Freedom to Marry Archives Offer Insight into a Modern Civil Rights Movement

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by Blake Thorkleson, courtesy of YaleNews

Same-sex marriage has evolved from a far-fetched notion to established law in the United States over the past four decades. At the forefront of this modern civil rights movement has been a Yale alumnus, Evan Wolfson ’78.

Wolfson wrote his Harvard Law School thesis on same-sex marriage long before it became a topic of national and local activism. He founded Freedom to Marry in 2001, serving as its president until the Supreme Court’s historic 2015 decision guaranteeing marriage equality. Along with his many other awards, Wolfson was honored with a Yale-Jefferson Public Service Award in 2016.

Wolfson donated Freedom to Marry’s archives to Yale in 2015. The alumnus explained that decision to YaleNews: “When we confirmed that Freedom to Marry would, as promised, wind down after having achieved the goal and fulfilled the strategy we were created as a campaign to drive, we pledged it would be a strategic, careful wind-down that would capture the lessons and resources and make them available to other advocates, causes, and other countries, as well as historians and students. Yale already had a number of key LGBT collections, had a deep commitment to preserving and telling our story.”

Wolfson joined a Nov. 10 open house at Sterling Memorial Library, which made parts of the archive available for visitors to examine. Library archivists were also on hand to answer questions about the collection, which is being prepared for long-term preservation.

The connection with Yale is personal for the organization’s leadership. “Yale was the alma mater for both Freedom to Marry’s national campaign director, Marc Solomon, [’89], and me,” Wolfson said. “With so much hunger for the inspiration and instruction that the Freedom to Marry campaign — with its successes and stumbles — has to offer to those looking to adapt the lessons to other important work ahead, we knew the collection and its example for others would be in good hands here.”

YaleNews spoke about the collection with Mary Caldera, head of arrangement and description in the Manuscripts and Archives division of Yale University Library. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Tell us about the collection.

The records document Wolfson’s activism and Freedom to Marry’s origin, organization, strategy, and activities. The records consist of email correspondence, bylaws, reports, meeting minutes, research data, publications, web pages, social media account files, topical files, photographs, audiovisual recordings, and newspaper clippings. Manuscripts and Archives is in the process of preparing the materials for research use and long term preservation, including the reformatting of obsolete media and capture of the organization’s website. The records are among a growing number of collections in Manuscripts and Archives that document LGBT advocacy and activism.

How did Yale come to acquire the Freedom to Marry archives?

Professor George Chauncey in the Department of History is a wonderful advocate and supporter of the library’s LGBT archival program. Wolfson’s donation grew out of a conversation he and Chauncey had at a lunch in 2013, after which Professor Chauncey put us in contact. We felt the collection was a great fit for us and were very pleased that Evan felt the same. Over the last several years we’ve worked with a number of organizations at the forefront of LGBT advocacy to preserve their records, including Love Makes a Family, Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, and the Family Equality Council. Preserving these collections for use in teaching and research is critically important for the future understanding of contemporary social movements.

Freedom to Marry ended operations earlier this year. Is it common to receive materials so soon after an event?

Freedom to Marry’s closure and our receipt of the records was not certain until June 26, 2015, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided for marriage equality. Once the closure was imminent, we were fortunate to work closely with several people at Freedom to Marry, including Scott Davenport, chief operating officer, for several months prior the donation and transfer of the materials. We appreciated the opportunity to discuss what should be saved and how the records were organized. We are still in discussions about when and how to transfer the organization’s electronic files. I am in awe at how thoughtful and conscientious the staff at Freedom to Marry was in preparing their archives while in the midst of celebrating their achievement and winding down their operations.

In addition to documents and files, the collection also includes captured pages from the Freedom to Marry website. Are there differences in how you handle contemporary materials, compared to your other collections?

Absolutely. Freedom to Marry is one of the few organizations we have worked with that began and ended in the digital era. How it operated and the records it produced were very different from some of the other organizations I had worked with. While the archival principles are the same as for analog materials, the technical skills and infrastructure required to preserve digital archives are very different. Preserving digital archives requires earlier and more frequent conversations with the donors to understand their digital lives. It requires specialized skills and tools and a digital infrastructure that the library continues to build. For example, we recently implemented a digital preservation system and contracted with a web archiving service. The field is evolving rapidly, and we are in a better position to preserve the records than were when we first spoke with Wolfson and Davenport.

As you worked with this collection, what major themes struck you, and what surprised you?

There are a few things I find incredibly interesting. First, how long Wolfson has had the end goal of marriage equality in mind, and second, how critical and extensive the ground work in the states was to building support for the movement. The collection includes documentation of an extensive network of organizations across the country that worked toward marriage equality and Freedom to Marry’s relationship with them, from strategist to funder to facilitator. It’s an amazing story.