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

The rest of McTighe's words were drowned out by screaming, ecstatic cheers. The activists flooded the stage, whooping and hugging. Then, in one attendee's video of the event, the camera panned to a bearded man in a red sweater, who was crying uncontrollably. His name was Mick; he was straight. On behalf of his lesbian sister, he had devoted hundreds of hours to canvassing for gay marriage.

Wolfson was in his New York apartment as the results came in; anticipating a long night, he preferred to spend it at home. Every time gay rights scored a win, Wolfson kissed his husband, a molecular biologist named Cheng He whom he married a year ago. The wins that night weren't just for marriage, as America also elected its first gay U.S. senator and record numbers of gay lawmakers up and down the ballot. "It was the first election night I had a husband to kiss," Wolfson told me later.

Maine was the first state to be called, then Maryland shortly after midnight. Minnesota, decided by the narrowest margin of the four, and Washington, which conducts elections exclusively by mail, would not be official until the wee hours of the morning. But in all four cases, the gay-marriage proponents could tell which way things were going from the early returns. Their goal had been to win a single state and erase their opponents' perfect record; instead, they'd gone undefeated. Hoping for a tipping point, they'd accomplished a sea change.

The Opposition Regroups

After the election, Schubert posted a statement on his firm's website. "I firmly reject the spin surely to come that this result signals a fundamental shift in American opinion in support of gay marriage," he wrote. "It means that we very narrowly lost four difficult contests in four very deep blue states after being badly outspent."

I reached Schubert, who lives in Northern California, by phone a few days later. He was headed off on vacation with his family, he said, and would not be reachable for a while. "It was just a bad dream, wasn't it?" he said with a rueful laugh. "I'm just hoping to wake up."

Schubert gave his opponents credit for running smart campaigns. As the months went on, he said, he was astonished by the variety of messages the gay-marriage advocates rolled out to target different groups. "In every state, they ran ads aimed at Republicans," he said. "They were different ads in different places, but the gist of all of the ads was 'We're Republicans, we've changed our minds, everybody should support liberty and freedom, gay marriage isn't going to bother us.' It wasn't overwhelmingly successful by any stretch of the imagination, but they peeled away a couple of points of our support among Republicans."

In Minnesota, 20 percent of Mitt Romney's supporters voted against the gay-marriage ban; in Maryland, 25 percent of Republicans voted to legalize gay marriage.

"Similarly, they ran ads aimed at religious voters, with pastors making the argument about the Golden Rule," Schubert continued. "Ethnic voters are still strong supporters of traditional marriage, but they got enough here and there to make a difference in this very close election. That was very smart of them to do, and we didn't have the money to counter them. I didn't have the money to run separate ads aimed at Democrats, Republicans, and independents. I was effectively defenseless to these new attacks."

Schubert and his allies were outspent several times over -- in the final tally across all four states, the pro-gay-marriage campaigns spent nearly $42 million versus about $11 million on Schubert's side. To Schubert, the lopsided finances showed that his losses had more to do with money than public sentiment. But to gay-marriage backers, they were proof of the draining enthusiasm for banning gay marriage. "They are running out of money to fight this," said Margaret Hoover, a Republican pundit, great-granddaughter of Herbert Hoover, and vocal gay-marriage advocate. (One of her proudest moments in public life was when, a few years ago, the National Organization for Marriage sent a fundraising letter to its supporters headlined, "Stop the Margaret Hoover Republicans!") "They are running out of support," she said. "On the financial and grassroots side, there isn't the support to fight this anymore."

But Schubert predicted that gay-marriage advocates would be victims of their own success. "Our opponents told the voters, 'No consequences! Nothing to fear!' Of course, that's not true," he said. "A raft of problems will appear that we'll be able to point to. The truth of the matter is that same-sex marriage creates a host of conflicts with people who disagree with it. That's just a fact. You will start to see wedding photographers sued and fined, innkeepers put out of business, churches sued, small businesses sued. Then people will say, 'Whoa, I didn't think this was going to happen.'"

I asked if that meant seeking more ballot initiatives, perhaps even going back to voters in the same states that voted this year. "We'll decide based on polling whether there's a critical mass to revisit the issue," Schubert said.

Above all, Schubert rejected the idea that a tide had turned in America. "I'm disappointed at the outcome, but not defeated. I don't think the cause is defeated. We'll rally and continue to fight," he said. "We believe we're fighting for a true and just cause -- that marriage is the union of a man and a woman for good reason and that that does serve society."

Deep down, Schubert said, this is something most Americans still believe. "I don't think," he said, "there's any reason to conclude the country has changed."

Looking Ahead

In the weeks since Election Day, the same-sex marriage campaigners have been conducting follow-up research, debriefing, and planning their next steps. A Maine statewide poll the group conducted post-election attempted to parse what worked and what didn't. Voters were asked, regardless of how they voted, which source of information was most important in making up their minds. The top choice, at 24 percent, was "friends, neighbors, and family" -- a major validation of the conversation-based strategy. Next was television ads, with 20 percent, while "gay or lesbian friends, family and coworkers" came in third, an intriguing finding that indicates that it was the straight allies of gay marriage that made the biggest difference.

Looking back on the ballot fights, the prevailing attitude among Wolfson and others is, essentially, "That was great -- let's never do it again." "I hope we don't get a new set of myths out of this campaign," McTighe said. "The No. 1 myth is that winning marriage is easy, that we've reached a tipping point and now we're always going to win." Gay marriage eked out 53 percent of the vote in Maine and Washington, 52 percent in Maryland, and 51 percent in Minnesota. "Some states are a little too emboldened by this success," he said.

Already, gay-marriage advocates from states such as Ohio and Arkansas are talking about putting the issue on the ballot, and Freedom to Marry is warning them against it. "We believe you need to lay the groundwork first -- you don't just willy-nilly put something on the ballot and see what happens," Wolfson said, calling the new ballot fights "not something we support." To put marriage on the ballot in a non-presidential year in a state where no preparation has been done, McTighe said, would be "bordering on criminally negligent."

Instead, the group is focused on the upcoming Supreme Court cases on the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8. It is lobbying Congress to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, and considering legislative campaigns in Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Rhode Island -- and, now that voters there have declined to ban gay marriage, Minnesota.

As happy as Wolfson is that voters have ratified gay marriage, he contends that no group should have to have its rights voted on by its fellow citizens. "It's very hard for a minority to turn to the majority and say, 'Please vote to end discrimination,'" he said. "If it were that simple, we wouldn't need courts or a Constitution. The American idea is that certain protections can't be voted away, and the majority must accord equal terms to the minority." Until that happens, the fight continues.

Presented by

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

The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining

"The river was our source of water. Now, the people won't touch it. They are repulsed by it."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining

"The river was our source of water. Now, the people won't touch it."


What's Your Favorite Slang Word?

From "swag" to "on fleek," tweens choose.


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Politics

Just In