in 16 different languages, thousands of footnotes, etc. absolutely loved it, and the number one lesson from the book, the book that changed my life,
Evan Wolfson: [00:44:30] was that the experience of homosexuality and gay people throughout Western history, the first couple thousand years anyway, had varied dramatically, and that contrary to the way we're treated today, and contrary to the way we thought of history as it was presented to us, there had been periods where homosexuality was exalted. Periods where gay people were fully integrated, and fully free, and so ... and then others that were repressive, and dark, and suppressing even the history and the memory of all of this.
Evan Wolfson: [00:45:00] Well, that taught me another lesson, which was that if it had once been different, it could be different again. And so now, when the time came to write my paper, I drew on this ... these two formative experiences, my own Peace Corp engagement with people, and epiphany as to the power of society and language and choice, and the lesson of history. That things could change, and
Evan Wolfson: [00:45:30] that we had changed things. And the elements that went into that change. And this is what led me to want to write my paper. So now, as I was thinking, "Okay, well what would be the thing that would convey these ideas?" I thought to myself, "Okay, well what is it, what is the basis on which gay people are discriminated against? Gay people are disdained in our society. Why is there this stigma against people like me?" And I concluded, "It's because of who we love." And then I asked myself, "
Evan Wolfson: [00:46:00] So what is the primary framework, the primary structure, the primary institutionalization, the primary language of love in our society?" It's marriage. And so I thought if we could claim that language of marriage, if we could claim that structure, that legal freedom, it would serve as this engine of transformation that would change how non-gay people understand who gay people are in a way that would enable us to win marriage,
Evan Wolfson: [00:46:30] which as I then detailed was important. But, even beyond that, it would be advancing everything, because it would be changing the understanding of who we are. So this became the ideas of the paper, and ultimately of course, the mission of my next several decades in life. But, that's where it came from. It came from that experience in the Peace Corps, my reading of Boswell, and history, and then working to make the argument.
Evan Wolfson: [00:47:00] And the argument in the paper draws on the history of feminism, the history of gay people, as reflected in Boswell and others, moral philosophy, John Rawls and David Richards and others who have applied the grand questions of morality in some cases to homosexuality, but in some cases, just more generally to how we ought to build a just society. I pulled from the Federalist Papers, and what the framers had in mind for a country dedicated
Evan Wolfson: [00:47:30] to the idea of individual freedom and equality under the law and responsibility to invest in society. Also pulled from popular culture, movies like Tootsie and Torch Song Trilogy that had just come out here at Harvey Fierstein here in New York off-Broadway, and so on. So, it was this sprawling, multi-disciplinary way of making the arguments I just talked about, and it's because ...
Evan Wolfson: [00:48:00] and then at the end, there was a little bit of law and a little bit of a legal and constitutional analysis. I also surveyed the way in which the first wave of marriage litigation from the early '70s had been treated, where all these cases had been thrown out. Couples had sought the freedom to marry. I wasn't the first person to think of gay people having the freedom to marry, but I was making the argument that we shouldn't take that no for an answer, and here's why. Drawing on this whole multi-disciplinary spread. Viewed in retrospect,
Evan Wolfson: [00:48:30] what is clear from the approach again I took in the paper, is that this was also the way in which we approached the strategy for winning. Where the law and the constitution were central elements of the strategy, and we're at the end of how we were going to win. What we needed to do, was to create the climate, create the shift in public opinion, shift in public understanding, claim the morality, tell the stories, draw on the history, appeal to the shared values
Evan Wolfson: [00:49:00] in order to create the climate in which the litigation could succeed. And the paper really actually is, though not articulated-ly that way, is very much a representation of that whole approach to the work. So this was the paper I wrote because it was not a typical law school paper, where although there was a legal and constitutional argument, very much the one that won in 2015, and the one that they had made in the 1970's before me. It wasn't like it was a brilliant new constitutional argument,
Evan Wolfson: [00:49:30] but it was a constitutional argument, and it sifted through the freedom to marry, and substantive due process, and those kinds of legal claims together with equal protection and the other important strand of constitution analysis, to show how we should win. What it really was doing was making the broader case. And the case for marriage both as a goal, and as a strategy. As a way of achieving a bigger transformation in society.
Mason Funk: [00:50:00] Wow. So, it was really ... what I love is that it sounds like I think you might have even used this phrase, it's like a language. Well, first of all, that was why you felt marriage was so important. It's because it's kind of ... it's a language that society speaks and understands.
Evan Wolfson: Right. A common language.
Mason Funk: A common language, exactly. And then in a way, the way you envisioned the process of getting there was kind of like teaching other ... teaching various groups, teaching each other how to speak. I mean, I'm just sort of ...
Evan Wolfson: [00:50:30] Yeah. The paper was not as didactic as now I had to become in shaping a strategy, and here's the work plan, and here's this program and so on. But, it represented the kinds of things that need to happen. It didn't say, "Now let's talk to other people in a shared language of marriage." It just did talk to other people in a shared language of marriage, and love, and values, and so all of that value-laden story-telling engagement approach
Evan Wolfson: [00:51:00] that we then developed into a campaign was represented in this paper, and its own style, its own approach.
Mason Funk: I'm going to jump forward again, and then we'll jump back again, but two things come to mind. One is that we interviewed a woman in Maine named Betsy Parsons, who was the first public school teacher in Maine to ever come out, and who's a veteran of many, many, many discriminations including Maine's six referenda around marriage. And she talked about the difference [crosstalk].
Evan Wolfson: [00:51:30] Not around marriage. They had [crosstalk].
Mason Funk: Oh maybe around gay rights [crosstalk].
Evan Wolfson: Around gay rights, yeah.
Mason Funk: But she talked about the difference between 2009 and 2012. You probably know this story. From her point of view, 2009 was very much, the argument was driven by here's a list of all the rights that married people enjoy that we don't have. And 2012 in her opinion, was driven by more, she said it was very youth driven, and very much driven by the idea of tell me what you're afraid of, for example. It was a dialogical approach. Does that ... do you remember it that way? And is that an example of kind of one of the things you were talking about?
Evan Wolfson: [00:52:00] Yeah. How much do you need me to repeat of that?
Mason Funk: Just the bare essence.
Evan Wolfson: Yeah.
Mason Funk: Not even the main portion, as much as ... as an example of the different styles of trying to change somebody's mind.
Evan Wolfson: So, one of the elements of our success, well, one of the demands of our strategy, one of the things we knew we needed to do, in addition to having litigation and political battling
Evan Wolfson: [00:52:30] as the vehicles by which we got legislatures, or the electorate, or the courts, or the supreme court to do what we needed to do was to create the climate around them. And of course a big part of that was shifting public opinion. There were many ways in which we worked to do that, and many elements of our campaign and many programs and so on. One of the ones that I think people have paid a lot of attention to, and that is pretty dramatic, is that we were focused on
Evan Wolfson: [00:53:00] who were the people we needed to persuade? And what was going to persuade them? And that had to shift as the people you're trying to reach change. You know, in the beginning, you're trying to get in some sense, your base. You're trying to get the people who should be there, who are the easier ones to get and so on. As you get more and more of them, you then are getting ... you have to think about, "Okay, well why didn't I get this one? What's the next 5%? What's the next 15%?
Evan Wolfson: [00:53:30] What was I doing or saying that wasn't yet enough to convince them? And how do we adapt that to what they need to hear, so they can join now the 30%, the 40%, the 50%?" This was the overall work on that piece of our strategy. The one that people have focused on as the takeaway of how we did this, was we did work to achieve a significant shift in the primary message that we were putting forward,
Evan Wolfson: [00:54:00] then hopefully replicating through the robust message delivery. The different messengers, the different repeaters, the reinforcement, etc. And that was a shift from, as people will say it, an emphasis on the law, on abstractions, on the constitution, on the incidents of marriage, healthcare, and the benefits and responsibilities that come with marriage and so on.
Evan Wolfson: [00:54:30] A shift from that as a primary message to a much more emotional engagement with people through stories, through personal accounts, through emotion, and through shared values. So, less about the justice and abstraction, and even the specifics of healthcare and so on, and more about the values, the heart, the stories.
Mason Funk: [00:55:00] I'm going to pause you for a second, because this siren is I can just feel it getting closer. You can easily, when you pick up again, you can start with the second approach.
Evan Wolfson: It's your thing. I don't have to do a shift from X, I just have to do to Y?
Mason Funk: Correct.
Mason Funk: [00:55:30] Okay. Okey doke. Yeah. Go ahead.
Evan Wolfson: Shifting from that to much more an emphasis on emotions, on shared values, on personal experience, on stories, and really thinking about what are the connective values that touch the heart? Not so much the specific legal or justice arguments,
Evan Wolfson: [00:56:00] or health benefits and protections and responsibilities. So, people's way of describing that now, is we shifted and then we won. Well, there's truth to that, but it's not exactly that. The way I would tell it is for much of the period of the battling, and remember it was more than four decades to win the freedom to marry. And my own involvement was about 32 years. So, there were decades of actual focus and deliberate effort following
Evan Wolfson: [00:56:30] more scattered and pioneering effort that yielded this. In the bulk of that first several decades of engagement, there were really a mix of messages, and mix of emphasis and stories. Some people were talking about love, and others were talking about legal benefits, and some were talking about their personal experience, and others were talking about the constitution. And that mix got us from 27% let's say,
Evan Wolfson: [00:57:00] when I did the world's first ever trial, and won the world's first ever victory on the freedom to marry in Hawaii with my non-gay co-counsel Dan Foley. We were at 27%. And that was 1996. By 2010, we had grown that 27% to a majority. A fragile majority, but a majority support. A very dramatic and quick in historical terms, shift, transformation. Well, it was a mix of these values,
Evan Wolfson: [00:57:30] and legal, and da-da-da-da that had gotten us to there. But, what we were confronting as we entered into 2009, 2010 and so on was what we were doing had moved public opinion, and racked up a few of the victories we needed to build. And yet, we didn't have the majority we needed. We hadn't yet gotten a majority, and then we had a majority, but it was a fragile majority, a majority that could be peeled away in battles like in California or Maine. So the challenge, we said to ourselves is,
Evan Wolfson: [00:58:00] "How do we get and solidify that next five to 15% of the American people?" So, through a very deliberate effort, freedom to marry led a process where we crunched through some 85 different datasets from five years of campaigns and battles. We brought our own experience and the experience of our colleagues to the table to think it through. And what we came up with, and this is what people kind of simplifying remember, is that the people we hadn't yet reached, the people I thought of as the reachable but not yet reached,
Evan Wolfson: [00:58:30] the portion of the message that was about the law and the constitution and justice and all these things that were absolutely valid and real and effective for some people, was not effective for them. What they needed to hear and experience was a much more pronounced and uncomplicated emphasis on the emotion, the shared values, fairness, how would you treat others? What kind of person are you? What kind of society do you want? Don't you believe in love? Those kinds of things.
Evan Wolfson: [00:59:00] And so, we worked very hard to shape the delivery of those sets of messages, not only from ourselves, but from our colleagues, and then from the broader movement, and then from the media, and ultimately also from political voices. When President Obama came in May 9th, 2012 to say he had now evolved, and changed his position, and came out in support of the freedom to marry, he used this script where he didn't talk as a lawyer or as a law professor,
Evan Wolfson: [00:59:30] as the President enforcing the constitution, he talked about his experience and views as a dad, as a friend, as a co-worker, and how his values as a Christian, and as a father seeking to teach these values to his kids had called on him to change. This was the script. It wasn't that nothing was working and then we changed to the value- laden and suddenly we won.
Evan Wolfson: [01:00:00] It was rather as an effective advocate, you need to think about whom are you trying to persuade to do what? And what will persuade them? And that evolved as the people we could get through mix A, we had gotten, and now we needed to get people through mix B, whatever mix B might be. And that's what it was. People think of that as this highly effective, which it was, shift from rights to values. From rights to hearts and minds. From legal to love and commitment. And that is what happened,
Evan Wolfson: [01:00:30] but it was more complicated in the way I just described. And yet, certainly effective. What it underscored is the most important lesson for advocates with regard to persuasion, which is whom are you trying to persuade? What will persuade them? Not just what feels good to you.
Mason Funk: This is all great stuff. Thank you. I feel like we should take a little break. Just a minor one.
Evan Wolfson: Okay.
Mason Funk: I'll turn the AC on for a couple minutes.
Evan Wolfson: Okay. I'm okay. But if you want to keep going.
Mason Funk: I'm actually okay, too. Laura, are you okay?
Laura (Tech): [01:01:00] Yeah, but I think it's because we're not moving.
Evan Wolfson: Yeah. I just don't want you to run out of time.
Mason Funk: Well, I definitely won't. Let me see where we're at.
Evan Wolfson: Okay. Yeah. We're okay.
Mason Funk: 10:44. Okay. So, I do think ... Let's just talk specifically about Hawaii. I'm curious to know, again because a lot of this I want to hear about this from your personal point of view. Like, "The moment this happened."
Mason Funk: [01:01:30] When did you first, I know you're bound by Lambda Legal by now, and somehow or another you get a call. The organization gets a call from this set of plaintiffs in Hawaii in 1990. And they have this thing. Do remember that moment or that week or that day? And kind of like when you realized, "Oh, Hawaii's going to be where, in some ways we're going to start ... the rubber's going to start hitting the road."
Evan Wolfson: [01:02:00] So, having graduated law school, I had moved to New York. I began work as a prosecutor. I was working my day job as a prosecutor, and by night I was volunteering at Lambda Legal, pro-bono. Writing briefs on yellow legal pads in my un-air conditioned apartment. And, getting to work on many great big cases because Lambda again was very small, this was a time of terrible challenge and oppression. We were reeling from the AIDS epidemic, and the horror of our friends and everybody dying around us,
Evan Wolfson: [01:02:30] and at the same time, confronting the Reagan administration and it's outright hostility to gay people and so on. So, there was plenty of work to do. As a young volunteer, I was immediately given the opportunity to be really engaged with all these great things. Working as I said, as a volunteer at night and weekends with Lambda. During that time, I also was putting forward my ideas about how, despite all this terrible stuff coming at us, we ought to have an affirmative strategy.
Evan Wolfson: [01:03:00] We ought to have an affirmative pathway. And marriage, for me, was a central element, a strategy for changing hearts and minds, and a way of lifting us beyond these immediate challenges and so on. That idea was somewhat controversial amongst my friends and colleagues, not to mention in the larger society, who had two different sets of resistance to it, which I can go into. One was basically ideological. Many of them thought this was the wrong goal, the wrong philosophy. Marriage was a bad thing to fight for.
Evan Wolfson: [01:03:30] And others didn't necessarily agree with that, but thought with this onslaught of AIDS, and Reagan, and discrimination, and the so-called religious right and so on, the idea and the fact that we had no legal protections in almost every level in almost any part of the country, the idea that we would now work to fight for marriage, which they saw as at best, the last thing we would win, was not well-timed, premature, dangerous, risky and so on.
Evan Wolfson: [01:04:00] So, we would argue about this throughout this period. This is the mid '80s basically. Even as I was then also working on challenges to the so-called sodomy laws, one of which reached the Supreme Court in the Hardwick case, challenges to restrictions on gay people being teachers, or being ... allowing the firing of gay people, etc. Of course, discrimination in the military. Working on all these things, but still arguing that we ought to have a marriage strategy, and this was a
Evan Wolfson: [01:04:30] pretty pronounced and repeated argument amongst this little band of happy warriors. This little band of activists, beleaguered and challenged at that time. During that period, I was contacted by a friend of a friend who was living in Hawaii. The friend was somebody I was working with as a volunteer at Lambda. His friend was one of what turned out to be the plaintiffs in
Evan Wolfson: [01:05:00] what turned out to be the Hawaii case. They were part of this second wave of marriage litigation where now 20 years or so after the first wave, another group of people, gay people, who wanted to get married. Who didn't necessarily know about any of these legal or political strategic debates that I was having with colleagues in the movement, or the history. They didn't even necessarily know that there'd been a first wave in the 1970's, one of which had reached the ... they wanted to get married. They were in love.
Evan Wolfson: [01:05:30] And a local activist had begun pulling together a group of couples saying, "Let's bring a challenge here in Hawaii." Through this friend of a friend, one of them got to me, because they had heard that there is this guy in the national movement who actually believes we should be fighting for marriage, and he's the one that is the most supportive, and so on. So they came to me. I brought the proposed case to my colleagues at Lambda, which like all the other groups in this little gathering of activists who were fighting,
Evan Wolfson: [01:06:00] absolutely refused to take the case, and said this is the wrong time, or the wrong goal, and depending on who you were, we were not going to do it. It was very divided, very bitter. We fought very hard about this, very intensely. It was really probably the number one thing we fought over in that period. I was denied permission to take the case. What I was allowed to do was to help them from behind the scenes.
Evan Wolfson: [01:06:30] So, that turned out to be the luckiest decision of the '80s, because what it meant was that the couples, instead of getting a young lawyer from Lambda Legal, outside agitators, trying to do a case in Hawaii on behalf of the freedom to marry, instead they went local and they found this non-gay lawyer who had previously been at the ACLU, and had now gone into private practice named Dan Foley,
Evan Wolfson: [01:07:00] and he agreed to take the case, not because he actually thought they were going to win, but because he felt as a non-gay man who was he to tell them they can't have what he has in his life, a wonderful marriage. And, he believed in justice and so on, so he thought, "All right, I'll do it." Because Lambda allowed me to be supportive, I wound up getting in touch with Dan. We completely bonded. We absolutely saw strategy, and politics,
Evan Wolfson: [01:07:30] and the bigger picture very much the same way. We really came to a pretty early on agreement that he would be the lead, and the primary person navigating Hawaii politics, and bringing his Hawaii credibility to all the political work around the case, trying to block attacks in the legislature, trying to set up a government commission to make a report that would buttress our case, standing in front of the judges and so on, with all that savvy and credibility. And then I would be responsible for everything else.
Evan Wolfson: [01:08:00] My job was to think about, "Okay, what are the implications nationally? How do we leverage this for the movement? How do we create the climate? How do we prepare the rest of the country for what was going to happen?" And so on. All of this was, at first, unofficial, because Lambda said I could help behind the scenes. Then with a change of leadership at Lambda, I was allowed to file a friend of the court brief on behalf of Lambda in the Hawaii Supreme Court as the case progressed. Dan lost at the lower court, now went to the Hawaii Supreme Court.
Evan Wolfson: [01:08:30] Now the gay movement, through this brief, was now represented making the argument as a friend of the court. And Dan and I meanwhile were strategizing and bonding very, very closely, although by this point, we still had not met. It was years before we actually physically met. It was all by phone and by fax. There was no internet and so on. So, on May 5th, 1993, it was the day the earth moved, as I said. The day that the Hawaii Supreme Court, unlike all the other courts that had previously heard this question,
Evan Wolfson: [01:09:00] said that we were entitled to our day in court. That they weren't going to say we should have the freedom to marry, but they did say that denying the freedom to marry is indeed discrimination, and unless the government can show a sufficient reason for that denial, it needs to stop. And that epic ruling, May 5th, 1993, I argued, had changed everything. And now, Lambda and the other legal groups pretty quickly, who had all said no earlier, realized and agreed
Evan Wolfson: [01:09:30] that whatever we all thought before, politically, or ideologically, or strategically or whatever, we now had this chance, and I argued we were going to win, and it was going to play out in a big way. It wasn't just about Hawaii, it wasn't just about one court, it wasn't just about one moment, and we had to engage this opportunity, and the legal groups now backed it. Lambda gave me permission now to enter the case. Dan extended again the invitation to come in to me, this time as co-counsel, bringing Lambda in ...
Evan Wolfson: [01:10:00] ... And I became co-counsel on the case with Dan, and the rest followed.
Mason Funk: Huh, fantastic, now two questions just about that era. One was you mentioned that these arguments ... You used the word bitter, you and your core really close friends probably some of whom were some of them not, but I guess I don't want to miss the opportunity to talk about just what that felt like, to you personally.
Evan Wolfson: [01:10:30] During that period in the 80s when we were fighting internally in the movement about whether or not to fight for marriage. Whether to do this work, I was ... For some of those debates really a lone voice, and in most of them at best a lonely voice. There were one or two others who might've agreed or been somewhat supportive, but I was definitely the one pushing it, and the one most identified with it, and sometimes the only one speaking up for it. We would gather every six months in what
Evan Wolfson: [01:11:00] we called the round table, which was this small band of organizational lawyers, and some professors, and some other private practitioners. There weren't that many in the country who were doing this gay rights work, and at that point it was still gay rights work. We weren't even talking about trans, and though we mostly liked each other, and mostly were friends, and certainly respected each other there were very pronounced differences, very very acute on marriage.
Evan Wolfson: [01:11:30] There were a couple other things we would argue over, but this was one where people were really divided, and it sometimes felt somewhat personal, though not enduringly so. It was difficult. It was difficult. I was a young lawyer. I was a young activist. I was just entering the movement first doing all of this pro bono in my free time on top of my day job as a prosecutor, and then was invited to join Lambda, and became on staff full time, and then immediately began butting heads with some of the powers that be at Lambda
Evan Wolfson: [01:12:00] who were also divided in these same camps and ways and so on. It got quite intense, and sometimes felt really personal, and ugly. Other times it was just ... we can agree to disagree, but we do disagree, and so on. It was very, very challenging, and that went on for years, and played out with some very significant staff divisions at Lambda where people were really at each other's throats, and it was somewhat dysfunctional for a period of time,
Evan Wolfson: [01:12:30] and divides similarly with some of the other organizations and other activists even as we're all working together to advance gay rights, and to fight against AIDs, and to fight against the Reagan administration and so on. It was very intense, and very unpleasant at points, and I very much felt at that point like here I had come as a young gay person to work at ... In a gay rights job at the leading gay rights organization, you know, what an opportunity,
Evan Wolfson: [01:13:00] and yet I was constantly saying at that point that the best work experience I'd ever had was when I was working as a prosecutor in obviously a non-gay office doing mostly non-gay things. Though I was doing gay rights in my pro time, because the personal experience was so difficult even though the reward of being able to do something that I cared about was so meaningful. Much of that healed. Much of that got better. Much of that evolved. Not that everybody agrees even to this day, but we dealt with it better,
Evan Wolfson: and things evolved. We moved forward in the work, and we didn't have to keep arguing those who wanted to do it were doing it, and those who didn't agree went off and did other things, or focused on other things, and we got older, and we learned how to handle it better, but it was very difficult. It was very personally unpleasant.
Mason Funk: [01:13:30] Were there times when you either both, and ... Just felt discouraged, and wondered if ... should I just ... Do I just give up, is this a waste of time?
Mason Funk: [01:14:00] Did you have to ... Did you have people that you could rely on? These are obviously times when people who are going through big challenges, maybe they can draw some support and inspiration from how you coped.
Evan Wolfson: Yeah, there were definitely times in that period. The late 80s early 90s where I thought, "Is this worth it? Do I want to keep doing this? Do I want to keep fighting like this? Maybe I should go do something else. I've done my gay rights thing maybe I should do something else, or do it somewhere else, but even do something else."
Evan Wolfson: [01:14:30] Some friends were very supportive including within Lambda, but also at other organizations, and others were saying, "Why are you doing this? Why are you banging your head against this wall?" I did explore other jobs. The possibility of going off and being a teacher. I went ... I did have some interviews, and considered doing that, and there was a point at which I was fired from Lambda in the midst of these divides. A firing that was then undone a week later, but it was pretty intense,
Evan Wolfson: [01:15:00] and difficult. There were definitely times where I thought about that, but ultimately decided to stick with it, and sticking with it was the right answer.
Mason Funk: Do you remember when you decided to stick with it why you decided to stick with it?
Evan Wolfson: I decided to stick with it because I really care about getting the result that I thought was the right result, and this was the price that you paid, and I could pay it, and it would get better.
Evan Wolfson: [01:15:30] Which it did, and that I shouldn't give up too easily, and as I said there were points at which I did, and had certain things broken in a different way there could have been a very different outcome. I could've been hired away. Actually I was brought to Hawaii. My very first time in Hawaii was when I was flown out there for a job interview at the University of Hawaii, and you know I'm pretty sure had I gotten that job I think I would've taken it, and it would've been a very different ...
Evan Wolfson: [01:16:00] I would've been in Hawaii for the case, but I wouldn't have been able to do actually the thing that I was right to do as opposed to what Dan was right to do. So that worked out right, but I probably would've taken it. There was one other point in the struggle where I did consider going in a different direction in '93 when things had gotten better at Lambda, and I was doing the marriage work, and so on, and we were no longer having the same intense fights.
Evan Wolfson: [01:16:30] My side had prevailed basically, and we were now on track, but it was all going very slowly, and it wasn't really clear where it was going, and I toyed with the idea ... In part because of friends I had who could open some opportunities of actually rejoining the peace corps, and this time serving as a country director, and being assigned, and I went through the application process, and put my name in, and it was provisionally accepted, and the way it works is you get through this very rigorous process
Evan Wolfson: [01:17:00] which is theoretically the hard part, and you're on the list, and then from the list then you have to get assigned, and then you wait to see if you're assigned. Which was dragging on for a while, and eventually during that period, because we got the Hawaii ruling in May of 1993 now this theoretical marriage question became a real opportunity, and I was the one that was best placed to say we should fight for this, and do it. So I had to decide,
Evan Wolfson: [01:17:30] having persuaded the movement now, not everybody, but a critical mass including Lambda to come on board and to do the marriage case, and having gotten this connection with Dan, and having the opportunity now be co-council on the case, and to drive the marriage strategy, and build the campaign I said needed to be built, and so on, and had been preaching ever since law school. Do I pursue this job at the peace corps, or do I turn it down, and stay at Lambda and keep doing it, and I decided to do that, but there was a possibility, and I was considering it.
Mason Funk: [01:18:00] Can you talk about that firing at Lambda? What happened?
Evan Wolfson: There were bitter divides at Lambda during these periods of the late 80s early 90s. Everybody was under tremendous pressure, AIDs, and anti-gay, and you know we're a small group of people, and I would say a combination of personalities, and ego stuff as well as the substantive divisions most on marriage,
Evan Wolfson: [01:18:30] but on a few other things as well brought division within the staff to just a really dysfunctional level, and it was just very, very antagonistic, and difficult, and there were these real different camps, and it was going up to the board, and the board was divided, and it culminated with the then leadership of Lambda firing me, as disruptive in their mind,
Evan Wolfson: [01:19:00] and not accepting what the authority structure that had come down in a different way, and also then there were the personality divides that somehow my removing me would defang the division within the staff, and so on and so on. Well so I was fired, and left the office, and so on. The board was told of this, and the divisions within the board, and response from the community
Evan Wolfson: [01:19:30] basically said, "You can't fire this guy. He's good." There was a lot of pressure put on them, and a lot of division and so on, and ultimately the executive director who had fired me quit, and I was unfired. I don't even remember if it had even legally taken effect or whatever, but ... Basically over the course of a week that's what happened, and so I came back.
Evan Wolfson: [01:20:00] Lambda was now embarking on a search for a new executive director. This was an opportunity to hopefully find someone who could bring us together, and move us forward. The person that was chosen, Kevin Cathcart was one of ... Was then the head of GLAD, Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders in Massachusets, now being wooed to move to New York. He was someone I had always been friendly with. He was one of the ones who whenever the round table had gathered we would always make a point of having lunch one time when he was in from Boston,
Evan Wolfson: [01:20:30] or whatever. He was aware of these Lambda tensions. He was supportive of me as a friend, so I felt like this was somebody who is gonna actually somebody I can work with, and somebody worth staying for. That was around the time when I was interviewing for the job in Hawaii, and it was another factor in deciding to stick with Lambda, because this leadership shifted change. Though I still think if I had gotten that job in Hawaii I would have probably taken it, but it was another reason why I was able to decide, okay, I'm going to stay,
Evan Wolfson: [01:21:00] because the intensity of the situation had changed, and the new leadership had offered a new prospect of going better which it did. Kevin immediately authorized me to do that friend of the court brief in Hawaii, gave me the mandate to really drive the marriage work stronger as I had wanted to do ultimately leading to my becoming co-council, and it just changed, and the staff tensions really evaporated. Things just got much better relatively quickly under new leadership.
Mason Funk: Great, well that-
Laura: [inaudible].
Mason Funk: [01:21:30] ... Yeah. Change the card. Okay. Okay, so go for it.
Evan Wolfson: I think it's easy to forget today how beleaguered we were in that period. The late 80s early 90s, mid 90s with particularly the early 90s before the election of Clinton where AIDs was raging unabated really, and our friends were dying. We were all in fear, or were ourselves getting sick.
Evan Wolfson: [01:22:00] People you worked with all the time were sick, or everyone knew someone, or knew many people, but ... And the intensity and ugliness of the politics against us were ... was huge. The Reagan administration, Jerry Falwell, the religious right, the republican resurgence and so on, and even under Bush who ostensibly kinder and gentler, and was a little better
Evan Wolfson: [01:22:30] we had to fight for everything. We had to fight in the battles of the ADA, the American Disability Act, where we were successful in getting protections, but there were still efforts to exclude us, to exclude transgender people, to exclude HIV. We had to litigate cases in the supreme court, all the way to the supreme court that anti ... Discrimination against people with HIV was prohibited by the law. The Reagan administration took the position it shouldn't be, and the ... Just the ugliness of the atmosphere in addition to the fear.
Evan Wolfson: [01:23:00] It's surreal how different the world was in that way. At the same time I remember being optimistic, because that's how I always am. I remember believing we were winning. That we could win. We were gonna change things. America was gonna get better. We were gonna beat them. We were gonna beat AIDs, and being very hopeful about that, so though it was absolutely a siege
Evan Wolfson: [01:23:30] and a war, and death and fear all around us. There was also very much a sense of we're fighting the good fight, and we're winning in my mind even though not winning every battle, and that we were gonna win.
Mason Funk: Interesting. Great. Okay, so needless to say we can't go through the marriage story, but I do want to talk about California,
Mason Funk: [01:24:00] because I'm a Californian, and so Prop 8. If you think that's a good example of ... Do you think that was a pivotally important as an example of forward progress, and then backward progress? Is it worth talking about Prop 8 as a milestone in the overall story?
Evan Wolfson: Sure. It is a milestone.
Mason Funk: Great, okay lets talk about it.
Evan Wolfson: It's not the milestone.
Mason Funk: It's not the mile, okay. Do you want to talk about whatever you would write as the milestone first?
Evan Wolfson: No, no go ahead.
Mason Funk: [01:24:30] Okay, so needless to say 2008 was obviously a big deal, because Obama was elected. Then it was this big tide of optimism, and then lo and behold people in California wake up, and blah blah blah. How did you see the fight even being played out before the election, and did you see it coming, and how did you perceive it at the time? Such a vague question.
Evan Wolfson: 2008 was obviously a very big year. On the one hand the election of Obama, and the opening of a new era, and it was the year in which we won,
Evan Wolfson: [01:25:00] finally. After several very difficult years, our second state with marriage. We had won Massachusetts, we had held Massachusetts during the course of the battles of Massachusetts, and we had gotten couples married, and had also of course won Canada, and several other countries. It was a lot moving forward, but we struggled to get that second state. People forget that from winning in Massachusetts in November 2003, and couples getting married in May 2004 for the first time in the US
Evan Wolfson: [01:25:30] it took us until May of 2008 before we were able to get that second state, and it wasn't because we weren't trying. We were losing. We were stumbling. We were having difficult near misses and sweeping defeats. Finally on May 15th 2008 we won our big second victory in California with the California supreme court. Couples began getting married. It was enormously important, because it was California, and because it was our second state,
Evan Wolfson: [01:26:00] and because it was love, and all the country was watching it and seeing it, and it was moving people, and adding to our momentum, and so on. Yet we knew that there was this threat that they were gonna try to take it away with what became Proposition 8, and ballot measure much as we had seen happen in Hawaii where we had opened this door, and galvanized the country, and had this chance of moving everything forward leveraged by this first case in Hawaii, and then a constitutional amendment pushed it to
Evan Wolfson: [01:26:30] state level through a ballot measure had shut down that avenue. We knew that that was a threat facing us in 2008. One of the frustrations during that period was we had tried to persuade a critical mass of our colleagues in the movement, activists and so on, and funders to do what was needed to maximize our chances of winning not only in court as we had done, but at the ballot as we knew we were gonna have to do with what became Proposition 8,
Evan Wolfson: [01:27:00] and for the couple years before that we had worked very hard to get people to back a public education effort that would grow, and then solidify our majority in California so that when the time came for people to vote it wouldn't be a fragile 50% that we were trying to hold it would be a 53, 58% that even as we lost some people as one does in a political debate we could still hold. One of the most difficult things, and one of the biggest lessons from this whole struggle
Evan Wolfson: [01:27:30] is the price one pays by failing to invest in the earlier softer groundwork; public engagement, building, moving public support, arming in advance as opposed to waiting until the political or crunch moment. Prop 8 was a perfect illustration of that. We entered 2008 ...
Mason Funk: [01:28:00] What's this ... I don't even know what's across the street right here.
Evan Wolfson: Well this is 6th Avenue, and this is 12th Street.
Mason Funk: There it goes. So we entered
Evan Wolfson: [01:28:30] So we entered 2008 having built a majority in California, but it was 50, 51% I don't remember exactly, and we were now confronting a very determined opponent who really did see this as at the time I said Gettysburg. I was saying that when I thought we were gonna win. Once we lost it was no longer Gettysburg it was you know, Bull run, but we knew this was a critical potential turning point battle. We entered with this majority, but without having been able to persuade us to put together and do the things
Evan Wolfson: [01:29:00] that would've put us in a much stronger place we had challenges running the campaign. We missed some opportunities to really drive and sustain the narrative. We weren't fully prepared to deal with what the opponents threw at us. Nobody was prepared on either side for the amount of money that ultimately went in on both sides that ultimately was more than 40 million dollars on each side raised in that campaign. Nothing like that had ever happened before by orders of magnitude.
Evan Wolfson: [01:29:30] The idea that we were gonna try to aim to raise 10 million dollars seemed like a stretch, but it's California, so okay. Nobody contemplated the ability and the need to do what was needed so that by the time we actually did wind up doing it it was too late. We raised up that 40 million. I was thinking something like 26 million in the last few weeks when we'd already lost command of the narrative, and had certainly missed the two years before opportunity. Anyways, all of this was the backdrop to this epic battle, and at the same time of course
Evan Wolfson: [01:30:00] we were all very focused on winning this presidential election, and putting an end to the era of assault, and hopefully electing an ally. Election day dawns. We all stayed awake, didn't even wake up to it. We stayed awake for this very joyous election result at the national level, and this very crushing painful blow in California. Not totally a shock, though a shock to many people.
Evan Wolfson: [01:30:30] Not a shock to those who were following it closely, but obviously a great blow. I was lucky in that I had lived through this before. This was election day literally a decade earlier I had seen this Hawaii case, and everything that was riding on it slammed by an election result, and a ballot measure the first in Hawaii, and I knew that while these losses are painful that as I wrote shortly before the election
Evan Wolfson: [01:31:00] in 2004 when we faced another similar set of defeats that wins trumps losses. That the wins, the power of our wins will give us what we need if we keep working to come back and overcome our losses, so while we don't want to lose, losses are painful, we can overcome the losses as long as we keep doing the work, and racking in wins which we were also doing, and literally had done on election day with the election of Obama.
Evan Wolfson: [01:31:30] While it was an important moment, an important benchmark, it definitely proved to be, and probably its biggest value was the wake up call that Prop 8 sent to non gay people who had all sort of assumed, "Oh California the gays are gonna win." By then they were used to hearing about the discussion. They may or may not yet have fully supported it, but they were thinking we were ... We had the momentum, and it was California, so we were likely to win.
Evan Wolfson: [01:32:00] This was a wake up call. Non gay people saw the blow, and they saw the unfairness of it. They saw that couples had met their frame to marry, and now the next couples weren't going to be able to marry. They had witnessed the images of these beautiful couples, and the joy, and the love for several months, and now that door was shut. That bumped support up not only in California but across the country was a wake up call to non gay people that this was a fight. It wasn't a glide to a victory whether they liked it or not, and it was a wake up call for gay people
Evan Wolfson: [01:32:30] who too many of whom had thought it's California, it's marriage, we're winning, we're used to winning, we're gonna do it we're gonna win. I don't have to be involved et cetera. That was a very important and helpful wake up call as it played out immediately particularly in California it had its negative side which was it did wake some people up who could've done more, and maybe felt a little guilty for having not fully been there as much in the fight as they should've, and now began in some sense acting out
Evan Wolfson: [01:33:00] in some ways the acting out was positive. People were committing to activism, committing to engagement, realizing they needed to get involved in the work, and they couldn't take victory for granted even in California, but some of it was really acting out. It was venting their anger. Venting their frustration, venting their dismay, and wanting a quick fix. Wanting either to just think that a protest was gonna solve the problem, whether it's protesting the Mormon church, or protesting California,
Evan Wolfson: [01:33:30] or protesting the movement, or whoever. Some went to that for a period of time. Others went into a lot of recrimination intra-community attacks over you failed, you didn't do this campaign right, you didn't ... There was a lot of ugliness, and dysfunction, and PTSD going on in California particularly somewhat in the movement, but more generally in California.
Evan Wolfson: [01:34:00] Then there was this sort of Hollywood galvanized effort that decided that they were gonna take this in their hands now, and they didn't like the strategy. They didn't like the result in California, which nobody liked, and they didn't care what the strategy had been that now they were gonna ride to the rescue, and they launched a new effort to win marriage heedless of the strategy that had been building, and was still delivering and ultimately won.
Evan Wolfson: [01:34:30] That was frustrating, because on the one hand we welcomed in more talent, more support, more money, more energy, new ideas, but the initial arrogance and recklessness, and disdain that was shown was very painful to deal with, and very frustrating, and the strategy they embarked on for a period of time had they gotten their way would've been quite reckless, and would've actually significantly set us back, and that was launching a federal case.
Evan Wolfson: [01:35:00] The Prop 8 case. As it all turned out, I mean there's a longer version of this story, but as it all turned out it didn't go the way they wanted. Their case didn't go as quickly as they had hoped. They weren't able to go to the supreme court right away. The judge required them to hold a trial that they didn't want to hold. That trial proved to be a powerful teaching moment that was a helpful contribution to the overall fight, and it slowed it down.
Evan Wolfson: [01:35:30] Then there were years of wrangling over standing, and the dynamics of the particular case that slowed that case down, so by the time that case eventually did wind up reaching the supreme court in 2013 the strategy had continued, and had had the time to keep unfolding including absorbing the good parts of what they brought to the table, and the good parts of the wake up call, and the new energy, and new commitment that had come in, and the gains that we were racking up on the strategy.
Evan Wolfson: [01:36:00] We rebounded from 2008, and the blow of Prop 8 to what I called at the time the "winningest" year we'd ever had in 2009 where we won several ... The freedom to marry in several more states. In Iowa, in Vermont, in New Hampshire. We had grown, and solidified public opinion. We now crested, and had a majority of support which we hadn't had previously. Partly infused by California, but also the cumulative ongoing momentum of the strategy.
Evan Wolfson: [01:36:30] We set the stage to win the freedom to marry in DC in 2010. To win the freedom to marry in New York in 2011. To win with Republican support in states like New York and New Hampshire as well as Democratic support. Broadening our base, and broadening the political momentum. We won at the ballot measure in 2012 having lost in 2008, and then 2009 in Maine we learned how to win,
Evan Wolfson: [01:37:00] and won four out of four in 2012. Shifting the political momentum in a major way more importantly really than Proposition 8 in terms of its ultimate launchpad effect. Prop 8 was important for the reasons I've said. As a wake up call, as a painful blow that did get people mobilized, as a window to get ... I still to this day I think at least once a month meet some couple that's one of the 18 thousand
Evan Wolfson: [01:37:30] who got married during the window in California. They were important. They were stories. They were galvanized. They were examples, and they were ... They helped to underscore how urgent this was, and that got the movement reinvested in the work mostly on the right strategy. Some on some diffused others, but those eventually folded back in to what became this cumulative strategic victory in 2015.
Mason Funk: [01:38:00] Yeah. It's funny, because of course I followed the Prop 8 case so closely, and went and sat in on a day in court, and trial and so forth, and I don't think I was quite aware of how at a certain period of time that was experienced from you by you, and you and the team that you put together as a ... Like you say, "Oh Hollywood's gonna ride to the rescue." And so on and so forth.
Evan Wolfson: Yeah, well look. There were good parts, and bad parts to what happened, and ultimately the good parts outweighed the bad parts. You don't control everything, they didn't control everything.
Mason Funk: [01:38:30] What's interesting is it in a weird way it feels like there was ... In the examples you gave about how their case took longer to progress and so on and this weird thing about standing that arose. It almost felt like there was this invisible hand guiding, and of course that's very airy fairy, totally airy fairy, but it's kind of uncanny in some ways.
Evan Wolfson: [01:39:00] One of my precepts, as somebody who now teaches the lessons from our success, is that you should not really worry about the things you can't control. You have to focus on maximizing, and doing what you need to do on the things you can control, and you have to do so with belief that it's gonna work. That you're gonna win. That doesn't excuse you from trying to be strategic.
Evan Wolfson: [01:39:30] From trying to really do the homework. Really think it through, being respectful, being open to new ideas, but at the same time if you have clarity of goal, and clarity of your strategy, and you have come to the right strategy even if it doesn't deliver immediately, or 100% or linearly which none of them do that you can succeed, and you can win. The fact that others may not agree with that, or may try other things, or that other things sometimes happen you can't control that,
Evan Wolfson: [01:40:00] so you shouldn't really get all obsessed about it. I didn't like when people tried to jump the strategy, and when people whether with arrogance or idealism just wanted to do it differently, and I would try to reason with people, and persuade, but I didn't put a lot of time and energy into it, and certainly once they went ahead it's like there's no point in fighting over it. Better to do better what I do, and hope that that's gonna keep us on track,
Evan Wolfson: [01:40:30] and maybe even bring them back in which is ultimately what mostly happened most of the time, including with the Prop 8 struggle.
Mason Funk: Great, okay. Let's see where we're at. Who do you regard as some of the unsung heroes of the marriage story? People whose names ... Whose stories are just ... Individuals whose stories are never quite told as full as they should be.
Evan Wolfson: [01:41:00] Of course in as epic a transformation and triumph as winning the freedom to marry, and galvanizing this movement. Whether it's the LGBT movement generally in the US, or the broader international LGBT movement or the international marriage committee, of course in such a movement there are actually literally millions of people who contribute at various levels.
Evan Wolfson: [01:41:30] There are many who are even in the central critical mass the campaign whose names people don't appreciate or know. When you asked the question who are the unsung heroes I first immediately think of my entire team. We had a Freedom to Marry team. It wasn't just the Evan Wolfson show. There were just wonderful people, people like our director of research and messaging Thalia Zepatos a non gay woman who spearheaded important parts of the program for us.
Evan Wolfson: [01:42:00] Worked arm and arm as part of the team. Laid the groundwork in several key states as well as helping shape our national message, and helping shape our way of bringing in more of the movement to deliver this message including the famous shift from rights and benefits to love and commitment. Thalia led much of that effort, and was certainly a key part of a lot of it, and sold it not only through her talent,
Evan Wolfson: [01:42:30] but through her excellent personality. Her excellent ability to bring people together in a way that I didn't fully ... I could not have done solely. Somebody like her is somebody I think about, and she and I are actually still working to this day together in our new post Freedom to Marry life going and coaching Freedom to Marry effort in other countries working hand in hand together on that. Even apart from somebody like Thalia who doesn't have the same full name recognition although she's well known amongst the activist
Evan Wolfson: [01:43:00] and funder core you have the very talented younger staff who poured their sweat and talent into our work, and really built the back end of many of the state by state campaigns, and the freedom to marry message delivery that was so effective as we drummed out the frame for the rest of the movement to absorb, and put forward even under their own banner. People like Cameron Tolle, and Adam Polaski,
Evan Wolfson: [01:43:30] and Angela Dallara who were the juniors on our team, but were just incredible talent, and dynamos, and I'm pleased to still be working with them as they've moved on to do good guy work in ... With freedom for all Americans. Working on non discrimination, and bringing some of these lessons. There's so many state leaders who led their particular fight. Their particular battle which was huge, and big, but because it was quote only one state after you've won you move on,
Evan Wolfson: [01:44:00] and you have this national story, but had we not won the battle of Connecticut led by Anne Stanback had we not won the battle in Iowa with people like Sharon Malheiro, and some of the other lawyers as well as the Lambda legal team. Had we not won the battle of Vermont, and people who are well known like Beth Robinson, and Susan Murray who led that fight with all the volunteers and others that they led there. It's not like Beth is not famous. She's sitting on the Vermont supreme court,
Evan Wolfson: [01:44:30] but she's not known in the story in the same way because her focus was really this crucial victory. I could go right down the list; the battle of New York, the battle of Illinois, the battle of Washington state, the battle of Maryland. Each one of them ... People like Richard Carlbom leading the fight in Minnesota. There's so many of them. Then you think about the non gay people who ...
Evan Wolfson: [01:45:00] I've mentioned Dan Foley many times and it's not like he's not known but he's certainly not known to that degree but he in some sense was the one who got all of this started anew. There was the wave in the 70s but this wave starting with Hawaii in the 1980s, were it not for Dan Foley we wouldn't, none of everything else that followed from Hawaii would have happened, certainly not at the same way in the same time or as early. Again, I could keep going with so many of the non gay allies who played a crucial role either in a specific way or more quietly and generally over a long period of time.
Mason Funk: [01:45:30] Do you see backlash, backlashes that occur, does a movement almost have to go through backlashes?
Evan Wolfson: I do want to actually add one other, again not totally unsung hero but absolutely pivotal player who is Tim Sweeney. Tim really was my right hand,
Evan Wolfson: [01:46:00] right brain guy in thinking about creating something like a Freedom to Marry in the first place and both as a leader in his own right, having been the executive director of Lambda Legal, having been the executive director of GMHC, having played a crucial role at the Pride Agenda here in New York in achieving pro gay, pro LGBT legislation, having gone on in the philanthropic world to bring the philanthropy and the foundations to our side as part of the team and really used his skill,
Evan Wolfson: [01:46:30] his intellect but also again his personality and his ability to bring people together, for decades this would not have happened. He was my absolute partner and coach and so on. It's not that no one knows his name but people don't know his name at the same level. He worked with Harvey Milk as the treasurer in the campaign back then, right before Harvey was assassinated and has gone on to this incredible career. Still seems as young as I do
Evan Wolfson: [01:47:00] and made this enormous difference both personally and professionally for so many of us.
Mason Funk: Yeah. I know he was in your questionnaire as someone that we got to, I see he was on the list of people you wanted to talk about.
Evan Wolfson: Yeah. When you ask the question, the movement's experience with backlash, it gives me the chance to go into my now familiar to too many rant about how much I hate the word backlash and how I don't think it's a helpful way
Evan Wolfson: [01:47:30] of thinking about the work at all. In my book, Why Marriage Matters, I quote from Martin Luther King who in 1966 gave a speech in which he essentially said, I could read you the exact quote but I can paraphrase, basically he said, "I hate the word backlash. Backlash falsely conveys," he said, "that everything was sort of going along fine and then those of us who favored a change, those of us who wanted to fight for civil rights
Evan Wolfson: [01:48:00] and move the country forward, somehow asked for too much or went too far or moved too fast and triggered a response that might otherwise not have happened." That's not, King says, what happened at all. What happened is there is this tension. There's a division, there's a contest between different ideas, different visions of what kind of society we should have and those of us who work to achieve a change push and those who don't favor that change
Evan Wolfson: [01:48:30] or have a very different vision are pushing in their own way. The proper way to think of this, I would say but I think King would agree, is struggle. It's not backlash, it's struggle. One minute we're struggling here. We then make some progress and so we're struggling but we're struggling here. The fact that we're still struggling, the fact that there is struggle and resistance and a different vision, it's not backlash, it's struggle, it's advance actually.
Evan Wolfson: [01:49:00] My way of saying this, maybe less eloquently than King, during the years in which I was crisscrossing the country saying we needed to fight for the freedom to marry, we should organize this, I was dubbed in the press the Paul Revere of marriage because I was saying, you know, "Marriage is coming, marriage is coming, we can do this," and many people to this day will remember having heard me say in 1987 or 2000 or 1994 or 2001 that we could do this and thinking I was crazy and [inaudible] people.
Evan Wolfson: [01:49:30] At least once a month somebody will say that to me, that they heard me say this and blah blah blah. During that period, one of the lines I used all the time was, "Their backlash began before we even lashed. We're the ones who are trying to achieve a change. We're already enduring oppression, discrimination, denial, violence. We're fighting for a change and we are making change. We are achieving a change, but the fact that there's still resistance,
Evan Wolfson: [01:50:00] the fact that not everyone has come around, isn't backlash, it's struggle, but it's still also progress." I think backlash is actually a disempowering way of talking about it. It makes it sound like somehow you did something wrong, you shouldn't try, you shouldn't try so hard. It's a way of giving permission to not push.
Mason Funk: It's so interesting, when I use the term backlash, for me it has none of the connotation of,
Mason Funk: [01:50:30] "You asked for too much." It's just that we do see that, quote unquote, "forward progress" is made and then there is a counter. What I'm wondering is is just that conflict also necessary, part and parcel of the process because values are at stake?
Mason Funk: [01:51:00] Is it inevitable and is it almost like, does it add strength even though in moments it feels like you're just getting [inaudible].
Evan Wolfson: King actually had a far less beautiful metaphor where he talked, I think it's in Letter From Birmingham Jail, about tension. He says, "I'm not afraid of the word tension. The tension is already there. It's under the surface. We're not creating tension by demanding civil rights, by working for civil rights, by pushing, the tension is there
Evan Wolfson: [01:51:30] but it's beneath the surface. We are bringing that tension to the surface." He goes on and uses an even less beautiful metaphor, he says, It's the pus beneath the surface. This is there, we didn't cause the pus, we didn't cause the infection but sunlight and tension will bring it to the surface in a way that ultimately allows us to cure it, to heal it. Yes, I think that what some people call backlash but what I think of as better conceived of as struggle,
Evan Wolfson: [01:52:00] as resistance, as difference, there are different visions. Not everyone's going to agree. One of my rules of activism is you don't need every, you need enough. You're not going to get everybody. It's not about magically persuading everybody or waiting until we have persuaded everybody. You need enough. Yes, there will be resistance, there will be reaction, there will be, "We do this, they do that," et cetera, but before they were doing it too, it's just we weren't doing it.
Evan Wolfson: [01:52:30] Again, I reject the framing of backlash. I don't think it's a helpful way to think of it, but it is helpful to remember that this is a struggle and that even after you've won an epic transformation, as for that matter even if you've taken a loss, the work remains. You still must keep working. You may be fighting at a different place, at a different level with different people and hopefully a dwindling resistance, but there's still resistance and therefore still struggle.
Mason Funk: Great. Excellent. Now we'll pause for this siren.
Evan Wolfson: Yes, I was speaking quickly.
Mason Funk: [01:53:00] I could tell you were.
Evan Wolfson: Get it in.
Mason Funk: Okay, we're going to spend a couple of minutes, and I know you've been down this path many, many times, but in the course of collecting the 129 interviews we've collected so far we've heard from various people who question marriage. I'm just going to read you a couple quotes. None of them will be unfamiliar to you but I just for the record would like to hear your thoughts from a couple people
Mason Funk: [01:53:30] or in response to a couple. One was a woman and she co-founded an organization called SONG, which is Southerners On New Ground, Suzanne Pharr.
Evan Wolfson: I know.
Mason Funk: You know Suzanne? Or you know [crosstalk]?
Evan Wolfson: Suzanne Pharr?
Mason Funk: Yeah.
Evan Wolfson: Yeah.
Mason Funk: Okay. She said in the course of her interview, "The very nerve," quote unquote, "of elevating one kind of a relationship over another where the rights that you get by marriage are the rights you should have anyway." Like I said, this is not going to be new ground for you.
Evan Wolfson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Mason Funk: What do you, because there's kind of a general thought process there.
Evan Wolfson: [01:54:00] As I mentioned earlier, there were two camps of resistance within the movement, including among friends, to the fight and the work to win marriage. There was the ideological resistance within the movement and then there were some who had strategic resistance. Within the ideological resistance, I think of really there were two strands in particular.
Evan Wolfson: [01:54:30] There were some who believed and continue to believe, some, that marriage is just a bad goal, that we should not be fighting for marriage. That marriage was patriarchal, it had a bad history, had harmed women, had harmed [inaudible], and therefore we shouldn't fight for it, we shouldn't want it. Then there were others who may or may not have had that view but who had another ideological belief which was that as gay people,
Evan Wolfson: [01:55:00] now we would say as LGBT people, as gay people we should not be fighting to assimilate. We should not be fighting to emulate, we should not be fighting to integrate, we should be fighting to redefine, to create our own, to liberate. Marriage they see as all the former things that they don't like as opposed to the latter thing, that we should instead reinvent different family forms or have a different approach to providing support whether through the law or otherwise.
Evan Wolfson: [01:55:30] I had friends, I have friends who share to some degree some of those views. I was friends with the people I was arguing with, many of them, who had one or the other of those views. I understood those views, I just didn't agree with those views. I've written extensively about why I think those views are either wrong or don't lead us to the place they think that it does.
Evan Wolfson: [01:56:00] The idea that we shouldn't fight for something important because they don't think it's a good thing when it is a thing, when society has this structure and does allocate protections and responsibilities and tangible and intangible meanings and so on that, by the way most, in my view, gay people actually want, that somehow we should reject all of that because in their mind we should pursue some other course or whatever, I just don't agree with.
Evan Wolfson: [01:56:30] I think people have a right to believe that. If people want to prioritize their activism on other goals, that's fine. Again, as my view of activism is, you don't need everybody, you need enough. We're not all going to agree. That's what makes it a movement and not a military. We don't all have to agree. Ultimately I think my view prevailed because more people agreed with what I believed they wanted than what some of the other activists want, but they had their opportunity to make their case and to make their arguments
Evan Wolfson: [01:57:00] and history has gone the way it's gone. Having said that, that doesn't even necessarily mean they're wrong nor does it mean the work is done. Where I agree with somebody like Suzanne Pharr is that marriage should not be the only structure by which people can arrange their family lives and access needed protections and responsibilities vis a vis the law. I don't think just because we have marriage means that we shouldn't have domestic partnership or that we shouldn't have civil union or that we shouldn't have other legal and economic structures.
Evan Wolfson: [01:57:30] I think people should have a range to accommodate their range of family needs, but when society offers something, particularly something as important as marriage, it should not be withheld from some people because of their sexual orientation or their sex or their race or their religion and so on.
Mason Funk: Great. I know that for me, and this was my own, before
Mason Funk: [01:58:00] I interviewed any of these people, the thing that slowed me down was this idea that if marriage becomes available to everybody as it has now become, that it will increase the number of people who, the haves, but our society's obviously grappling with a huge issue of the growing gap between the haves and the have nots and that the people never find somebody they want to marry, for example, that they will be further stigmatized, that they'll feel even a greater sense of,
Mason Funk: [01:58:30] "I don't really belong to the club now. Oh, these are friends of mine, now they're just joining this country club and I'm never going to get to join because I just didn't find the right person." Did any of these thoughts ever give you a moment's pause or how do they sound to you?
Evan Wolfson: The idea that we should acquiesce in the denial of marriage to gay people because some gay people might be single doesn't make a lot of sense to me and I say this as somebody who for most of the time I was fighting for the freedom to marry was whinily single.
Evan Wolfson: [01:59:00] I would often say, when people would say, "How come you're fighting for marriage but you don't have a partner," I would often say, "Those who can't do, litigate," and other little laugh lines like that, but I very much was aware that I was fighting for the freedom to marry but I seemed closed as I would often say in those days to winning marriage to gay people than I am to having one. To me it was never about my getting married or do I want to get married or do I have someone to get married to, it was about everything else that marriage represented both in and of itself as a bundle of legal
Evan Wolfson: [01:59:30] and tangible and intangible and economic and emotional meanings and protections and responsibilities and clarity and security and dignity in society and also about the idea that by denying gay people the freedom to marry and acquiescing in that denial we were allowing us to be treated differently on the basis of our sexual orientation and that by claiming marriage we would be claiming this engine of transformation that would help us advance
Evan Wolfson: [02:00:00] on marriage and beyond marriage, as has indeed happened. History has vindicated that argument. To me, the idea that somehow because some gay people might not get married or might not want to get married, we shouldn't fight for gay people to have the freedom to marriage, never resonated. I always thought that was a bad argument, a wrong argument. The argument that winning the freedom to marry will help many people but won't help everyone and therefore either we shouldn't do it
Evan Wolfson: [02:00:30] or we have to keep fighting for things beyond it, I don't agree with the first part, that we shouldn't do it, but I absolutely agree it's not the only thing we care about, it's not the only important thing. We have to be mindful of the fact that while we have won the freedom to marry which among other things brings this bundle of legal and economic protections that actually are most important to the most vulnerable, it actually was bringing
Evan Wolfson: [02:01:00] a huge bundle of things to the have nots that they would not otherwise have. They're the ones who can't afford to hire a lawyer, they're the ones who can't afford to create other financial arrangements to work around the denial of marriage. Being denied marriage means they're denied X, Y and Z and they have no other way of getting it in a way that other people might have been able to cope with, even if unfairly. It was important for the have nots as it were, as your question put it, to win marriage as this safety net and as this ladder
Evan Wolfson: [02:01:30] and as this set of opportunities in addition to all the other things that marriage means, the intangible, the language, the transformation, et cetera. Just in terms of the have nots and their economic needs, marriage more than any one other single thing we could win brought something to people. Access to health care, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Did it solve every problem of the have nots? Did it solve every, of course not and nobody ever argued that we should only fight for the freedom to marry or that when we win the freedom to marry, we're done.
Evan Wolfson: [02:02:00] To the extent that the question means that, I absolutely agree. We're not done, there are enormous needs, we have to be mindful of the ways in which we have not yet finished the job with regard to winning all the affirmative protections and the better society that [inaudible] have and of course it's not only about how society denies us protections or withholds opportunities or creates stigma on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. We also have to care about the healthcare system.
Evan Wolfson: [02:02:30] We have to care about access to voting. We have to care about all these things that are not limited to us as gay or transgender people. Of course our work is far from done and marriage was never the be all or end all of everything. Did it, however, advance us more than any other single thing we could have won? Absolutely. To me, the historical record is clear. Those people who refuse to acknowledge that because of their ideological views that are summed up in the question you asked are just refusing to acknowledge progress
Evan Wolfson: [02:03:00] by claiming that because it's not everything, it's nothing, and that's not the way history works. We now enter our next battles, some of which are ongoing, battles that had already been ongoing, whether to win nondiscrimination protections in the workplace for gay and transgender people and bisexual people or whether it's trans protections in general or access to public accommodations including bathrooms. We now enter all those legal
Evan Wolfson: [02:03:30] and political necessary battles with so much more to work with, brought to us in part, in large part, by the marriage lift, the marriage conversation and the ongoing power of marriage and the vocabulary to move hearts and minds and bring us new allies. We have the business community now standing with us, a shift from where we were when we began, much of that through the power of the marriage campaign and the marriage work. We have majorities of the American people now with us. We didn't have that before. Now does that mean we have everybody?
Evan Wolfson: [02:04:00] Does that mean there's no struggle? Does that mean there are no more, of course not, but we are going into the next round of necessary work to continue removing barriers and lifting people up including everybody with so much more to work with thanks to the power of the marriage win and the power of the marriage work and the power of the ongoing marriage conversation. I'll add one other point, which is that it's not only even just about these legal and political objectives
Evan Wolfson: [02:04:30] that are still very much upon us. We don't just want good laws, we want good lives and so we also want to be working to bring the texture of love and support and inclusion and freedom to dream and safety to all gay and transgender and non gay and non transgender people no matter where they live throughout the country in their day to day lives, not just in their encounters with the law. We want kids to feel safe in school,
Evan Wolfson: [02:05:00] we want older people to feel there are facilities they can go to when they need support without having to go back into the closet. We have so much more to do, but the marriage lift has put us so much further down that path than any other single thing we could have done, though no one single thing is everything. The last thing I'll say, a long answer now to that questions, is it's not even only just about all of this. We have to get our country back on track. I mean gay people, transgender people,
Evan Wolfson: [02:05:30] like immigrants, like people of color, like Muslims, like women, all of these communities are under assault and each one needs to fight and we need to be there in solidarity for each of those fights, for each of these individual battles or struggles and each of these individual values that are under attack. Beyond all of that, we also have to fight to get America back on track. We have to fight to defend liberal democracy around the world. We have to fight to defend pluralism. There's plenty left to do.
Evan Wolfson: [02:06:00] Nobody ever thought marriage was going to do it all, but are we in an immensely better place because of the work we did and the progress we made and the transformation we achieved through the winning the freedom to marry? There's no doubt about it. It can be seen not only in just the obvious momentum, but it can be seen in the report of JAMA Pediatrics, the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics, that studied where we had won the freedom to marry and reported that
Evan Wolfson: [02:06:30] where we had won marriage the rate of teen suicide has fallen by 14%. Now why is that? It's not because those teens are getting married, they're teens. It's because of the affirmation and the message and the hope and the support that winning the freedom to marry brought to people beyond just whether they want to get married tomorrow or not.
Mason Funk: Yeah. We went to Bruce-
Laura: That's your page [inaudible] was talking about.
Mason Funk: [02:07:00] Yeah. Let's wait for the siren. I'll preface it by saying we went and interviewed last time out Bruce Bastian and also an amazing ex Mormon couple who lives were changed when their gay son came out to them, Gary and Millie Watts.
Evan Wolfson: Oh yeah.
Mason Funk: They were talking about, you know Gary Watts.
Evan Wolfson: Watts, yeah.
Mason Funk: The Watts, exactly, the skyrocketing suicide rate in Utah.
Evan Wolfson: Yeah.
Mason Funk: If you can go back and just repeat more or less the last phrase in.
Evan Wolfson: [02:07:30] This is shown not only through just the obvious historical momentum and the more than 1,000,000 gay people who have gotten legally married and the inspiration it's given to battles around the world where we now have 1.1 billion people living in a freedom to marry country, but also by something, for example, like the study in JAMA Pediatrics which looked at where we had won the freedom to marry and found that in those places where we had won, there was a 14% drop in the rate of teen suicide. Now why is that? It's not because those teens are out getting married the next day,
Evan Wolfson: [02:08:00] they're teenagers. It's because the message and the dignity and the hope and the freedom and the dream and the affirmation that's being sent to young people lifts them up and encourages them to go forward. It's not only about marriage is important for winning marriage, important as that is, as I argued way back in 1983 this is a way of claiming an engine of transformation and creating a sense of hope and opportunity
Evan Wolfson: [02:08:30] that is still ours to harness as we continue to work for the legal battles that are necessary and for the lifting up of lives that remains necessary as long as any individual is different from any other individual. Even when you fix the law, each individual still experiences things differently. Then of course we have to get our country back on track.
Mason Funk: Why did you say, let me check the time here. We have to walk out of here at 12:30?
Evan Wolfson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Mason Funk: [02:09:00] I think this is my last question.
Evan Wolfson: Okay.
Mason Funk: Why did you say in that New York Times editorial when marriage passed on the federal level, you said, "I expected," something like, "I expected to feel happy, I didn't expect to cry."
Evan Wolfson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Mason Funk: Why did you not expect to cry?
Evan Wolfson: I think the fact that I did, when I wrote that I didn't expect to cry in my New York Times op-ed, and by the way, that was one of my two big victories. I had won the freedom to marry and I'd finally gotten an op-ed in the New York Times. I had tried over and over and over for decades
Evan Wolfson: [02:09:30] and had never been able to. Finally they agreed I was entitled to that one. When I wrote that I didn't expect to cry, it really was because I hadn't just thought I was going to experience it on that level. I didn't have that degree of, if you want to look at it, emotional connectiveness with my own underlying emotions having been in mode for so long. I will often say and honestly say that I always thought we would win. I really did always believe we were going to win.
Evan Wolfson: [02:10:00] Did I know it was going to take 32 years for me or more than, no, but I always believed that we were going to win. One of the things that struck me later was, so we won on a Friday, June 26th. I cried as I was reading the decision and still doing my work of pushing it out and declaring the victory and so on, and I thought at the time that the reason I was crying was because
Evan Wolfson: [02:10:30] of the power of the memories. That as I was reading through the decision, it reminded me of my paper in 1983, it reminded me of arguments I'd had with so and so, it reminded me of the work I'd done with somebody else who may not have lived long enough to see it, of the couples who had been there and of all the sacrifices, of the drama, of the progress, all the good and difficult stuff. There just was this flood of memories and I thought that's why I was crying.
Evan Wolfson: [02:11:00] It wasn't until two days later, Sunday, and of course that was gay pride weekend also so not only did we have this joy but everybody was celebrating, the whole country it felt was celebrating. It wasn't really until two days later that it occurred to me that, yes, I was crying because of these memories but also that even though I had always believed we were going to win
Evan Wolfson: [02:11:30] and also had believed that if we hadn't won on that day, in this round, we would have sucked it up and kept going and kept working our strategy and it would have won, just not yet. I always believed we were going to win and I believed we would have kept going, but boy, what a relief not to have to, to be actually waking up and we don't have to keep fighting. I don't have to keep trying to convey hope and rally people and so on. It wasn't really until two days later that I realized it was that relief
Evan Wolfson: [02:12:00] that was probably a large part of why I was crying. Then I reflected that, wow, it took me two days to realize that a human being, I might cry from the joy of having achieved something or from the relief of not having to keep fighting, how hardened I was in this role that even though I wouldn't trade it for a moment, what an honor, what a privilege, what luck to be part of something and to succeed,
Evan Wolfson: [02:12:30] you can be part of great work and not succeed. Here we had this luck of being part of something important and making a difference and succeeding, but it does take a toll. It had taken a toll. I had been in this mode, this role, this hardened role of always looking forward, always being hopeful, always pushing ahead, always persevering, and that's the way to do it. I wouldn't trade it for a moment, but it's good to know that it requires you to do that. It takes something.
Mason Funk: [02:13:00] Without which it doesn't get done, probably, apparently.
Evan Wolfson: This is the way, this is what it takes to win. You don't achieve a big change because you just wanted or asked it or it's right or you try once. It doesn't work that way. Life doesn't work that way.
Mason Funk: What you're saying is it was a sacrifice.
Evan Wolfson: Yes. You can certainly say that was a sacrifice. I had been in this mode, I had been in this hardened role, I was disconnected from my own knowing
Evan Wolfson: [02:13:30] I was going to cry, yes, and in some sense it was a sacrifice. I guess I don't think of it as a sacrifice because I would do it again in a heartbeat, but there was a cost. It did take something. It didn't just come out of nothing.
Mason Funk: I wish we could keep talking but honestly if we're going to wrap up and I need to take some photographs of you, if we're going to walk out of here at 12:30, we have to stop.
Evan Wolfson: Okay.
Mason Funk: [02:14:00] I was going to say this is the first time we had another final four. First of the final four. If somebody comes to you-
Evan Wolfson: Am I sweating?
Mason Funk: No, you're totally fine.
Evan Wolfson: Okay.
Mason Funk: If somebody comes to you and asks you for just a little bit of guidance or a pearl of wisdom about coming out, what's a pearl of wisdom to someone who's about to come out to somebody or whatever that means?
Evan Wolfson: I guess the first thing I would say is coming out is when it's right for you and you don't have to do it at the same time with everybody, so think about whom you're coming out to, why do you want to come out to them now
Evan Wolfson: [02:14:30] and how will they likely, how do you think they're going to take it and what do they need, what will help them, and is it worth it to you right now? There's no rule that just because you've come out to some or have done this that you have to do the next one. That would be one thing. The other thing I would say is my experience has been that it almost always works out very well and it's almost always better. Does that mean always? No, so if there's somebody the downsides are really profound or that you're really worried about, maybe you should save them for another time
Evan Wolfson: [02:15:00] or really think carefully about what is it that will make it easier for them? Being in a relationship, seeing you successful and happy, knowing that you're still the same person but now they're just knowing something about you that was always there? Whatever it is, but maybe you don't have to do it right with that one but it almost always works out. If you can handle that bit of risk, you're going to be happier and in a better place in life to contribute more and the others around you are going to rise. You're giving them the space and the opportunity to rise
Evan Wolfson: [02:15:30] even if they may need a little time to absorb it, just like it may have taken you some time to get to the point of acknowledging or figuring out or being ready, et cetera. They may need some time also and that's okay too.
Mason Funk: Great. What is your hope for the future?
Evan Wolfson: My hope for the future is that we get rid of this repugnant, dangerous, destructive regime and get our country back on track, that we reinvigorate our country's values
Evan Wolfson: [02:16:00] and our commitment to the civic infrastructure, the civic space, the idea of being together and working together to lift everyone up with our values of freedom and equality and dignity under the law and that we once again represent that in the world and can be that moral force in the world that we are when we are at our best that this administration, this regime is corrupting and debasing and I think working deliberately to destroy. My immediate hope is that we take back at least one house of Congress.
Mason Funk: [02:16:30] Why is it important to you to tell your story?
Evan Wolfson: Storytelling is important. Storytelling is the way we as human beings connect to the world, connect to others, learn, feel, grow, and it's important to be part of that communal experience. I believe that I've been extremely lucky and I have had the opportunity to do wonderful things, to be given wonderful things,
Evan Wolfson: [02:17:00] to be supported and I feel like as a result I have had the chance to learn lessons and have experience to share and I represent some of those lessons and experience and therefore I have a chance to offer them to others in hopes that they can adapt those lessons to their life's journey and work ahead.
Mason Funk: Great. Lastly, this project being called OUTWORDS is the first effort to kind of interview people like yourself across the country
Mason Funk: [02:17:30] and create what I think of as a composite portrait of our change agents mostly in their 60s, 70s and 80s. Why do you think that's important, and if you could mention OUTWORDS in your answer.
Evan Wolfson: Mm-hmm (affirmative). What OUTWORDS is doing in capturing the multiplicity of stories and experiences and examples of in particular a certain generation or couple of generations of, you could call us pioneers,
Evan Wolfson: [02:18:00] who have been working to change the world we found as regards the treatment of gay and transgender people and bisexual people and non gay people who care about us and love us and part of our lives. Capturing the stories is important because just as John Boswell's book showed me that it had once been different and therefore could be different again, that remains very true. The world was different when some of us started this work and started engaging and experiencing life as gay people
Evan Wolfson: [02:18:30] or as whatever we happen to be and then the work we did to try to achieve change, changes continue to be necessary and changes can also go in other directions including wrong directions. Remembering that people, real people, encountered the world and wanted it to be better and worked to make it better and here's how we did it and here's what you can do is something all of us benefit from hearing.
Evan Wolfson: [02:19:00] I got it from the book that changed my life and my own reading of history and then my own encounters with friends and activists and hopefully OUTWORDS is making it more possible for more people to hear more stories from people they may not come across physically but can come across now visually and bring their piece to the world of mending the world.
Mason Funk: Great. Now we're going to record 30 seconds of room tone and then we will be done. I'll just call it out. Room tone.
Mason Funk: [02:19:30] That should be good. Okay.
Evan Wolfson: Great.
Mason Funk: All right, so I'm going to take some-

Interviewed by: Mason Funk
Camera: Isabel Bethencourt
Date: June 19, 2018
Location: Home of Evan Wolfson, New York, NY