By the morning of Friday, June 26, the staff of Freedom to Marry had already been waiting a long time.
Members of the organization, which worked in a years-long, targeted effort to ensure the right for gay couples to marry, were watching the calendar as Supreme Court decisions began to trickle out slowly — first on Mondays, then on Mondays and Thursdays, eventually adding others as decision days as well. Team members had been gathering in the conference room on each potential decision day since the Court began handing down verdicts in June.
Sitting in his office in Chelsea, Evan Wolfson ’78, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, recalled the anticipation of that day and the unique weight that it carried. June 26 had a certain “civil rights karma” to it, Wolfson said. The movement had won two major gay rights cases that same week in years past: In 2013, the Defense of Marriage Act was overturned on June 26, and on June 25, 2014, a federal judge in Indiana struck down anti-marriage laws.
Maybe, Wolfson hoped, Justice Anthony Kennedy would want to maintain the date’s legacy.
“People asked me hundreds of times a day: ‘Is it going to be today? Is it going to be tomorrow?’ I would keep saying ‘Nobody knows, nobody knows,’” Wolfson said, pausing. “At the same time, it was hard not to feel like Friday was going to be the day.”
The Supreme Court announced its decision at roughly 10 a.m. that morning. Seated around Freedom to Marry’s conference room table with his staff, Wolfson was the first one to see the news pop up on the internet. They popped open a bottle of champagne and Wolfson made a quick toast. Then, he said, staff members “ran to their battle stations,” he said, sending out press releases, fielding questions and familiarizing themselves on the decision’s specifics.
Wolfson wrote in a New York Times op-ed the next day that he always believed they would win but did not expect to cry. But he did cry, he recalled, sitting at his desk, reading the marriage decision whose language harkened back to so many of the battles fought and cases won —arguments he had presented himself.
“I realized a day or two later — I had thought I was crying because of all these memories, and associations, and joy, and I was. But I also was feeling tremendous relief,” Wolfson said. “I always believed we would win. I always believed even if we didn’t win this time, we would still win. But I was so profoundly relieved to no longer have to keep fighting.”
Wolfson had been fighting for decades. By the time the Supreme Court came out this summer, it had been 12 years since Freedom to Marry was founded and 32 years since he wrote his 140-page Harvard Law School thesis on the right of gay couples to marry.
Decades ago — before he became the self-described “Mr. Marriage” for his position at the head of the movement, before he was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world, before he received the Barnard Medal of Distinction alongside President Barack Obama — Wolfson was a closeted history major in Silliman College who dated women even though he knew he was gay. He said that, back then, he “didn’t know how to take the first step” toward expressing his sexuality.
In April 1977, Wolfson attended one of the first gay rights rallies on Cross Campus, organized in part by History and American Studies professor George Chauncey ’77 GRD ’89, who now teaches the popular lecture “U.S. Lesbian and Gay History.” But Wolfson didn’t participate. It was not until after graduating college, when he joined the Peace Corps, that he first began to explore his sexuality.
Chauncey recalls seeing Wolfson, quiet, on the grass as well. Chauncey noted that many advocates in the LGBT movement have come out of Yale, but added that many of the movement’s staunch opponents have as well. The advocacy likely comes more out of a sense of civic duty instilled while on campus than out from the ambience of Yale, Chauncey said, but he added that the campus’s climate at the time likely shaped students’ ideas of which causes to focus on in their advocacy.
In the 1970s and 80s, the campus hosted rallies, petition drives and at least one sit-in at Woodbridge Hall to push the University towards adopting an anti-discrimination policy. There were discussion groups in residential colleges, film events, poster campaigns. The LGBTQ Co-op’s dances, drawing hundreds of students, were among the most popular campus events, Chauncey said.
“I don’t think many of the people who went on to become nationally prominent LGBT rights activists were gay political activists as students — some hadn’t even come out yet,” Chauncey said. “But they must have been influenced by all of the lesbian and gay political activism they saw at Yale when they were here.”
Ten years later, Marc Solomon ’89 — who would go on to become Wolfson’s colleague at Freedom to Marry — witnessed similar LGBT activism in the dining halls of residential colleges, on Cross Campus, along with the early years of Yale’s reputation for “one in four, maybe more” gay students. But Solomon was also not out during his years at Yale, or indeed, until about a decade later.
During his time at Yale, before his politics “changed 180 degrees,” Solomon led a Connecticut students group campaigning for Republican Bob Dole’s 1988 presidential bid. Solomon honed the political skills that he would one day use at Freedom to Marry by working for the conservative politicians that he would, ironically, soon come to oppose.
“In retrospect, I really think that I chose to be conservative or Republican as a means of trying not to be gay,” Solomon said. “I wasn’t out then, I was very closeted. I was focused on denying my sexuality … I thought if I identified with conservatives, with tough guys, that that was an antidote, potentially, to being gay. Clearly it wasn’t.”
By 2003, Solomon found himself squarely on the opposite side of the aisle, working in Boston with groups advocating for the right for gay couples to marry. Attending straight friends’ weddings — and recognizing he didn’t yet have the right to have a ceremony himself — made the issue feel especially personal, even before he came out, Solomon said. In 2004, he devoted himself to the issue full time.
Wolfson launched Freedom to Marry in 2003, and Solomon came on board in 2010. The organization helped win triumphs in California, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont and more, but it also saw defeats — many of them in those same states, with same-sex marriage legislation attacked in the courts.
“I think we made a really good team,” Solomon said. “What [Wolfson] is great at is making a powerful case for marriage — keeping a movement of people focused on the cause, inspiring people to the cause … What I brought to the table was really the strategic knowhow of building campaigns.”
But in June, the organization reached its goal, and now the robust political shop that Wolfson and Solomon built is getting ready to close.
In the next few months, Freedom to Marry will continue to wind down, sharing lessons learned and transferring assets. The organization is likely to deposit its papers at Yale, just yards from where Wolfson once stood quietly at a rally.
“Now I begin a process of stepping back and thinking about, Who am I when I’m not Mr. Marriage?” Wolfson asked. “I want to keep helping in some way, but I don’t know what that is yet.”