Some say Wolfson, a Squirrel Hill native and Harvard-trained attorney, is the father of the same–sex marriage movement. He served as co-counsel in the historic Hawaii marriage case, Baehr v. Miike, of the 1990s which launched the ongoing global movement for the freedom to marry.
“There’s clearly been a sea change,” he said of support for the same-sex marriage. “When I was doing the trial in Hawaii — when government, for the first time was asked to show a reason for denying gay people the right to marry and didn’t have one — 27 percent of the people supported the right to same-sex marriage. Now, just 16 years later, we’ve doubled support — 54 percent. It’s literally doubled in 16 years. We’ve been able to make a strong case for why marriage [for all] matters.”
Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, the campaign to win marriage nationwide, returned to Pittsburgh last week to accept induction into the Taylor Allderdice Hall of Fame.
“It’s a great a honor to be part of the Taylor Allderdice Hall of Fame,” the 55-year-old Wolfson said. “Allderdice was very important to me. I think often of the words you went to school with: ‘Know something, do something, be something.’ Those are words I’ve carried with me all these years, every step of the way.
“While it was difficult being a gay teenager at that time,” he continued, “I never felt there was something wrong with me, I felt there was something wrong with society that gays didn’t feel welcomed. Fortunately, we’re changing that.”
Wolfson’s induction comes as the country waits for the Supreme Court to take up one of several same-sex marriage cases working their way through the lower courts. The most famous of those cases may be Perry v. Brown, a case that is being jointly argued by Ted Olson, former U.S. solicitor general in the Bush administration, and David Bois, in which a three-judge federal appellate panel struck down Proposition 8, California’s 2008 ballot initiative restricting marriage to opposite-sex couples.
Having Olson and Bois — conservative and liberal attorneys respectively — working together to legalize same-sex marriage, is important, Wolfson said, but he doesn’t see it as groundbreaking.
“The right to marry is not just for liberals, not just for conservatives; it’s for Americans. The government should not be interfering in something as important as who we build a life with,” he said.
He added, “Some of the prominent supporters these days [of same-sex marriage] include not just Presidents Obama, Carter and Clinton, but Dick Cheney, Laura Bush and — God help us — Glenn Beck.”
So he believes same-sex marriage can prevail, even with the current makeup of the Supreme Court.
“It’s is a very conservative court, but at the same time, support for freedom and treating others the way you would want to be treated, and having stable family unions, are all values you would call conservative.”
For himself, Wolfson said he learned the value of marriage from his parents.
“I was very lucky I grew up with a wonderful example of a wonderful marriage. My parents have been married now for 57 years. It’s my really close family and the love I saw all around me that made me the person I am.
“As I came to understand I’m gay and that the denial of marriage is the denial of something very important and meaningful,” he continued, “I decided we needed to end that exclusion from marriage.”
In 1983, Wolfson wrote his Harvard Law School thesis on the topic of gay people and the freedom to marry.
“It was a little controversial,” he recalled. “There were professors who decided not to sponsor the work; some thought it was too edgy and some thought it was the wrong goal, that it was too unattainable and it would be better to focus on other steps. It wasn’t that they were anti-gay; they didn’t grasp the significance of the idea and the ability to make it happen.”
A 1978 graduate of Yale College, Wolfson went on to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer in the West African nation of Togo.
A lifelong advocate for gay rights, he appeared before the Supreme Court in Boy Scouts of America v. James Dale. The National Law Journal has named him one of “the 100 most influential lawyers in America.”
Wolfson married Cheng He, a change-management consultant with a doctorate in molecular biology, on Oct. 15, 2011, “and I’m still floating from that wonderful day.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)