The Marriage Plot: Inside This Year's Epic Campaign for Gay Equality

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How activists rewrote the political playbook, reversed decades of defeat, and finally won over voters.

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Jane Abbott Lighty and Pete-e Petersen embrace after receiving the first same-sex marriage license in Washington state on December 6. (Getty Images/The Atlantic)

On May 9, President Obama sat for an interview in the White House with the ABC News anchor Robin Roberts. Both of them knew what she'd been summoned there to discuss, and Roberts didn't waste any time. "So, Mr. President," she said, "are you still opposed to same-sex marriage?"

Obama was ready for the question. A few days before, Vice President Biden had said on Meet the Press that he was "comfortable" with men marrying men and women marrying women. The surprise statement went against the president's own ambiguous stance, which was that he was against gay marriage but in the process of "evolving." At the same time, evidence of the political risk inherent in the issue was abundant. The day before, May 8, voters in North Carolina -- a key swing state Obama narrowly won in 2008 -- had overwhelmingly voted to ban gay unions, making it the 31st state to take such a step.

Obama sat back in his leather chair, his legs crossed, his hands in his lap, composed and a bit detached. "Well, you know, I have to tell you, as I've said, I've been going through an evolution on this issue," he began, in his usual roundabout way. "I've always been adamant that gay and lesbian Americans should be treated fairly and equally." He pointed to his administration's repeal of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy and its refusal to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court. He'd hesitated to embrace gay marriage, he said, out of respect for tradition and a belief that civil unions offered enough protection to same-sex partnerships.

But now the president had changed his mind. "I've just concluded that, for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married," he said.

This is the exclusive story of their victory, based on reporting that began more than a month before Election Day; dozens of interviews; and access to scores of internal communications.

The reasons for Obama's about-face, as he explained them, seemed perfectly normal. His thoughts, he said, had gone to his own staffers "who are in incredibly committed, monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together." He'd thought about the troops, fighting on his behalf, yet still facing the constraint of not being "able to commit themselves in a marriage." He talked about the values he wanted to pass on to his own children and the emphasis his own faith placed on the Golden Rule.

As natural as Obama's statement may have sounded, his words were as carefully chosen as the interview. The testimonial to the gay men and women in his life; the discussion of values and the Golden Rule; the remarkable fact that America's first black president, discussing an issue many see as a modern civil-rights struggle (with a black interviewer, no less), made no reference to civil rights -- these were all talking points straight out of the new playbook of the gay-rights movement.

The architect of this strategy was Evan Wolfson, a New York lawyer and gay-rights activist who heads a group called Freedom to Marry. Over the preceding months, Wolfson had briefed White House officials, including Valerie Jarrett -- the close Obama adviser often seen, for better and worse, as the president's liberal conscience -- on the findings of the group's years of research, findings that showed the most persuasive way of talking about gay marriage.

And while Obama's reversal was instantly hailed as a watershed moment, behind the scenes, Wolfson and his allies were already well on their way to fulfilling an even grander ambition. Gratified to have finally lured the president to their side, the activists were quietly working to bring voters on board, too. Though gay marriage was already legal in six states and Washington, D.C., it had been granted each time by judicial fiat or legislative action -- voters had never yet endorsed same-sex marriage at the polls.

That all changed on Election Day.

On November 6, four states -- Maine, Washington, Maryland, and Minnesota -- took the side of gay marriage in ballot referenda. The improbable sweep for an issue that spent decades as an across-the-board political loser has already changed the landscape for gay rights in America -- and could provide a new framework for other causes: The leaders of other social movements, such as the campaign for gun control, are already studying the methods behind the gay-marriage campaigners' victory.

This is the exclusive story of that victory, based on reporting that began more than a month before Election Day; dozens of interviews; and access to scores of internal communications.

Engineering a Revolution

Today, America stands on the brink of a gay-marriage tipping point. The Supreme Court's announcement Friday that it would hear two cases related to gay marriage, including an appeal on California's Proposition 8, raised the possibility that by next summer legal gay marriage could be the law of the land.

But prior to November, gay marriage had been placed on 31 state ballots -- and voted down 31 times. Even in blue states like California (2008) and Maine (2009), defeat was universal. To opponents of gay marriage, that perfect record had become a powerful talking point -- proof that American voters stood firmly against any redefinition of the fundamental societal institution. "The people of this country have not changed their view that marriage is the union of a man and a woman," Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, told me in August. "The only poll that counts is the vote, and we've never lost the vote."

Now that that's changed, it's easy, especially for satisfied liberals, to see the results as simply the inexorable forward march of progress -- the long arc of the moral universe bending toward justice as public opinion becomes ever more enlightened. But like Obama's announcement, there was more to these victories than met the eye.

"Somebody said to me, 'Oh, you had Maine and Washington, those are easy states,'" said Amy Simon, a Democratic pollster who conducted research for this year's campaigns. "Let me tell you, there was some bristling on the other end of the phone." Until this year, she noted, Maine had two Republican senators, and in 2010 had elected a Tea Party-inspired governor and awarded Republicans control of the statehouse. It has America's oldest electorate, a large rural population, and a high proportion of Catholics -- all challenging demographics for gay-marriage campaigners. "That was the easy case? Are you kidding me?" Simon said. "This inevitability storyline is a rewrite of history to me."

The breakthrough victories for gay marriage in 2012 were narrow and hard-won. They were the result of meticulous work by a disciplined group of operatives who had vowed, after the defeats of 2008 and 2009, to find a way to win at the ballot box. Some gay-rights activists and donors were so dispirited after the California loss that they didn't think it could be done, at least not yet -- the public just wasn't ready. Many argued it was too big a risk. But Wolfson and his allies believed they could, in Simon's words, "create a tipping point" by combining smart political campaigning with a persuasion effort unprecedented in its depth and duration.

Obsessed With Marriage

When Obama came out for gay marriage, Wolfson could take credit for more than just the words the president used. He also helped put the issue on Obama's agenda in the first place.

Biden's accidental statement may have spurred the president to action, but a pressure campaign on Obama had been quietly gaining steam for months. Earlier in the year, Wolfson's group had led the charge to get gay marriage included in the platform to be presented at the Democratic Party's convention, a move that was controversial on the left but quickly gained momentum.

The positive response to the platform drive startled even the activists behind it. They'd anticipated a slow build and lots of lobbying; instead, Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi jumped on board the very next day, and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the chairman of the Democratic convention, announced his support soon after. Within days, more than 20 senators had gotten behind the effort and David Plouffe, Obama's senior adviser and 2008 campaign manager, was getting asked about the possibility of a gay-marriage platform fight on the Sunday political talk shows. "Some of our senior staff went, 'Holy shit, this is out of control,'" Marc Solomon, Freedom to Marry's national campaign director, told me.

A short, round, bald, slightly nebbishy presence, Wolfson, ironically enough, resembles more than anything a New York divorce attorney. Ironically, because marriage has been the consuming obsession of Wolfson's life and career. Nearly three decades ago, for his final paper at Harvard Law School in 1983, Wolfson wrote about same-sex marriage, a topic his professors regarded as exotic to the point of eccentricity. (The idea of marriage for gays and lesbians wasn't totally new -- three gay-marriage lawsuits had been filed in American courts by 1971, two years after the Stonewall riots -- but they'd been essentially laughed out of court, and few in legal circles saw reason to revisit the issue.)

EvanWolfson-JJG.jpegEvan Wolfson

After law school, Wolfson worked first as a prosecutor in the Brooklyn district attorney's office, then for the independent counsel investigating the Iran-Contra affair. Meanwhile, on legal pads late into the night, he wrote pro bono briefs for the Lambda Legal Fund, which litigates on behalf of gay rights. He worked on discrimination cases involving AIDS patients and helped sue the Boy Scouts on behalf of gay youths. Eventually, he went to work for Lambda full time. All the while, he kept thinking about, and arguing for, marriage. Wolfson was co-counsel on the Hawaii Supreme Court case that, in 1993, became the first-ever victory for same-sex marriage in an American court. But the ruling merely spurred voters and the state legislature to quickly find new ways to outlaw gay marriage in Hawaii -- the first of the voter-approved anti-gay-marriage state constitutional amendments.

That marriage should be a central fight of the gay-rights movement was sometimes a tough sell. Other battles, particularly at the height of the AIDS crisis, seemed more vital; many activists questioned whether gays should even want to participate in the ultimate heteronormative social institution. And in a society where sodomy laws would not be struck down by the Supreme Court until 2003, marriage seemed impossibly far-fetched. Wolfson saw it partly from a legalistic point of view -- without the ability to get married, gays were denied many legal protections afforded to other Americans. He was adamant that civil unions, which offer some of the rights of marriage under a distinct legal category, represented an unacceptable "separate but equal" status. ("I had a long argument over civil unions with Evan in 2004," a former Log Cabin Republicans board member told me ruefully. "He won.")

To Wolfson, the fight for marriage was about making gays full participants in American life and fully human in the eyes of their fellow citizens. "This was something that would transform non-gay people's understanding of who gay people are," he told me. "It would help people understand gay people as fully rounded human beings, with the hopes and dreams and human aspirations we all have." Other gay-rights struggles were mainly about convincing people to overlook sexual orientation, in employment or medical care or military service. Marriage is about what makes gay people who they are: their relationships with others of the same sex. In ratifying marriage for gays and lesbians, society would be ratifying the core of their identity -- their love for one another.

When Wolfson founded Freedom to Marry in 2003, gay marriage was not yet legal in any U.S. jurisdiction. For years, it was a small-budget nonprofit that chiefly served as a platform for his own speeches and advocacy. But after the electoral defeats in California in 2008 and Maine in 2009, he realized the group needed to be something more. Part of the reason gay marriage kept losing, he saw, was that it was constantly on the defensive. Gay-marriage opponents, often backed by the Republican Party and Catholic and evangelical churches, would methodically mobilize activists, collect signatures, and put gay-marriage bans on the ballot; state-level activists who supported gay marriage would then have a few months to assemble an ad-hoc defense, scrambling to raise money and come up with a message in an effort that was inevitably too little, too late. The gay-rights movement had a variety of national groups devoted to causes like workplace rights and gays in the military, but there wasn't a single, national organization campaigning only for same-sex marriage.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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