Former U.S. Sen. Harris Wofford (D-Pa.), who came out late in life, died at a Washington, D.C. hospital Monday after suffering a fall. He was 92.
Wofford had a long career in civil rights activism before joining the Senate. He graduated from Howard University Law School, a historically black institution, and marched with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala. He served in the Kennedy administration as special assistant for civil rights and was instrumental in creating the Peace Corps before moving to academia where he served as a university president.
Wofford was married to his wife Clare for 48 years before she died in 1996. They had three children. He recalled their romance in a 2016 New York Times essay, writing, “Our romance and adventure continued for five decades. When I was running for election to the Senate in 1991, Clare gave up her job to become an all-out campaigner, helping us win in a landslide. In my narrow losing re-election campaign of 1994, astute Pennsylvanians observed that if Clare had been the candidate, she would have won.”
In that same essay, Wofford shared his coming out story. At age 75, he met Matthew Charlton, 50 years his junior, on a Fort Lauderdale beach. The two became close friends, eventually lovers, and married in 2016.
“Too often, our society seeks to label people by pinning them on the wall — straight, gay or in between,” Wofford wrote. “I don’t categorize myself based on the gender of those I love. I had a half-century of marriage with a wonderful woman, and now am lucky for a second time to have found happiness.”
Wofford was appointed to fill the Senate seat of John Heinz, who was killed in a 1991 plane crash. He later held the seat in a special election, defeating Richard Thornburgh. Three years later, Wofford was defeated in his re-election bid by Rick Santorum.
Washington Blade editor Kevin Naff worked for Wofford in 1993 in his Senate press office and reconnected with him years later after coming out in the Times essay.
“I teased him that he should have come out in the Blade,” Naff said. “He was an intellectual with a passionate commitment to social justice causes and was the epitome of a gentleman. I used to interview him for his office’s weekly radio service and we had many meaningful conversations. After reconnecting at an Obama White House event, I had the pleasure of meeting Matthew. They were a loving, dashing couple and my sincerest condolences to Matthew and to Harris and Clare’s children and extended family. Our country could use more smart, thoughtful, considerate people like Harris Wofford in public service these days.”