EVAN WOLFSON – pioneering gay marriage lawyer

The Big Interview With... Evan Wolfson

EvanWhy did you decide to become a lawyer?
I was always passionate about politics and government, and most especially history – and always wanted to make a difference. And since I was the kind of kid who loved to argue and was pretty articulate, people always said I should become a lawyer. To me, while I loved watching courtroom dramas and very much enjoyed advocacy, being a lawyer was a way of doing other things I cared most about.

Starting out, what did you expect from a career in the law? Has it lived up to your expectations?
I pretty early on concluded that being a lawyer opened up many doors, and ideally brought a way of thinking and expressing oneself strategically, a set of skills, and a credential that could be applied to many challenges and approaches. And that has been the case for me. While I have done my share of “typical lawyering” – litigating as a prosecutor and as gay rights and civil rights advocate, I think the work I did leveraging my bundle of skills and credibility as a lawyer to the work of winning in the court of public opinion alongside the courts of law, organizing and guiding a campaign and a movement, has been where I’ve left my biggest mark.

Why did you chose the career path that you did? What was your big break?
In retrospect, the big break was choosing to write my 1983 law school thesis on why gay people should have, and should fight for, the freedom to marry – and pouring into that call to action not just what I had learned in law school, but my love of history, insights from my service in the Peace Corps, and my intuition that to win a change in the law, we had to change hearts and minds, engaging values and claiming a vocabulary of transformation. That distillation of all I had learned up to that point in my life wound up, one way or another, shaping pretty much the course of my career since.

What's your advice to students grappling with whether to join BigLaw or do public interest law?
Go with your passion.

"The big break was choosing to write my 1983 law school thesis on why gay people should have, and should fight for, the freedom to marry."

What differences do you see in today's legal market compared to when you started?
I think the opportunities both for public interest and more 'typical' firm jobs have grown, and the people from different backgrounds and communities, more and more, are rising in the profession and its various forms, including women, people of color, and LGBT people (overlapping categories). Law firms are more willing to take on 'controversial' cases that we couldn’t get them to do back when I was starting. I know from the firm where I am now serving as a part-time Senior Counsel, Dentons (the world’s largest law firm), that there is a strong and genuine commitment to diversity and inclusion. We need to keep building on this progress.

What achievement are you most proud of?
Winning the freedom to marry in the United States (and helping win marriage for same-sex couples in 22 countries on 6 continents – 1 billion people – so far), and thereby providing inspiration and lessons on effecting change for more movements, causes, and countries going forward.

What has been your biggest failure or regret?
Right now, it’s hard to think of anything I regret more than how threatened our Republic is and how much damage the current regime will inflict on the US and people around the world – indeed, on liberal democracy – before we get our country back on track, as we must.

What have you enjoyed most during your career in the legal profession?
Leading a dazzling team at Freedom to Marry and being part of a wonderful group of activists, most of whom I count as my friends, as we worked to engage non-gay people, fulfil the Constitution, and take gay people from a despised and oppressed minority to victory in claiming the central language and legal institution of love, freedom, equality, dignity, and family.

And enjoyed least?
Some of the frustrations inherent in waking up every day for 32 years fighting and/or pushing. It does kind of warp your personality a bit.

What law would you change, abolish or create?
Aside from abolishing the Electoral College and gerrymandering, I’d like to see full federal civil rights protections, meaningfully enforced, for LGBT and other people, including the right to vote and to make reproductive choices. I’d like to see single-payer health care, strong labor laws, a more progressive tax code, and national service.

Who is your legal hero?
Abraham Lincoln is one. Dan Foley, my Hawaii co-counsel, another. And then my friends at the ACLU, GLAD, Lambda Legal, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights – the pillar legal groups of our movement.

What career would you have in your second life?

What is your role at Georgetown?
I have a two-year (for now) appointment as a Distinguished Visitor from Practice. It involves some teaching – for example, a course on law and social movements that I put together with my friend, Prof. Nan Hunter, and another course I will teach with my friend, Paul Smith [ex-Jenner & Block appellate and Supreme Court chair], who just joined the faculty as well. And the affiliation with such a prestigious school gives me the platform from which to take on projects across the country and around the world, in which I advise and assist those who want to learn the lessons from our successful campaign.

Can you tell us a bit about the Freedom to Marry documentary?
Filmmaker Eddie Rosenstein goes behind the scenes with our campaign team and those of key partners, including GLAD and NCLR, to tell the story not just of how we ascended the summit to win the freedom to marry at the Supreme Court in 2015, but how we achieved the transformation in hearts and minds over decades of struggle and across all of the “methodologies of social change” – to use Dr. King’s phrase – in order to be able to win in court and change the law. 

Even though I of course know the ending, he did a brilliant job at making it suspenseful and I still cry every time I watch it (as do the audiences I’ve been in). And what makes me happiest is that the film is being seen as a source of inspiration and instruction for other movements; showings have been hosted by immigration, gun control, environmental, and other organizations, as well as in countries as diverse as Australia, the Czech Republic, Israel, Japan, and Taiwan.

What are your LGBTQ-related hopes and fears for the coming years under President Trump?
I hope that our movement, aligned with others in overlapping causes and communities, defends American values and blocks attacks including the effort to put a hostile justice on the Supreme Court and hostile judges on the lower courts, and to carve out licenses to discriminate from the gains we have won, using the false banner of “religious freedom.”

Finally, what advice would you give to students – gay and straight – trying to enter the legal profession today?
Think about what you want to achieve in the world, believe you can do it, and arm yourself with the skills, opportunities, and partners to move forward. And hurry up. We need you.

"I hope that our movement, aligned with others in overlapping causes and communities, defends American values and blocks attacks."