Freedom To Marry Shares Lessons From Victorious Equality Campaign

They hope activists will be able to use lessons from their success for other battles.
Attorney Evan Wolfson is seen at his office at the Freedom to Marry organization in New York on June 25, 2015.
Attorney Evan Wolfson is seen at his office at the Freedom to Marry organization in New York on June 25, 2015.
Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- Evan Wolfson always wanted to lose his job -- because that would mean he was successful in reaching his goal.

Wolfson, who spent most of his adult life fighting for same-sex marriage, got his wish in June. That was when the U.S. Supreme Court legalized marriage equality nationwide. And that meant that his organization dedicated to that purpose, Freedom to Marry, was shutting down.

"It took a whole movement to bring us to this victory," Wolfson said at the Freedom to Marry celebration event in New York City on July 9. "It took the Constitution and it took the country, millions of conversations and many battles that changed hearts and minds and helped the American people rise to fairness."

"At the same time," he added, "this movement was not just a random series of episodes. There was a strategy that we stuck with, and there was a campaign built to drive that strategy and foster and leverage the movement."

Many advocacy groups move from one policy fight to the next, since after all, there's always more work to be done. But Freedom to Marry was built differently: It was solely focused on the goal of nationwide marriage equality and would fold once that was achieved.

Since June, Wolfson and his colleagues have been carefully preserving as much as possible from their successful campaign. In an interview with The Huffington Post nearly a year ago, Wolfson said his plan was always for the group to engage in a "smart and strategic wind-down" when it was done. They hope that their resources will be of use not only for historians but for other activists on other issues.

"[W]e knew we had a responsibility to compile, document, and archive the history and resources, tell the story, and share the lessons of the movement, strategy, and campaign that brought about this historic transformation and triumph," Wolfson said. "Every one of our staffers who was a part of the win spent time organizing archives and writing in-depth analyses of the numerous components of the campaign."

"They will be available to all who seek to apply the Freedom to Marry model and campaign lessons to other work still ahead," he added.

The resources include four key pieces: a new website serving as a clearinghouse; donation of materials to Yale University; an oral history project hosted by the University of California, Berkeley; and a "War Room"-style documentary about the same-sex marriage movement, set to be completed this spring.

Freedom to Marry's revamped site includes a long-form narrative history of the movement's most significant milestones, analysis of the movement's messaging and most effective ads, and resources for best practices for winning victories at all levels.

Yale University will receive the group's collection of documents, media and electronic files, which will be accessible to historians and journalists beginning this summer.

And so far, historians at Berkley have recorded 36 hours of interviews with participants in the marriage equality movement, and expect to have completed a total of as many as 100 hours by this summer.

Wolfson's involvement in the marriage movement started long before 2003, when Freedom to Marry started. He's been called "the Paul Revere of marriage" for going around the country and telling everyone that marriage equality is coming -- even at times when LGBT advocates thought the possibility was remote.

As a student at Harvard Law in 1983, he developed one of the earliest arguments for why legalizing same-sex marriage was crucial to winning broader equality for gay Americans.

And in 1993, when the Hawaii Supreme Court became the first appellate court in history to rule fully in favor of marriage equality, Wolfson was one of the two lawyers representing the victorious couples. (Hawaii voters later passed a constitutional amendment overturning the decision, although the governor and the legislature came together in 2013 to finally legalize same-sex marriage in the state.)

Evan Wolfson with Ninia Baehr and Genora Dancel, two of the plaintiffs in the Hawaii marriage case, as he traveled the country in the 1990s.
Evan Wolfson with Ninia Baehr and Genora Dancel, two of the plaintiffs in the Hawaii marriage case, as he traveled the country in the 1990s.
Freedom to Marry

Wolfson said he will now be taking on projects and responding to requests for advice from various causes and organizations, both within the United States and around the world. He has been appointed a Distinguished Visitor from Practice at Georgetown Law Center and will continue doing speaking gigs and media appearances.

"The work of this Freedom to Marry campaign is done, but the work of our movement, and so many others, remains undone," Wolfson said. "Through this website and the other legacy resources we have created, we hope to continue contributing long after we close our doors."

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