- Sasha Issenberg
April 30, 2001: Evan Wolfson leaves Lambda to focus on marriage
Updated: Jun 27, 2021
ON THIS DAY IN 2001…
Attorney Evan Wolfson, the leading national activist for equal marriage rights, departed Lambda Legal to focus full-time on the issue.
Wolfson had been interested in legalizing same-sex marriage when few others in the nation’s gay-rights establishment shared the objective. (Some were opposed as a matter of strategy, others on ideological principle.) Only once the Hawaii Supreme Court issued the country’s first ruling in favor of plaintiffs seeking same-sex marriage rights, in the spring of 1993, did Wolfson’s employer fully back his desire to get involved in the issue. Lambda Legal joined the case as co-counsel; when the matter returned to trial court in September 1996, Wolfson handled much of the expert-witness testimony. The next year, he launched Lambda’s Marriage Project to begin enlisting support for the emergent cause.
But still Wolfson had little ability to develop or pursue a nationwide strategy. He was committed to seeing out what became a decade of litigation on behalf of a gay New Jersey scoutmaster who had been ejected by his local troop because of his sexuality. Wolfson argued Dale v. Boy Scouts of America on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in the spring of 2000; after the court ruled against his client, Wolfson quietly made plans to move on from the active work of a litigator. “I’ve always really been very deeply impressed by Martin Luther King’s observation that there are many methodologies for social change and we really need them all pulled together in partnership and working to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts — to bring it all forward,” he explained to the Boston-based newspaper Bay Windows. “So to my mind the litigation is actually where we’re strongest and where I can afford to leave that to my colleagues.”
Wolfson quietly secured funding from the San Francisco-based Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund to “explore the next steps for how our movement is going to win.” In March 2001, Wolfson announced he was leaving Lambda at the end of the following month. Armed with a $2.5 million grant from Haas, Wolfson spent the next year building what would become Freedom to Marry — the country's first single-issue, pro-gay-marriage organization.