Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the same-sex marriage ruling was handed down on the last day of the court’s term. This version has been updated.
NEW YORK — How ecstatic is Evan Wolfson, given that he is soon to be unemployed and that the organization he founded, nurtured and helmed is shuttering for good?
“I feel exuberant and happy and proud and lucky and gratified,” he says, sitting in Freedom to Marry’s sunny Chelsea office.
More? “I just feel this wave upon wave upon wave of love. I’m inundated with love, and it hasn’t stopped.”
Although the path to legal same-sex marriage appeared swift, it took more than three decades for the self-described “Mr. Marriage” to get to this moment of unrestrained bliss. He now oversees the rare nonprofit organization that will go out of business because of resounding success.
On the momentous morning of June 26, his staff members gathered in the conference room, which was decorated with framed newspaper front pages heralding previous court and legislative victories, to await the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, which made it the law of the land and effectively ended the 12-year-old organization’s reason for being.
There were hugs and toasts with champagne served in clear-plastic cups. #LoveWins tweets exploded. Wolfson, Freedom to Marry’s president and sole lawyer, returned to his office to read the decision authored by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy for the 5-to-4 majority.
And he wept.
“This really signals to other courts and decision-makers that the day of the gay exception in the law is over,” Wolfson, 58, says. “We’re being brought into the central institution and language of love. It goes to the very reason why we’re discriminated against, which is our love.”
Wolfson is an optimist by nature, professionally if not always personally.Married since 2011 to molecular biologist-turned-management consultant Cheng He, he was for many years, by his own admission, “whiningly single” and prone to saying, “Those who can’t do, litigate.”
Legal same-sex marriage has been his primary cause since his third year at Harvard Law School, when he wrote a paper arguing for it.
He received a B.
When legalizing same-sex marriage has been “your legal brief and legal agenda for 32 years, you’re carrying other people’s hopes and expectations. You need to rally the troops, pivot and keep them on the path forward when you have setbacks,” says Wolfson, whose office is decorated with images of his heroes (Lincoln, FDR, Martin Luther King Jr.), several photos of the Obamas towering over him, souvenirs from his wedding and a box of cereal adorned with his image that General Mills made to honor his efforts. He concedes, though, “I’m the last person you would put on a Wheaties box.”
The ruling’s timing proved felicitous: It came on the penultimate day of the court’s session, at the end of New York’s vibrant gay pride week and just before the Fourth of July. Symbolism, parades and fireworks abounded.
“I remember marching on July 4 down to Battery Park after we lost Bowers v. Hardwick in 1986,” Wolfson recalls, referring to the Supreme Court decision that upheld a Georgia law banning sodomy. “And that was a low moment for the movement.”
Many nonprofits, either venerable or freshly minted, will always carry a full agenda and most likely never will close up shop — unless they have a lack of support. Freedom to Marry was conceived as a single-issue campaign, similar to those in a political race — though without a fixed end date. Litigation was left to legal groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, where Wolfson worked for a dozen years.
With the Supreme Court’s ruling, the speech of the group’s 30 staffers slid immediately and deliriously into the past tense.
They won. Mission accomplished. Writing in the New York Times the day of the decision, Wolfson noted, “the campaign I lead — led! — has now succeeded and will close its doors.”
So Freedom to Marry is closing its doors. Not today, but soon. “The goal is to wind down over the next couple of months in a smart, strategic and collaborative way,” says Wolfson, author of “Why Marriage Matters.” In January, he and the group’s leaders informed staffers that they would be given three months after the decision, should it prove favorable, to look for work.
“It was a way of saying to people, ‘We want you to stay focused. We don’t want you to be worrying about what happens next,’ ” Wolfson says. “It lightened a lot of anxiety people had.”
Now, he oversees perhaps the happiest staff of most likely briefly unemployed people in the nation. “Our staff is pretty sought after,” says deputy digital director Adam Polaski, 25.
The office is comparatively reserved and placid, 60-hour workweeks now a thing of the recent past. Fundraising ceased immediately. Freedom to Marry had budgeted for the three months of salaries and the lease, plus underwriting for a blowout party for 1,000 on the Thursday after the decision at Cipriani Wall Street. Vice President Biden said, “I’ve never been so happy to be with an outfit that’s going out of business.”
The organization’s remaining work is largely archival, accumulating and storing documents from a triumphant campaign.
“It’s a good boring,” spokesman Kevin Nix says. “It’s refreshing that, for once, the work is over, and it’s going to stay over.”
Wolfson said that many of the documents will head to Yale University, which he attended as an undergraduate student. While he is talking in his office, a staffer enters to borrow his 141-page Harvard Law paper, the only copy, which is treated like Freedom to Marry’s Magna Carta (though there are more copies of the latter).
Staffers — 20 in New York and 10 in satellite offices — are openly looking for work. No sneaking into private offices to take calls or surreptitiously sending e-mails to would-be employers. Inquiries are constant.
“It’s really felt like we’ve been sprinting through a marathon and an Ironman,” says national campaign director Marc Solomon, author of “Winning Marriage.” “We look great now, but there were plenty of losses and stresses along the way.”
“This model is now what everyone wants, when 10 minutes ago everyone thought I was crazy,” Wolfson says. “We’ve been asked by probably 20 different movements, let alone other parts of our movement, to talk about some of the lessons learned here.” Those other movements include everything “from civil rights, women’s rights, education, juvenile defense, gun control, a range of environmental causes, education reform, hunger, global human rights and rehabilitating former inmates,” he says.
Polaski recalls reporting for work days before graduating from Ithaca College in May 2012, so inexperienced in the job market that he feared the offer might be rescinded. When he arrived, “we only had six states that had legalized marriage,” he says. “So we understood this would be a long haul.”
On his first day, North Carolina defeated same-sex marriage. It would be the last legislative loss. His second day proved better when President Obama announced his support for the issue.
“My family thought I would be doing this for many years,” Polaski says, “and then we kept winning and winning and winning.”
Polaski has decided to remain in the gay rights movement. Along with a few of his co-workers, he has been hired as deputy digital director for Freedom for All Americans, a just-launched campaign to win comprehensive nondiscrimination laws for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
Many other staffers still don’t know what they’ll be doing, including Wolfson.
“I need to step back after 32 years of waking up every day to drive to winning marriage, to figure out who am I when I’m not Mr. Marriage,” he says. “It’s one of life’s most exciting challenges and also one of the scariest: What do I do next?”
He’s considering all options and, perhaps, some travel with his husband.
“We’ve worked ourselves out of jobs, but the larger cause is not finished,” he says, “fighting for the same issues we always have — equality, inclusion, safety, freedom and respect.”