Evan Wolfson: “Peace Corps Played an Enormous Role”
By Erica Burman on Tuesday, February 7th, 2012
Today’s news, that the federal appeals Court has struck down the ban on gay marriage in California, once more brought to mind Evan Wolfson, Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCV), gay rights advocate, and founder of Freedom to Marry.
I had the opportunity to interview Evan over the phone back in 2004 for a “Making a Difference” column on our website. That iteration of our website and its contents is long gone, but I still have my notes.
Evan served in Togo from 1978 to 1980. He taught English as a second language, trained villagers in how to plow with cattle, and built a library. After Peace Corps, he earned a law degree at Harvard Law School and wrote his thesis on gay marriage, long before the issue gained national attention. In the 1990s he worked for the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, on Baehr v. Milke, in which the Supreme Court of Hawaii said that prohibiting same-sex marriage in the state constituted discrimination.
In the Hawaii marriage case, his co-counsel was a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, Dan Foley, (Lesotho 1969-70). “Peace Corps was one of the bonds helped us forge a rich and productive partnership,” said Evan. “This was before email. We worked together over the phone for two years before we even met. The Peace Corps bond not only gave us a sense of being on the same wavelength, it was a bond that allowed us to connect. He’s a hero…a straight man who stepped forward and launched the case.”
Evan went on to say:
Peace Corps played an enormous role in shaping me and my life. I was young, 21 years old and had not yet come out, had not yet figured out what it meant to be gay, to live a life as a gay person. In Peace Corps I had sex, I began to explore relationships. I began to have a deeper understanding of the power of societies to shape behavior. In Togo I began to understand the vocabulary that a society gives us in the choices we makes, how it helps us make sense of who we are. Had they [the Togolese] not lived in Africa they would have been been gay, would have built a rich, open life…but because they were not, they had no sense of the possibilities. They still had the feelings, but they had no way to express them. Society shapes the choices that people make and their ability to fulfill themselves, and pursue and build a rich and happy life. That was the lesson that I took from my Peace Corps experience.
Evan founded Freedom to Marry in 2001 and in 2004 he was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential Americans. He’s been quoted as saying, “I’m not in this just to change the law. It’s about changing society.” As such, Evan exemplifies the drive and passion of his fellow Returned Peace Corps Volunteers to continue to make a difference in the world, and to bring the world home.